DID YOU KNOW THAT more than 500 retired ballplayers aren’t receiving pensions for their time playing Major League Baseball? It’s true.
Today, the average salary per player is $3.7 million a year and even the last man on the bench receives a minimum salary of $700,000—and yet many old-timers are getting shafted by the sport they loved to play.
The story goes back more than four decades. During the 1980 Memorial Day weekend, baseball’s pension vesting rules changed. Previously, a player needed four years of service to be eligible for a pension. But since 1980, all you need is 43 days.
Mind you, 43 is not how many games you need to play. It’s how many days you’re listed on an active major league roster. The Boston Red Sox’s new outfielder Masataka Yoshida will be eligible for a big-league pension come mid-May, based on the 43 days he’ll have accrued on a roster since spring training.
According to the IRS, the maximum pension is $265,000. That’s a great payday for today’s ballplayers. But in this sweetheart of a deal, the contract representing baseball’s current players failed to include the men who played before 1980.
Result? A man like one-time Red Sox pitcher Jim Wright, who never earned more than $21,000 playing in “The Show,” or 89-year-old Dave Stenhouse, of Cranston, Rhode Island, who started the 1962 All-Star Game as a rookie for the then-Washington Senators, are being shortchanged because of what era they played in.
Stenhouse’s situation is particularly ironic since his son Mike—who also played Major League Baseball—is receiving a pension. Unlike his dad, he played for 43 days after 1980.
In April 2011, an old-timers award program was started by the late Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and former Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, to give these men at least something. Each would receive $625 for every 43 games they’d spent on an active major league roster.
In the new collective bargaining agreement passed in March 2022, that formula was sweetened. For every 43 games, each man now gets a yearly payment of $718.75, up to a maximum of $11,500 annually.
Unlike most pensions, when a player dies, these payments end. The upshot: When Jim Wright passes away, that bone he’s been thrown dies with him. His heirs won’t get a plugged nickel. Ditto for the others. How can the league and the union be so callous and unfair?
League owners presented the National Baseball Hall of Fame with a $10 million check six years ago to support its endowment and exhibitions. Essentially, baseball owners chose relics over flesh-and-blood retirees.The league doesn’t have to negotiate over the plight of these men during collective bargaining negotiations. That’s why it’s up to the union to go to bat for these men.
Imagine you were called up to play for your favorite team in mid-August and stayed with the team through the end of September, and never took a glove out to the field and never swung a bat. When you turned 62 years old, you’d be getting a big-league pension—for life.
But a guy like former BoSox utility infielder Carmen Fanzone, who never made more than $32,500 a year during his career, and who played three-and-a-half years, isn’t getting a pension. All he gets is a yearly payment of $7,200. And when he passes on, his wife Sue won’t continue to receive that stipend.
There’s something wrong and unfair about this situation, which doesn’t get a lot of newspaper, television or radio coverage. What’s worse, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which should be banging the drum in support of these men, has remained strangely silent.
It would be nice if they remembered the men like Fanzone, Wright and Stenhouse, who endured labor stoppages and went without paychecks so that modern-day players like Yoshida could sign a five-year, $90 million free-agent contract. Would that be such a terrible thing for them to do?
Just increase the bone these men are being thrown to a straight $11,500 and, when they go to that great ballpark in the sky, let their wives, children or other designated loved ones continue receiving the payment for, say, three to five years, so there’s no economic hardship for anyone’s widow to endure. Would that be such a terrible idea?
A resident of New York, Douglas J. Gladstone is a magazine writer and author of two books, including A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.
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I’m a huge baseball fan and follow it closely, including the business side. I had no idea about this issue. I was aware of the plight of the minor leaguers, which has greatly improved over the past few years, but not these pre-1980 retirees.
Baseball is already a sport of the haves and have-nots. Minor leaguers practically starving. Fringe major leaguers making a fraction of what the stars make. Now the retirees. MLB makes SO MUCH money, considering all the TV deals. They should do better.
You’re right to point out the cruel inequities in the present system and I thank you for it. As I remember the sports radio talk show conversation I listened to in 2022, the commentators focused on current players not being willing to support a bargaining position for the of benefit their “older brothers” in the game because it would cost present players money. At the same time, while owners were looking at a huge tv payout, some of which was going to go into player compensation, etc., they weren’t going to both pay present players and fund older guys with pensions and insurance, etc., (though they did create the fund you describe). Have I got the facts right?
Jim Wright pitched in 24 games over two seasons in his MLB career and he should get a lifetime pension? I don’t think so.
