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The author of “A Bitter Cup of Coffee,” which is available via Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or by telephoning Word Association Publishers directly at 1-800-827-7903, Douglas J. Gladstone by day is an assistant public information specialist with the New York State & Local Retirement System. He is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, Baseball Digest, Black Hills Faces and Seamheads.com. His latest article, on the Battle of the Bulge, is scheduled to appear in the February/March 2013 edition of History MAGAZINE. Feel free to contact Doug by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a hypothetical for you —
Let’s say you’ve been working for Company A for seven years. Company A, which is led by Matthew Musico, has a pension eligibility poilicy of 10 years. In other words, you work for Matthew Musico for 10 years, and you’re guaranteed a lifetime retirement annuity that you can pass on to your loved one or designated beneficiary when you croak. What’s more, since you’re pension-eligible, you get the right to buy into Matthew’s umbrella health insurance coverage when you retire.
Problem is, Matt is a lousy boss. He either fires you after eight years or you quit after nine. All things being equal, although you’d be PO’ed you didn’t get those 10 years under your belt, you’d pretty much come to the realization that a pension wasn’t yours to have in the first place.
Then I come along.
I’ve never worked for Matt. Yet he decides to give me a pension. How would that make you feel?
If you answered that you’d be pretty bummed and embittered, welcome to the reality that nearly 900 retired ballplayers, all of whom played Major League Baseball (MLB) between 1947-1979, have been facing for more than three decades.
As MLB prepares to usher in its new season on Sunday, March 31, our national pasttime is an $8 billion industry. The average player reportedly makes $3.29 million. And, in the latest collective bargaining agreement unveiled in November 2011, the union representing today’s current crop of ballplayers managed to negotiate a raise in the minimum salary each player makes to $480,000, a 16 percent increase over the $416,000 they used to earn.
Unfortunately, just under 900 men find themselves on the outside looking in. That’s because they didn’t satisfy the pension eligibility requirements needed when they played. At that time, you needed four years to vest. Since 1980, however, all that’s been required is one game day of service credit to qualify for the league’s health insurance plan when you’re retired, and 43 games day worth of service — essentially a quarter of a season — to be eligible for a pension benefit.
Mind you, that’s not how many games you appeared in. That’s how many days you were on an MLB roster. