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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Another Sip of a Bitter Cup of Coffee

In 2010, Douglas Gladstone wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 974 Retirees a Curve (ISBN: 978-1-59571-512-8). It’s a book outlining the plight of former major league players who lack the service time to qualify for a pension. He brought immediate attention to a subject that has been swept under the proverbial rug for years. Some progress has finally been made and small temporary payments have been issued to some of the men detailed in his book.

The lack of true pensions for the short-term players is a subject Gladstone is still passionate about. He believes that MLB and the Players Association can do even more than the recent developments.

I had the opportunity for Gladstone to elaborate on how he came to the project and what he thinks about what has transpired since the publication of his book.  

How did you become so interested and passionate about the subject of baseball pensions and the non-vested players?: It was really serendipitous. First, in the interests of full disclosure, I happen to work for the New York State & Local Retirement System during the day, so I think I know a little about pensions and vesting. But basically, this story just fell in my lap; it was just there for the taking because so many bloggers, as well as print and broadcast journalists, have been too afraid or indifferent about addressing it.

In April 2009, I had just done a piece for the Chicago Sun Times on the late Larry Gelbart, and his role in the famous "Adam's Ribs" episode of the iconic television show M*A*S*H, when my wife asked what I was going to write about next. Frankly, I hadn't given it a lot of thought, but I knew that July 9, 1969 was the 40th anniversary of what we here in New York still refer to as Tom Seaver's "Imperfect Game," the night that a little known Chicago Cub rookie, Jimmy Qualls, came up in the top of the ninth inning, after Seaver had set down the first 25 batters, and lined a clean single to left center field to break up his would-be gem. And, of course, until Johann Santana threw his no-hitter this year, the Mets franchise hadn't had one.

So I pitched the story to Baseball Digest, which ultimately published the piece in its September 2009 issue. When I called Jimmy up to speak to him in early June of that year, he just casually mentioned that he wasn't receiving any retirement benefit from MLB. And I just thought this was outrageous, especially since in 1980 the league and the union agreed that all players who played at least one game would be eligible to buy into the umbrella health insurance plan, and all players who had at least 43 game days worth of service would get a pension. And while that was obviously great for everyone who played baseball after 1980, neither the league nor the union seemed to want to do the right thing for all those guys who played between 1947 (when the players' pension fund was first established) and 1980. And as any employment benefits attorney will tell you, it can be done. All these guys can be retroactively restored or grandfathered back into pension coverage. Even Rob Manfred, the vice-president of labor relations for the league, concedes it can be done. But it can only be done in collective bargaining, and so far, the players' association doesn't want to do that. They're perfectly content with throwing these guys the life annuity bone that they're now getting. And I just think that's not right.

With as much money as there is in baseball and the non-vested players being a finite group, why do you think MLB has been so unwilling to put the issue to bed?: Well legally, they don't have to do anything for these men. They're not vested in the players' pension plan, so they don't have to negotiate over them. Even the union doesn't have to be their legal advocate, because the union doesn't owe its retirees what is known as "the duty of fair representation." So that payment plan that was announced last April 21st, in which men like Qualls or Bob Sadowski or Herb Washington receive $625 per quarter for each quarter of service (up to 16 quarters, or four years) that they're credited with, is just a token gesture of support, in my opinion.  And the money isn't even guaranteed, it's only good through 2016. And if a Bob Sadowski or Jimmy Qualls croaks tomorrow, he can't pass that money on to a designated beneficiary or loved one. And it still doesn't give any of these guys the health insurance they need. I mean, when I started speaking with Jimmy, he couldn't even afford the premiums to pay his health insurance, like a lot of people in this country.

Significantly, I also think the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association is at fault here too. Their leadership doesn't want to do anything more for these guys. If they really wanted to advocate on behalf of their constituency, they would. They would bang the drum...and loudly. But they're never going to. Remember that old DeNiro picture, Bang the Drum Slowly? Well, you don't hear Dan Foster or Brooks Robinson or anybody from that group banging the drum loudly, softly, fastly or any which way. Sadly, the alumni association is the quintessential example of an old boys’ network, and they have no intention to rock the boat. They're just happy with the token gesture of support that is being doled out.


Though just a pittance compared to what longer tenured players receive, payments have started being received by the men profiled in Gladstone’s book. One recipient is former Oakland A’s pinch runner extraordinaire Herb Washington.

As Gladstone explains- “Herb Washington, the former Oakland Athletic who is now one of the nation's most successful African-American restaurateurs, and who later became chairman of the Board of Directors of the Buffalo, New York branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, an, is among the men who received monies last September; a second life annuity was supposed to be disbursed to him in January 2012.  Washington opened his first ever eatery in Rochester, New York.

In the recently unveiled collective bargaining agreement between the union and the league, these life annuities were extended through 2016.
Washington, who famously got picked off first base by Mike Marshall during the 1974 World Series, reportedly purchased all the Youngstown, Ohio McDonalds franchises from Sam Covelli, once the largest McDonalds franchise owner in this country.

A track star from Belzoni, Mississippi, Washington attended Michigan State University, where the four-time All American won one NCAA title, seven Big Ten titles and tied or broke the world record in both the 50-yard and 60-yard dashes several times. Overall, Washington played in 105 games but had 31 stolen bases in 48 career attempts. He also scored 33 runs during his abbreviated career playing for Charley Finley's Oakland Athletics, in spite of the fact that he never once played the field or came up to the plate.”

Despite the temporary payments, the fight is far from over. It’s just a beginning, with a long way to go before MLB and the Players Association atone for having left so many former players out in the cold. If there is any justice, a lasting solution will be found and perhaps make the cup of coffee for those players a little less bitter.

Disclaimer: I was provided with no payment or other consideration for this review/article.


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