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Mudville: July 5, 2022 10:47 am PDT
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Tom Bruno

"I would give everything I got to the Catholic Church if they would just acknowledge us and allow us in the pension system"

One day can make all the difference.

That’s true in sports, weather, finance and life in general.

In 1980, Thomas Bruno needed just one day on a Big League roster to be vested in the Major League Baseball pension system, but that day never came.

Bruno joins us this week for Spitballin’ to discuss those circumstances and to remember his time as an imposing pitcher with an explosive arm.

At 6’5”, Bruno was a presence on the mound and advanced through a strong Royals farm system in the early 1970s. By the time he made his Major League debut in 1976, the Royals were just starting their fierce rivalry with the Yankees for American League supremacy.

Bruno’s chance with the Royals never materialized as he was selected by the Blue Jays in their initial expansion draft and then arm issues curtailed his career.

On April 1, 1980, Major League Baseball shut down for a week due to a players strike. On the same day, a transaction listed in the paper showed that Thomas Bruno was released by the Cardinals, the final cut in a shortened Spring Training.

By missing out on that one day of service time, Bruno found himself in a group of players who had not accrued enough service time to be vested in the pension under the previous guidelines. When the work stoppage ended, a new agreement was in place regarding the pension, but it was not applied retroactively to players who were out of the game prior to that.

At the time, that group included over 1,000 players. Those men have been passing away by larger numbers as the years have gone on and that group now stands at about 500, and dwindling fast.

Since the 1980 agreement, there were successful efforts to include pre-1947 players and Negro League players in the Major League pension system to the tune of $10,000 a year with the ability to bequeath that payment to a loved one upon their passing.

The group of 500 is only asking to be on equal terms as those other groups.

Instead, they receive a small stipend (typically anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand) and the payments are not allowed to be left to a family member upon death.

Almost to a man, the players in this group say this is not about the money. It’s about a sense of belonging and validation about their career. They’re part of a small fraternity of people who get to call themselves Major League Baseball players. Yet, the sport is flat out ignoring them.

As much as Rob Manfred is everyone’s favorite punching bag these days, it’s on the MLBPA to address this issue. It’s on Tony Clark, a former player, to stop ignoring a large group of people who wore a Big League uniform like him. It’s on longtime MLBPA officer Steve Rogers. The former All-Star hurler not only has former Expos teammates in this group, he has former teammates from the University of Tulsa that he is ignoring as well.

To give you some insight as to how these players are treated, the current work stoppage is keeping them from getting their annual stipend and not one person from the MLBPA or MLB has communicated to them when the payment will come, or if it will even come at all.

In general, the media does not cover this group of people. BallNine wrote an article outlining the entire situation and our man Mike Scudiero covered it on an episode of Yappin’ Yankees. Gary Niebauer was featured on Spitballin’ and Doug Gladstone, who has been advocating for them for decades, wrote the book A Bitter Cup of Coffee about their plight. Max Effgen has been advocating for them vocally on Twitter. But if you’re looking for baseball writers to cover this topic, good luck. You’ll see many of them virtue signal their way around social media, but when asked to comment on this situation, the only thing you’ll get is crickets.

Gladstone has pitched story after story, sent multiple press releases and asked reporters nationwide why they won’t report on this and there hasn’t been one response, legitimate or otherwise, that has come his way.

It’s sad, but we’re not here for sad stories.

Bruno has no regrets about his career and has fond memories of his time in the Bigs.

So please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Thomas Bruno.  

If I would have had one day of service, then I would have been vested. I had two and a half years before that, so with one day of active service in 1980, I would have gotten my pension and not found myself in the group I am in now.

You came up through the Royals system with Dennis Leonard, George Brett, UL Washington and a lot of the guys who made up those great Royals teams of the late 1970s and early 80s. What was your experience like as a minor leaguer with them?

I just talked to Dennis Leonard the day before yesterday; we’re still great friends! I was in Sarasota and he was in Rookie League in Kingsport, Tennessee. After about two weeks they sent us both to Waterloo, Iowa for A Ball and that’s where we became friends. The following year we went to San Jose, California. From there, Dennis went on and I went to Jacksonville where I played for Billy Gardner. I got called up in 1976 but didn’t have a great rapport with Whitey Herzog. I didn’t understand that because he was a good guy and good manager, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t great.

A lot of those guys made it to the Royals before me. Eventually, I was in Oklahoma City and Billy Gardner told me I was going up to Kansas City. When you’re in the minor leagues, you don’t have a lot of worldly possessions, so I gathered whatever I had in a bag and went to Kansas City. I made my debut coming out of the bullpen against Texas and it was memorable. I don’t recall all the details, but it was a big moment in my life.

You were a part of that very first Blue Jays expansion team 45 years ago. What was it like being part of a franchise just starting up?

I thought that I would go to Spring Training in 1977 and try to make the Royals, but this expansion thing came up and all of a sudden, I hear I’m taken by the Toronto Blue Jays. To be quite frank with you, I didn’t even know there was gonna be a Toronto Blue Jays team. I thought maybe I got sent to some other minor league team. I didn’t have a very successful situation there. Being familiar with sports, you know that when someone tries too hard, it can become a negative. Looking back, I think I was over-trying instead of being relaxed and pitching with the ability God gave me. I created my own problems. I didn’t want to keep going to the minors, but if you don’t perform well on the highest level, the only places to go are down or out.

There are very few players who get to retire from the game of baseball on their own terms. All the rest of us are fired. The way I see it, when you’re in the Majors, every year they hire a couple hundred young people to take your job and sooner or later, someone does.

