by Matt Corder
July 9th, 1969 is one of the most infamous nights in New York Mets franchise history. On that night, Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver carried a perfect game 8 1/3 innings against the Chicago Cubs when an unknown backup rookie outfielder named Jimmy Qualls stepped to the plate. Seaver had just retired Randy Hundley and appeared to be cruising when Qualls unexpectedly lined a clean single into left center field. The perfect game was over and the legend of the “Imperfect Game” was born. The Mets franchise, to this day, has yet to see a pitcher throw a no-hitter in a Mets uniform.
With this night in mind, writer Douglas Gladstone set out to do a “where are they now?” piece for Baseball Digest back in 2009. Seaver, “wanted no part of it,” according to Mr. Gladstone, but Jimmy Qualls, on the other hand, “was only too happy to talk to me.” During his conversation with Qualls, Mr. Gladstone had what can only be described as a moment of true revelation. The former Chicago Cub happened to mention, off topic, that when looking back at his career, the only thing he was angry about was the fact that he didn’t get a pension from Major League Baseball.
Mr. Gladstone, at first, was a bit skeptical of Qualls’ admission. He quickly reviewed the former player’s career numbers and noticed that, at most, Qualls might have a single year of MLB service credit. After having spent his career working for a public retirement system for the New York Retirement System, Mr. Gladstone knew, “a little bit about vesting.” And so his next question to Qualls was obviously, “what makes you think you’re entitled to a pension?”
A fair inquiry.
The result of that conversation with Jimmy Qualls is Mr. Gladstone’s new book “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.” According to Mr. Gladstone, the book details, “the players who played between 1947 and 1979 who are without pensions because neither MLB, nor the player’s union, want to retroactively amend the vesting requirement.”
A quick history lesson. In 1980, MLB and the Player’s Association averted a strike by agreeing upon terms that allowed players with one game of service in MLB to be eligible, for the rest of their lives, to purchase health insurance, while also allowing players with just 43 games of service to be eligible for a pension. A day of service means that a player need only ride the pine for a professional team for one game to earn his service credit. He never has to actually enter the game and play. Prior to that time, players needed four years of MLB service to be qualified for the benefits. The failure of the league, and the subject of Mr. Gladstone’s book, is that players who played prior to the 1980 agreement are not retroactively eligible under the new conditions of that agreement.
What further compounds the problem is that in 1997 MLB, of its own volition, decided to reach out to some of the veterans. They awarded MLB players with service prior to 1947 quarterly payments of $2,500 called “life annuities” that are not, by definition, a true pension because the payments die with the player. Additionally, MLB also awarded some Negro League veterans “charitable contributions” of $7,500 – $10,000 per year if they had combined service of four years between MLB and the Negro Leagues. In 2001, they further amended those requirements to give benefits to Negro League veterans who were never afforded the opportunity to play in MLB before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
To those readers unfamiliar with all of these complex terms, what this means in plain English is that 872 MLB veterans [Editor’s Note: two players have passed away since Mr. Gladstone published his book] who played between 1947 and 1979 do not receive retirement and health insurance benefits from MLB, only because of the time period in which their careers took place. Although they meet the current requirements to be vested in the pension, they are held to the standards of the agreement prior to 1980.
The message is clear. For some reason, their contribution to the game is not equal to those players who came before 1947 or those players who came after 1980. It would be like the United States government telling a generation of Americans born between 1900 and 1935 that they are ineligible to receive Social Security. These players were dues-paying members of the MLBPA and contributed their own hard-earned cash to that very same pension fund. They paved the way for the current players’ astronomical salaries and, for some reason, are being punished for the time period they played the game.
It’s not fair. It’s not right.
The players affected by this asinine requirement of the CBA haven’t stood idly by. Unfortunately, the measures that have been taken in an attempt to correct this problem seemed to have had the opposite effect and made the situation worse. In October of 2003, a number of these veterans got together to file a class action lawsuit that, as Mr. Gladstone agrees, can only be described as, “dumb.” In an attempt to get their benefits, the players claimed that their Title VII rights had been impeded on and that they were the victims of reverse discrimination which Mr. Gladstone says was, “a dumb argument to make, when, if anyone was the victim of discrimination in this country, it was obviously the veterans of the Negro Leagues.”
In order to defend their stance (no pun intended), MLB had to fork over a vast amount of money. You can imagine how they weren’t pleased by the player’s effort, especially considering the flawed logic that the veterans tried to use to attain their goal. Mr. Gladstone says MLB now considers the matter “water under the bridge,” but obviously they have yet to do anything about it.
As it turns out, Mr. Gladstone acknowledges that, “these 872 men don’t have a legal leg to stand on,” but that, “morally, it’s my considered opinion, and a lot of other people, that the position of the union and the league is indefensible.”
An injustice obviously exists. There is no disputing that. How then, can MLB go about making this right?
The answer, according to Mr. Gladstone, will come in one of two ways.
The first and likely option is to give these guys, at a minimum, exactly the same benefits that were extended to the pre-1947 players and the veterans of the Negro Leagues. This would mean giving “life annuities” in the amount of $10,000 a year to the players which would expire once the players passed away. A back of the napkin calculation shows that this would cost MLB about $8.72 million a year, which is a pretty reasonable figure by the considerations of the league. This result could be achieved without negotiations to the current CBA.
The second, and more intriguing option, is to retroactively restore the pensions as if the players had been vested since 1980. This would allow them to pass off the pension to their families at the time of their deaths, as well as give them medical insurance. This obviously has a lot more profound implications and would have to be negotiated with the CBA when it expires in 2011. Mr. Gladstone says that restoring one player to a 1980 pension would give these guys, “a one-time retroactive check of $900,000, plus medical coverage, and then $30,000 a year for the rest of your life or you can pass it on to your beneficiary.” This counter proposal is very unrealistic, especially given the current economic times, but is what many of the current players have told Mr. Gladstone they would like.
Can you blame them?
You’d think that at some point the book would have received at least some criticism, but the truth is that it is such an unbelievably straightforward issue that no one, let me state that again, no one, has had a bad thing to say about its subject matter.
And how could you?
The cruel irony in all of this is that players these days really don’t need the pensions that they are now eligible for. Player salaries have skyrocketed so much since the 80s that they have the ability to plan healthy retirements whereas the former players who really need the pension are getting screwed.
It’s a travesty that these guys are being excluded by their very own union and the only thing that might surpass that disappointment is the failure of the mainstream media to pick up on the story and get the word out. Mr. Gladstone recounted a number of thank you phone calls he received from veterans, widows, and family members as a result of his book where, “you could hear the tears coming through the receiver.”
That’s why I’m imploring you, my readers, to aid in Mr. Gladstone’s efforts on behalf of the 872 players still being affected. What his book sets out to accomplish is admirable and worthy of the highest praise.
The onus is on everyone who is a fan of the great game of baseball. We owe it to these players who paved the way for the current generation of players. We owe it to these players who provided us with so many great memories. And we owe it to these players because, as Mr. Gladstone notes, “everyone, at some point in time in their lives, has felt the pain and the sting of victimization. Everyone has felt that someone else got better treatment for the wrong reasons.”
The path to change starts with creating dialogue and you can do that by contacting the guilty parties. Reach out by writing one of the following organizations and tell them how you feel:
Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association
1631 Mesa Avenue
Copper Building, Suite D
Colorado Springs, CO 80906
Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball
245 Park Ave, 31st Floor
New York, NY 10167
Major League Baseball Players Association
12 East 49th St, 24th Floor
New York, NY 10017
Additionally, we highly recommend that you pick up the book, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve” by Douglas Gladstone.