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Old-Timers Strike Out

Douglas J. Gladstone

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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