With the passing of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the MLBPA willfully chose to ignore the plight of their elder alumni, many whom are struggling both financially and physically. As salaries rise to astronomical levels and the amounts of dues collected by the MLBPA annually continue to accrue, surely there is enough of a cushion to support these aging retirees caught in the pension gap.
The plight of the pensionless, non-vested pre-1980 retirees
- Douglas Gladstone
Why does former Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Caleb Gindl get an MLB pension but retired Astros and Cardinals infielder Ray Busse does not?
Gindl only played parts of two seasons for the Brewers, in 2013 and 2014. He appeared in a total of 64 games and only had 151 career at bats. Why he is more deserving of a pension than Busse, who appeared in more games (68) and had more at bats (156) during the parts of three seasons (1971, 1973 and 1974) he spent in The Show?
Some 800 men do not get pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of service credit. That was what ballplayers who played between 1947-1980 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.
Former Texas Ranger and Cleveland Indian pitcher David Clyde was only 37 game days shy, former Cleveland Indian pinch hitter supreme Don Dillard was only 17 game days shy; yet instead of a pension, these non-vested men receive non-qualified life annuities based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.
|David Clyde / Baseball Hall of Fame|
In brief, for every quarter of service a man has accrued, he gets $625. Four quarters (one year) totals $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four years) amounts to the maximum, $10,000. And that payment is before taxes are taken out.
When the player dies, the payment is not permitted to be passed on to a designated beneficiary, like a spouse or other loved one. Former Tigers first baseman Jack Pierce received two of the payments before he died in 2012. He left behind a wife, six children and six grand children.
And the non-vested player is not covered under the MLB's health care umbrella coverage plan, either. Former Expo pitcher Michael Wegener was reportedly diagnosed in 1991 with stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the sixth most form of cancer among males. As of last May, his cancer was in remission for the second time. A pension would let him be covered by the same great health insurance plan men who receive pensions are covered by. Retroactively restoring Wegener into pension coverage would also allow his benefit payments to be passed on to his wife, Marcia, or daughter, Michelle, in the event that something ever happens to him.
By contrast, a player who played after 1980 is eligible for health coverage after one game day, and he's also eligible for a pension after 43 game days. These benefits can be passed on to a loved one or designated recipient.
Currently, the maximum annual pension allowable under the IRS is $210,000, but the non-vested, pre-1980 players don't even come close to making that. For instance, for his 3 1/2 years of service credit, former White Sox, Mariners, Reds and Yankees hurler Rich Hinton receives a gross check of $8,625. After taxes, it is an even smaller $6,262.
These men are all being penalized for playing in the majors at the wrong time.
The Major League Baseball pension fund was established on April 1, 1947. At the time it was enacted, you had to be on an active major league roster on that date to qualify for a pension, and the rules stipulated that you only needed five years to retire. Effective 1969, that total was reduced to four years to qualify.
During the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players’ walkout was averted when the league and the union agreed that players would be eligible for health benefits after only one day of service and a pension after 43 days — roughly one-quarter of a season.
The problem? The proposal was never made retroactive.
In 1997, the MLB executive council created a payment plan for about 85 black players who didn’t play in the majors long enough to qualify for a pension, or who did not have the opportunity to play in the majors at all. To be eligible for their payments, the black players had to either play in the Negro Leagues for at least one season before 1948 or play a combined four years in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues before 1979.
The price tag associated with this magnanimous gesture? It amounted to annual payments of between $7,500 and $10,000 per player. That future got even brighter for the veterans of the Negro Leagues in 2004, when MLB agreed to make payments to more of these ballplayers on the grounds that baseball had not been totally integrated until 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to field a black player.
The terms of the agreement weren’t exactly the same as with the 1997 group of ex Negro Leaguers. Players who never played in the major leagues were given the option of electing to choose pensions totaling $375 per month ($4,500 annually) for life or $10,000 a year for four years.
A class action lawsuit on behalf of the retired pre-1980 players was later filed in October 2003 alleging that their Title VII rights had been violated. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The suit also contended that team owners conspired to fund pension benefits for a group of former Negro Leaguers knowing that the white players who had played similar lengths of time in the big leagues had not received the same benefits.
Though he found the players’ case “sympathetic,” U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in March 2004 ultimately granted MLB’s motion for a summary judgment, agreeing with the Commissioner’s Office that the payments for the former Negro players “were not tied to any MLB employment relationship, rather, they were conferred as charitable donations.”
Not surprisingly, the players appealed Real’s ruling and, on December 6, 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court in California heard oral arguments from both sides. Less than six months later, on May 22, 2006, the court of appeals for the ninth circuit upheld the lower court’s decision.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Stephen Reinhardt indicated that the players had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, given that the enactment of the Negro League plans did not constitute an adverse employment action and given that the two groups of players are not similarly situated.
“Even if appellants had made such a prima facie showing, we would conclude that Major League Baseball has provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-pre-textual reason for their decision to implement the Plans,” he continued. “The plans were adopted for the specific purpose of providing benefits to those who had been discriminated against by being denied the opportunity to play MLB and to qualify for MLB benefits.”
The lawyers representing the men in the class action lawsuit either didn't know that numerous African American players and persons of color -- such as Pierce, Wayne Cage, Aaron Pointer, the late Billy Harrell and, perhaps most famously, Herb Washington, were part of the pre-1980 players, or they conveniently chose to overlook that fact.
MLB has been doing right by men who had no contractual employment relationship with the league — in 2008, the league even had a mock draft of 30 Negro Leaguers, all of whom received $5,000 in real money from their new “teams” as a way to atone for the game’s past institutional racism.
But what about the guys like Cage?
Some of the Negro Leaguers are earning more monies than the guys like Clyde, Dillard, Hinton and Cage — all of whom did have contractual relationships with MLB.
The author recommends that, short of retroactively restoring these men back into pension coverage, the league, union, and the MLBPAA at the very least agree to allow the non-qualified life annuity payment to the pre-1980 player be permitted to be passed on to their designated survivors and/or loved ones.
No less than the widow of former Senator and Tiger hurler Alan Koch, who passed away last year, told the author it would be a severe, financial hardship if the payment were taken away from her. The author also recommends that all loved ones of men who were alive on April 21, 2011 — the day the union and league agreed to the payment plan — should have those monies be retroactively disbursed if they were, in fact, discontinued.
Both Pierce's and Harrell's widows would receive five years worth of retroactive, non-qualified life annuity payments.
The author also recommends that the union and league immediately increase the payments to a minimum of $10,000 for each person who is eligible and do away with the ridiculous $625 per quarter formula, based on the amount of quarters the man played, up to 16 quarters.
There is ample precedent for this too — in 1997, the league gave the pre-1947 players — men like 1941 National League MVP Dolph Camilli — quarterly payments of $7,500-$10,000. These were men who obviously didn't pay union dues because the pension plan didn't exist when they played. There were no qualifications.
The author feels that this would be a tremendous show of faith by the league and the union, and a great way to start off the New Year.
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