Union Won’t Bless Blessitt in Retirement

I have a question for Tony Clark: what did Ike Blessitt ever do to you?

Clark, the first former player ever to serve as the Executive Director of the union representing current ballplayers, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA), was awarded the Negro Leagues Museum’s Jackie Robinson Award several years ago for his efforts to further social justice.

If you’re going to be awarded such an honor, I think Clark has to go to bat for persons of color who are getting hosed, don’t you?

That is why it is such a head scratcher that Clark, the former Detroit Tigers first baseman, hasn’t done more to help retirees like Blessitt, who never made more than $13,500 playing in the big leagues.

Because Blessitt, the former Tigers outfielder whose financial difficulties got fans to set up a GoFundMe page for him last year, didn’t accrue 43 days on a MLB roster, he doesn’t get a pension. He gets no monies at all, just like Purple Heart winner Roy Gleason, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s. One hundred seventy-three other poor unfortunate souls are in the same boat.

Former Tigers pitcher Les Cain at least gets some money: he is among the more than 500 retired ballplayers who are not receiving pensions for their time playing Major League Baseball (MLB), but are getting an annual stipend. But really, it’s more like a bone being thrown at them.

At a time when the average salary per player is $3.7 million, and when even the last man on the bench receives a minimum reported salary of $700,000 per season, these men are bring taken advantage of by the sport they loved to play.

During the 1980 Memorial Day weekend, the vesting rules changed.  Previously, you needed four years of service to be eligible for a pension. But for the last four decades plus, all you’ve needed is 43 days.

Mind you, that’s not how many games you play in. That’s how many days you are on an active MLB roster.

So come mid-May, based on the 43 days he’ll have accrued on a roster, new Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida will be eligible for a MLB pension, which is worth as much as $265,000. While that’s great for today’s stars, the MLBPA either forgot or purposely failed to retroactively include the men who played prior to 1980 in this sweetheart of a deal.

So men like Blessitt and Cain are being penalized due to the time period they played in.

In 2011, an awards program was started by the late Michael Weiner, of the MLBPA, and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to give these men some money: they’d each receive $625 for every 43 games they accrued on an active MLB roster.In the new contract passed last March by the union and the league, that formula was amended: for every 43 games, the man now gets $718.75, up to a maximum of $11,500.

But unlike a real pension, when the man passes on, that money passes with him.

So when Cain dies, that bone he’s being thrown dies with him. His son and grandson don’t get a penny.

How can the league and the union be so unfair?

League owners presented the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with a $10 million check six years ago, to support their exhibitions. Essentially, MLB chose relics over flesh and blood retirees.

And since the league doesn’t have to negotiate this item during contract times, it’s up to the union to go to bat for these men.

That’s why I think Clark needs to be more sympathetic, since he signed plenty of free agent contracts during his playing days. And he was awarded that prestigious honor from the Negro Leagues Museum. Oh, and by the way, Clark is making a reported $2.4 million, including benefits, from his gig as the union executive director.

Imagine you were called up to play for your favorite team in mid-August. You stayed with the team through the end of September, and never took a glove out to the field or never swung a bat.
When you turn 62 years old, you’re getting a MLB pension.

Though nobody begrudges today’s players the money they’re making, it would be nice if they remembered the men like Blessitt and Cain, who endured strikes and went without paychecks all so that Yoshida could sign a five-year, $90 million free agent contract.

Just increase the money these men are getting to a straight $11,500 and let their wives, children or other designated beneficiaries continue receiving the payment for, say, three to five years, so no widow has to suffer financially.

Would that be such a terrible idea?

Douglas J. Gladstone is the author of the book, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee.”