Widows and Children First? Pleeze…….

If you grew up in New York City during the 1960s like I did, you probably tuned into WPIX Channel 11 to watch the “Our Gang” comedies, the classic shorts featuring such child stars as George “Spanky” McFarland, Darla Jean Hood, and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, among others.

One of the most well-known episodes was entitled “Mail and Female,” and it was all about how Spanky formed a group called the He-Man Woman Haters Club, much to the dismay of Darla, who Alfalfa was always pining for.

Of course, everything is fine by the end of the episode.Things always worked out in the end.

It’s anyone’s guess how things will work out for women such as Patty Hilton, whose late husband, Dave, was the first base coach for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1987 to 1988. Unfortunately, Dave was also among the retirees who aren’t receiving Major League Baseball (MLB) pensions because of a change in the vesting requirements that occurred over the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend. 

For those who may not know, the player’s union was offered the opportunity to give its members the following sweetheart deal: only 43 game days of service credit would be needed for a pension. Prior to 1980, you needed four years of credit for a pension.

The problem with that was all the men who had more than 43 game days but less than four years were left out in the cold. And it’s been like that for the past 44 years.

In April 2011, the league and union representing current ballplayers, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) partially remedied the problem by paying all the men like Hilton $625 for every 43 games he was on an active roster, up to a maximum of $10,000. In March 2022, that stipend was bumped up to $718.75 for every 43 game days, up to a maximum annual payment of $11,500.

Meanwhile, the maximum benefit a vested player can receive is now $275,000.

The payment the remaining men are receiving is not really a pension, however; it is technically called a non-qualified retirement stipend. It cannot be passed on to their widows, children or other designated beneficiaries or loved ones. It stops with the man’s death.

So when Dave, who played for the San Diego Padres during the 1970s, went to that big baseball diamond in the sky in September 2017, that was the end of the money the Hiltons got. Patty has never received that annual bone since.

Many of the widows and children of these non-vested players who I have spoken to over the years have complained to me how the loss of this small payment represents a severe economic hardship for them.

Unfortunately, Patty has been victimized twice by the game she and Dave loved. That’s because, though he was the first base coach for the Brewers, Dave wasn’t receiving a pension for his work as an MLB coach, either.

Because of the archaic rules the MLBPA agreed to, at the time Hilton coached, only four baseball coaches on an MLB team were permitted to accrue pensionable service credit for their on-field jobs. This was never spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the league and the union, however; rather, it was akin to a “wink wink, nod nod” understanding.

Just imagine if your loved one, spouse or partner couldn’t collect a benefit due to a “wink wink, nod nod” understanding that wasn’t part of a collectively negotiated agreement. Imagine what it also feels like to have a small stipend taken away from you only six months after your beloved husband died.

Upon learning about this blight, I emailed a popular, since retired sports columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If I thought writing about it would help her,” he replied, “I’d do so.”

I was brought up to believe that the vital measure of a newspaper, as the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger once said, was not its size, but its spirit, namely, to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. 

Sadly, I have learned over the years that, when it comes to the sports departments of major newspapers, Sulzberger’s definition of what sports journalists should be doing isn’t always practiced. I know that may come off as a blanket indictment of all sports reporters and columnists, but the truth is that more than a few retired scribes have told me that it’s all about access. They contend that today’s members of the Fourth Estate don’t want to lose the access they need to cover the teams and the players.

That kind of indifference is anathema to me. Richard Nixon might have gotten away with Watergate if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had displayed such an attitude. 

Five years ago, after appearing on the podcast I used to co-host, Patty told me a Brewers official contacted her and volunteered to give her an annual non-players pension. However, the organization has never followed up with her.  

So recently, I emailed two Brewers officials to see if the team would be willing to intercede on Patty’s behalf in order to remedy this unconscionable situation: Rick Schlesinger, who is the President of Baseball Operations, and Mike Vassallo, who is the team’s Communications Director. As of this writing, neither has gotten back to me. 

Of course, Patty’s situation is an extreme example of the disregard MLB and the MLBPA have been showing since 2011. Wives whose non-vested retired husbands are still with us, such as Mrs. Laura Christensen, whose husband, Bruce – a former California Angels infielder who is a native of Madison, are just as irked that they’re expecting to be short shrifted when their own spouses die. And this coming from a sport where 34 percent of the casual fan base is females, according to Statista.

On International Women’s Day this past March, MLB touted some of the women who are changing the game, such as Eve Rosenbaum, who is the assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. And while that’s great, other things have to change too, like giving death benefits to the women such as Patty.

Otherwise, you might as well start calling the national pastime the new He-Man Women Hater’s Club.

Douglas J. Gladstone, Author

A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve