Rod Gaspar, George Theodore and the pension fight of former players

Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar business. Today’s athletes are well-paid and well taken care of, even when their playing days are over. But ballplayers from the mid to late 20th Century do not enjoy the same benefits. Doug Gladstone champions their cause and he agreed to take some time out to talk about his book and the plight of former MLB players who are struggling to make ends meet.

Tell us what A Bitter Cup of Coffee is about

DG: A Bitter Cup of Coffee tells the true story about a group of former big-league ballplayers denied pensions as a result of the failure of both the league and the union to retroactively amend the vesting requirement change that granted instant pension eligibility to ballplayers in 1980.

How did you get involved in this cause?

DG: Well, that’s actually an interesting story. The genesis of the book started subsequent to me publishing an article about the famous “Adam’s Ribs” episode of M*A*S*H in The Chicago Sun Times. I was one of the last reporters to speak with the comedic legend and creative force behind that iconic show, Larry Gelbart, before he passed away, so I was feeling pretty full of myself when the article came out. Well, my wife called me on it one evening. She said, ‘So hotshot, what are you going to do for an encore?’ Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. But then July 9, 2009, as every Cubs and Mets fan remembers, was the 40th anniversary of what folks in New York still call “The Imperfect Game.” That was the night of July 9, 1969 when a little known rookie named Jimmy Qualls broke up Tom Seaver’s no-hitter / perfect game with one out in the top of the ninth inning. And of course the Mets franchise has never had a no-hitter or perfect game pitched for it in all their 50 year existence.

Well, I thought a story on Qualls would be a great piece for Baseball Digest. And after the magazine commissioned me to write it, I spoke to Jimmy and he casually, very innocently, mentioned that he wasn’t getting a pension. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I happen to work for a public retirement system in New York, so I know a little bit about what it takes to become vested, or qualify for a pension. And he certainly didn’t meet the four year threshold you needed when he played to be eligible for a retirement annuity. And that’s how the whole project took off.

What are MLB and the MLBPAs pension rules?

DG: Prior to 1980, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all you have needed is one day of service credit to be eligible to buy into the pension plan’s umbrella health insurance coverage and 43 days of service credit for a pension.

Has anything been done to help out those who don’t qualify for a pension?

DG: Largely as a result of all the publicity my book has generated, the league and union announced last April 21st that approximately 900 men who played between 1947 and 1979 would receive life annuity payments of up to $10,000 per year for their service credit and contributions to the game. Each affected player is guaranteed $625 per quarter of service, up to four years, or 16 quarters. So a man like George Theodore was cut a payment of $3,800 last September; a second check was scheduled to be sent to him last month. In the joint collective bargaining agreement unveiled two days before last Thanksgiving, both the league and the union extended these life annuities through 2016.

Why should MLB and/or MLBPA go above and beyond what’s required by law in this issue?

DG: Good question. Legally, MLB doesn’t have to do a thing for these men. They weren’t vested in the pension plan, so the league doesn’t have to entertain their situation at all. And the players’ association doesn’t have to negotiate on their behalf because, when you’re no longer an active dues-paying member, the union doesn’t owe you what is referred to as the “duty of fair representation,” i.e., they don’t have to act as your attorney.

Here’s the thing, though. All these guys, they went out on strike and endured labor stoppages, all so today’s players can command the big salaries that are being bandied about today. I mean, the league minimum for a player this season just went up 16 percent, to $480,000. Do you really think that today’s ballplayers know anything about what the men who came before them had to go through so that they’re now capable of earning these ridiculous, obscene salaries?

A guy like Steve Grilli, who pitched for the Tigers and the Blue Jays, his first contract was for $17,500, he used to drive a UPS truck in the off-season just to make ends meet. Now do you think we’re ever going to see someone like Jason Bay drive a UPS truck? Absolutely not. And that’s because he doesn’t have to, because the Grillis and the Theodores and all those other men who played between 1947 and 1979 were the guys who went without paychecks so that today’s players can make what they’re making.

And all I’m saying is that maybe it’s about time that today’s players recognize that sacrifice, and not be content with merely throwing ‘em a bone. Cut these men in so that they can enjoy a slice of the pie. Baseball is a $7.9 billion industry — there’s certainly enough money to go around.

Yet there are men out there who are without health insurance, who are living out of their vans, who aren’t getting the proper medical care they need and who are literally one paycheck from the gutter. And I think that’s sad.

Does any other union in the country help former workers and their families in this regard?

DG: Listen, I’m a pro-union man. Unions advocate for all the hard-working men and women, and their families, who are paying the taxes in this country. I’ve got no problem with unions. They support us working stiffs.

Who are some of the former Mets players who don’t qualify for a pension?

DG: Besides the Stork, who has become a dear friend, there’s Rod Gaspar, who scored the winning run pinch running for Jerry Grote in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series; he sells insurance out in Mission Viejo, California. There’s guys like Al Moran, one of the Mets’ first shortstops, and pitchers Bob Myrick and Hank Webb. Webb is the executive director of the Clearwater Services for Youth group down near Tampa, Florida. The biggest irony? Hank’s son, Ryan, is a hurler for the Miami Marlins now. When he retires, he’ll get a pension that also guarantees him the ability to buy into the health coverage plan, and his pension will be permitted to be passed onto a loved one or a designated beneficiary, but his father is on the outside looking in.

Have you been in touch with Commissioner Selig or Michael Weiner or any of their representatives about this issue?

DG: I’ve had numerous communications with Rob Manfred, the Commissioner’s Vice-President for Labor Relations and Human Resources…I also spoke briefly to the union’s communications director, Greg Bouris…..but Steve Rogers, the former Montreal Expo pitcher? He never returned any calls or responded to my emails. He’s the union’s pension liaison to the players.

How dedicated are they to the issue?

DG: Let me put it this way. This is appeasement, pure and simple. At the April 21st press conference last year, the Commissioner said “Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.” Well, why’d the league wait more than three decades to do something if they really wanted to address this injustice? Because they really didn’t want to do the right thing, that’s why. This has been baseball’s dirty little secret.

As far as the union is concerned, I believe Mr. Weiner was genuinely motivated to do right by these men. But still, he can do more and he should do more.

What do you think baseball’s pension plan should be?

DG: I’d like to see all the men whom I wrote about retroactively restored or, at the very least, grandfathered back into pension coverage.

Is there anything readers can do to help further the cause?

DG: Well, Met fans in particular ought to contact General Manager Sandy Alderson, who’s on the Board of Director of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. If he’s not aware of this, he should be. Short of that, I’d recommend that they contact the following bigwigs at the Alumni Association:

Geoff C. Hixson, the chief operating officer of the group, can be contacted at geoff@mlbpaa.com. His phone number is 719-477-1670, x110.

Dan Foster is the executive director of the association, and his email is dan@mlbpaa.com; alternatively, his direct number is 719-477-1870, x112.

If you’d rather write, here’s the alumni association’s address:

Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association
1631 Mesa Avenue
Copper Building, Suite D
Colorado Springs, CO 80906

postoffice@mlbpaa.com

*****

And here’s a final thought from Mr. Gladstone:

For me, this story has always been about equity, about fairness. You just cannot give benefits to groups who, strictly speaking, didn’t have a contractual employment history with the league and then turn around and hose guys who did have legitimate working relationships with this employer.

I’ll put things in context for you — in 1993, MLB decided to award 34 veterans of the Negro Leagues and their spouses health insurance. And you know what? Props to MLB for doing that.
The late Commissioner Giamatti was fond of saying, “in matters of race, in matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”

And obviously, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, MLB was just a mirror institution for the social segregation that was going on in this country. So MLB did right by trying to remedy the injustices of the past.

Then, in 1997, MLB awarded 29 veterans of the Negro Leagues life annuities totaling between $7,500 and $10,000 per year. Again, I give a big thumbs up to MLB for doing that. They also awarded men who played prior to 1947 — the year the pension fund was established — quarterly $2,500 payments.

And finally, in 2004, MLB awarded additional veterans of the Negro Leagues $40,000 for four years, or $350 a month for life.

Many of the men who are still being taken advantage of are persons of color. My point is that MLB opened up this Pandora’s box when they started giving out benefits to men who technically hadn’t even paid union dues. The guys I wrote about obviously did.

*****

You can purchase the book at http://www.abittercupofcoffee.com, or by calling 1-800-827-7903.

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