Expansion of Negro League Player financial assistance

The last few weeks there has been a flurry of news regarding the Negro Leagues inclusion into Major League Baseball. The Negro Leagues persisted independently in response to common societal segregation and racism. Rube Foster, founder of the Negro National League, captured this entrepreneurial spirit with the leagues’ slogan, “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea.” On May 22, MLB and MLBPA announced that there will be expanding financial assistance for living Negro League players. Under this joint initiative, players who played in fewer than four seasons in the Negro Leagues will now receive an annual financial benefit based on their time in the Negro Leagues.

My initial reaction is that I am all for this.

The press release is light on details. Previous payments in 1997, 2003, and 2006 to Negro League players were charitable contributions to pre-1948 Negro League players paid and written off by MLB, so MLB did not have to contractually negotiate with the MLBPA on the matter. It is not clear if post-1948 Negro League players are included. Some of those men did make the MLB but did not earn the 4 years of MLB service time to earn a pension and benefits and are living: Charlie Dees (Angels), JC Hartman (Astros), and Hal Jones (Indians). These men played in the Negro Leagues in the mid-to-late 1950s and then had brief MLB service in the early 1960s. There are three pre-1948 surviving Negro League Players. Willie Mays and the Rev. Bill Greason with Birmingham Black Barons and Ron “Schoolboy” Teasley of the New York Cubans. The press release states that approximately 60 former Negro Leagues players are expected to attend the June 20 game at Rickwood Field. SABR formed a Special Negro Leagues and Teams Committee (https://sabr.org/latest/sabr-forms-new-special-negro-leagues-and-teams-committee-for-further-study-recommendations/) in 2023 with the recommendations planned for the 2024 season — and here we are.

As for financial assistance that will be provided, it will possibly be an enlargement of the class of Negro League pre-1948 players that MLB has been providing for the last twenty years. Those men get a charitable contribution of $10,000 annually. It is not clear if there is a death benefit similar to the MLBPA pension. It is possible that MLB will continue making these payments as a charitable contribution.

The post-1948 Negro American League, the sole surviving league at that point, is not well documented as the 1920-1948 leagues, teams, and players are. There are a number of players that likely never made the MLB or their time in the Negro Leagues was likely in the 1950s. Dr. Layton Revel founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research (https://www.cnlbr.org/) has contributed greatly to documenting the Negro Leagues and his research is worth exploring.

Since this is only for living players there are many families that will not be able to share in the financial rewards. Also, there are men from this period like the late Billy Harrell (Indians, Red Sox) who played shortstop for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1951 later made the majors but fell short of the service time needed for an MLB pension. The late John Glenn (Cardinals) did not play in the recognized Negro Leagues but did play on the Jackie Robinson All Stars in the Caribbean.

Financial assistance for pension less MLB alumni will remain a challenge. There are presently 519 known living pre-1980 former Major League Baseball players with more than 43 days of service time that do not have a pension or receive benefits. Additionally, there are 168 pre-1980 players with less than 43 days who do not have access to benefits like the MLBPA health plan. Presently, the average age of these men is 77, the oldest is 100 and the youngest is 65. All of these men paid MLBPA dues yet have not enjoyed the fruits of their work. Both MLB and the MLBPA can correct this. These men represent many races, creeds, colors and nationalities.

This situation is problematic, yet I see it as an opportunity for the MLBPA executive and pension committees to correct an oversight and create a lasting legacy for these men, some of whom actually walked out, went on strike and lost service time to win the rewards that MLPBA has earned.

The story is this: In the 1980 MLBPA CBA agreement, players from 1947-79, who were not vested with the then four years of service but more than 43 days, were cut off from receiving pension and benefits under the new agreement which significantly lowered service time requirements to current 43 days. Previously in 1969, when service time for pension eligibility was lowered from five full seasons to four full seasons, the change was made retroactive to retired MLB players.

This lowering of service time was a great benefit for the active players; however, without a retroactive switch, an estimated 874 players were impacted when they reached pension payout age of 62. Many have since passed. Today, these men do earn a stipend taken from the Competitive Balance Tax, yet it is a mere $718.75 per 43 active roster days. This money is pre-tax and cannot be designated to a beneficiary like the MLBPA pension. This stipend runs through 2027 when the average age of these men will be 82. MLBPA has said it is not guaranteed to be renewed.

I am all for the additional financial support for the Negro League players. Correcting the pension oversight from 44 years ago should now be a priority.

Max Effgen is a SABR Researcher and maintains bittercupbaseball.com.