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.

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

Bill Dillman debut April 14

Trenton native Bill Dillman will be celebrating his 78th birthday next month, on May 25th.

Today, he’ll be celebrating a different kind of anniversary: April 14th marks the day 57 years ago that he debuted as a pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB).

It’s not really a happy occasion.

That is because Dillman is one of 517 retirees being hosed out of pensions by the league and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA), which is the union that represents both current players and minor leaguers.

All the men like Dillman receive are yearly non-qualified retirement stipends of $718.75 for every 43 game days they were on an active MLB roster, up to a maximum payment of $11,500.

These days, the minimum salary for the 26th man riding the pines is $740,000.

Meanwhile, the maximum IRS pension limit these days is $275,000. But the annual stipend Dillman gets is worth only $5,700 per year.

And that’s before taxes are taken out.

Don’t get me wrong: Dillman enjoyed his time in the game and had a modest, if somewhat abbreviated, career in The Show.  He appeared in a total of 50 games in his career, making 15 starts. In 154 and two-third innings, he recorded seven victories, had two complete games, including one shutout, and earned three saves. Besides the Orioles, he also played with the Montreal Expos in 1970.

What Dillman despises is the way the game has forgotten about him and the other non-vested retirees. Especially with all the monies being thrown out to free agents nowadays.

After all, it was the men like Dillman who walked the picket lines, endured labor stoppages and went without paychecks all so that Shohei Ohtani could sign a 10-year, $750 million contract.

In my opinion, that kind of money is obscene. Especially when the average household income in Trenton as of this year is reportedly just $73,045.

As you might know, New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, who is a former member of the MLBPA executive subcommittee, made sure to thank the late Marvin Miller and Curt Flood at a news conference five years ago held to trumpet the $324 million contract he signed with the Yankees. Both Miller and Flood were instrumental in free agency finally happening in 1976.

He should have thanked the guys like Dillman too.

Neither MLB nor the MLBPA want to retroactively restore the non-vested men like Dillman into pension coverage. And to make matters worse, the bone Dillman is being thrown each year cannot be passed on to a surviving spouse or designated beneficiary, such as his son, Doug, who once told me that his father is really frustrated by the way he and all the other non-vested retirees have been treated.

Is this fair? Of course not. The executive director of the MLBPA, Tony Clark, refuses to go to bat for the men like Dillman, who now resides in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Unions are supposed to help hard working women and men in this country get a fair shake in life. Dillman is not blind, but he definitely sees that the so-called MLBPA labor leader doesn’t want to help anyone but himself–Clark reportedly receives a yearly salary of 4.25 million.

It is about time the national pastime appreciates what the men like Dillman have given the sport and remedy this injustice once and for all.

Doug Gladstone

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.”