People who win awards that were named to honor arguably one of the greatest social justice pioneers this country has ever known should be social justice advocates themselves. And the staff at Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum should pay special attention.
Let me explain.
See, there are hundreds of men who played pro baseball who are not receiving Major League Baseball pensions. Many of them are people of color.
Former Detroit Tiger hurler Les Cain is one of them. The list of individuals who are being taken advantage of also includes Felix Torres, a Puerto Rican-American who played for the California Angels; Cuno Barragan, a Mexican-American catcher who played for the Chicago Cubs; Dave Roberts, a native of Panama who was a teammate of Brooks Robinson in Triple-A; and perhaps most famously, former San Diego Padres outfielder Don Reynolds — the older brother of MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds.
Cain and all the other impacted players don’t receive a traditional pension because the rules for receiving MLB pensions changed in 1980. At the time, they hadn’t accrued four years of service credit. That was what ballplayers active between 1947 and 1979 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.
Instead, since April 2011, they all receive nonqualified retirement payments based on a complicated formula that had to be calculated by an actuary. In brief, for every quarter of service a man has accrued — defined as 43 game days of service — he gets $625. And that is before taxes are taken out.
By contrast, the maximum allowable pension a retired MLB player who is vested can make is $220,000. These men are also not eligible to buy into the league’s umbrella health insurance coverage plan.
In short, they are being penalized for playing the game they loved at the wrong time.
Onetime Tigers All-Star Tony Clark, the first former player ever to run MLBPA — the Major League Baseball Players’ Association union, which represents current players — refuses to go to bat for these men. This is in spite of the fact that when he received the coveted Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in June 2016, the first baseman referenced a quote from the late Muhammad Ali:
“Success is what you achieve,” said Clark. “Your significance is what you leave.”
If Clark actually does something about this situation, he really would be leaving all these men something of great significance. And that would be a nice achievement on his part.
The refusal of Clark (who makes more than $2 million in compensation, including a base salary of $1.9 million) to help these seniors is a real head-scratcher. After all, this is a union whose pension and welfare fund is currently valued at more than $2.7 billion.
The league has no excuses either. It recently announced that its revenue was up 325 percent from 1992, and that it has made $500 million since 2015. What’s more, the average value of each of the 30 clubs is $1.54 billion, up 19 percent from 2016.
And the players? The average player made $4.47 million last season. The minimum salary goes up to $555,000 in 2019.
Though nobody begrudges today’s players what they can command on the open market, the union should show some respect for the men such as Cain — many of whom went out on picket lines, endured labor stoppages and frequently went without paychecks so free agency could be ushered in.
Take a look at what all the MLBPA staff makes, and then ask yourself if these so-called labor leaders care anything about all those retirees — especially those who are people of color.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a freelance magazine writer based in New York. He is also the author of two books, including “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.”