You ignore the time Wright spent in the minor leagues struggling to reach the majors. And you ignore the arm injury that knocked him out of the majors. Do you think Wright pitched only 24 games by choice? I do not want to give huge money to people that did not earn it. But Wright is one of the people that built MLB. Getting a small slice of the billions now spent is not asking too much.
Not intending to diss Carmen Fanzone here, but our careers run in parallel up to 1974. Mine was the corporate career path. He had 7 years in the minors and 4 in the pros – me, 4 years college, then 7 years beginning my career. He was paid $32,500 his final MLB year in 1974; I was paid around $23,000 that year and went onward and upward for another 23 years before retiring. He got a pension after 4 years in MLB; me 30 years. So, I worked 7.5 times longer than Fanzone in this example, but my pension (for which I am grateful) is only 2.5 times more than his MLB pension. Is that fair? Is there anyone wringing their hands over me and thousands of other toilers?
Mr. Gladstone should bemoan the fact that pensions today are mostly history for most people and maybe himself, but not for folks who are paid very well for chasing a ball during short careers.
You state that you are very grateful for your pension yet begrudge Fanzone’s chance of getting more for his MLB pension. You state “Is that Fair”? Do you want equal misery for all? Perhaps you should have gotten a better job and gotten a better pension. If Fanzone gets more money then it is not coming out of your pension or your pocket. Fanzone spent 11 years in baseball. His getting a bit more out the billions now spent shouldn’t trouble you. Why wring your hands over an old man getting a bit more?
This has been an issue with multiple professional sports and has never been satisfactorily resolved in my opinion. The situation in the NFL is horrifying, given the medical issues that retired players often encounter and the unresponsiveness of the league and the current players to their needs. I long ago came to the conclusion that federal law would be required.
Ironically, one player mentioned here, Carmen Fanzone (who also played for my Chicago Cubs) already had a second career underway while he was playing ball. He was a professional jazz trumpet player. I remember him and his bushy mustache performing the national anthem in uniform before a game at Wrigley Field. I read he had a long and successful musical career after baseball.
Most old ballplayers aren’t that lucky.
Lucky? Looks like Fanzone looked ahead to his future and worked to have that second career..
“Unlike most pensions, when a player dies, these payments end.”
Corporate pensions end when the pensioner dies, unless s/he opted for joint-and-survivor, and a lower payout, when the pension started. There is certainly no payout to heirs.
It is, of course, ridiculous that you can get a pension for only 43 days service, it took me 30 years, but it seems to me that your complaint is with the players’ union, which negotiated the current deal. The former players opted to follow their dreams, knowing they weren’t going to get rich, I hope their subsequent careers were more profitable.
Also, very few people get pensions of any kind these days. My former employer stopped offering pensions over twenty years ago. You get a 401k match, if you’re lucky. I was fortunate that I was grandfathered into the former pension plan, but if I had been a couple of years younger I would have been out of luck. I really can’t get worked up about the 500 former players not getting pensions, I’m more likely to complain about the inordinate salaries paid to current players. Maybe you should be asking the current players to contribute to their fore-runners.
Amazing. I would be happy to read that 500 old men were awarded/given a decent pension to aid in their last few years. I’d say good for them. A small slice of the billions now spent. I do not need to get something for me in order to feel good about someone else getting something. I don’t allow my past to dictate what others should get or how they should feel. But…that’s just me.
Of course, I have no problem whatever with the current players agreeing to share some of their very large incomes with the former players. Apparently they decided not to do so, and complaints should be addressed to them. I just don’t find the former players’ situation any different from that of a great many other people, some of whom saw the rules change in mid-career. Where is the outrage for them?
Interesting topic, but I think we need some clarification. That 43 days is classified as quarters and the pension is calculated on each quarter so 43 days is a small pension and grows proportionally by quarter thereafter. Is that correct?
No pension plan makes retroactive adjustments for already retired individuals- up or down. Naturally, older pensions look bad as time goes by. The older players might not have been treated fairly in their years playing, but that’s a different issue. But as you point out some voluntary adjustments were made. Most workers are not even that fortunate.
As far as I can find, the MLB pension is covered by ERISA. If that’s true then the pension stopping upon the players death is a choice by the player (after 1975) just as it is under any pension plan. There must be survivor annuities available with actuarial reductions.
Still, enlightening article. Thanks
A very interesting topic that I had never even thought about.
What about other professional sports leagues: do they offer pensions? (To current or former players?)
Now I am going to have to go on a Google hunt for NBA, NFL, NASCAR, PGA, UFC, MLS, tennis, and NHL pension plans to see what they are all doing…
Let us know…!!