Your career came to an end in the Spring of 1980. Could you talk about that 1980 Spring Training?

In the Spring of ’80 I was having arm issues. Nothing major, but it was sore enough that it was hindering me. I was one of those guys where if I didn’t have my real good stuff or not in top-notch health, I was in trouble. As a pitcher, you just wanted to do your job. You didn’t want to be a cry baby and say you were hurt. The answer medically was to get a cortisone shot and keep pitching. I just kept getting shot after shot and hoped the pain would go away, but it didn’t. After I got released, Mark Littell’s dad was trying to help me get a job. He would call different ballclubs. In the meantime, I had always loved birddogs, hunting and fishing, so I had an opportunity to go to Canada and help a guy run a string of birddogs.

In mid-August, Jack McKeon called me and wanted me to go to the Pacific Coast League. I wasn’t in shape to play, so I asked to go to Spring Training to get myself in shape the next year and try to make the ballclub instead

From a pension standpoint, if you were even to have played in one game in 1980, what would that have done for you?

If I would have had one day of service, then I would have been vested. I had two and a half years before that, so with one day of active service in 1980, I would have gotten my pension and not found myself in the group I am in now.

Yes, I have read a lot about that and written about your group of 500 former players who are being ignored by the MLBPA. I also have been following the work Doug Gladstone has been doing advocating for your group for years. What are your thoughts now on the current labor situation as it applies to your group?

Marvin Miller used to come in every year in Spring Training to talk about the relationship between owners and players and teach us about the Union. We always paid our dues and all that. It kinda went in one year and out the other to be honest. Most of us were there to try to make the ballclub. I feel like the current guys are in the same situation. They have their job to do. I played 40 years ago. When I was playing, I don’t recall any kind of obligation for us to help or care about guys who played in the 1940s. I’m not surprised and don’t feel upset at all about today’s players not doing anything for us.

The people in charge of the Union know of Marvin Miller’s true intentions in 1980. Back then, nobody said that they should include the old guys but they should have. You would think that today’s representatives would say, “Hey look, this is real easy to get this done for the guys.” That doesn’t fall on today’s players themselves, but it falls on to the ones in charge of today’s labor relations. We’re not a priority though. Timing is everything in life. We have this current labor issue, and really that’s so minute when you look around the world. We got real problems with Russia and other things. Baseball is something that’s supposed to be pleasant. It makes you think of summertime, relaxation and people being happy. Right now, our world is just concerned about being alive. Baseball is our national pastime. It’s been something I have loved since I was a child. It’s part of America. I hope somehow the players and owners can come out of this happy.

The pensionless group of players you are in have been getting a small stipend from your playing days. It’s not a lot for most of you, sometimes just a few hundred dollars, but some really rely on it. How does the current lockout affect your stipend?

We haven’t heard from anyone. I know that none of us have received anything. We’re not part of the current negotiations. We’re not part of the basic agreement, so I just don’t know. We haven’t been told why we haven’t gotten our compensation and none of us know if we will or not. I have no idea and none of us do.

 

Why is it so important to you to be included in the MLB pension system as opposed to what you are receiving now, if you even are still receiving it?

The whole point of being included [in the Major League Baseball pension system] is to acknowledge that we were actually there. In my opinion, the right thing to do is to just give us what we deserve based on our playing experience. If I’m a six-month guy, I get a certain amount. If I’m a three year guy, I get a certain amount. We just want to be treated like everyone else. They think the problem will just go away if they wait a while with all of us passing away. I’m probably one of the youngest guys in the group and I’m 69. Starting in 1980, everyone with 43 days is in the pension system. I was released on the last day of Spring Training in 1980, so out of our group, I came as close as anyone could to being in the pension system and I was 28 years old at the time.

We just don’t know what’s going to happen. They could end up taking it all away and we’d be back to getting nothing. Who knows? Do you think in those negotiations Tony Clark would say, “Hey, this isn’t in the basic agreement but we need to take care of these guys.” They don’t even want to visit with us to discuss the subject.

To me, that’s the biggest slap in the face. Nobody is even willing to talk to your group and that goes for MLB, the MLBPA and the national media. I just don’t get how there could be all this messaging from the MLBPA in the current negotiations about baseball players being part of a fraternity, yet there are 500 of you who are in that same fraternity and they won’t even talk to you. It’s sad and disingenuous. My rant’s over though. What would it mean for you if you were to be included in the pension system?

For me, even if they told me they we had to donate our pension to charity, that would be fine by me. Some guys are on hard times and need the money, but for me, it’s not about the money. It’s about feeling included. At least that would be acknowledging that I played. It would be saying, “Yes, you were a Big League ballplayer.” I would give everything I got to the Catholic Church if they would just acknowledge us and allow us in the pension system. I would be happy to do that because it’s not about the money for me. It’s about being included and acknowledged. Right now, we feel like we didn’t even exist.

 

That’s the same sentiment I have heard from many in your group and it’s really sad. I don’t want to end on a down note though. Thank you so much for joining us and remembering your career. We’ll keep spreading the word about you and the 500 other former players being ignored. But for now, my last question is open-ended. Could you just share your final reflections looking back on your baseball career?

I’ve been totally blessed. There are a lot of guys who sign and play in the minor leagues who never get to the Big Leagues. Some guys play college or high school and have abilities and never get a chance to play in the Majors. They had it in their heart and soul wanting to play, but for a lot of reasons, things don’t work out. I am blessed to be one of the guys who made it. After the business of baseball, I was able to continue on with an activity I have a passion for, which is hunting and fishing and being outdoors. I’m 69 years old and God has treated me very well. I’ve got good health and have no complaints whatsoever.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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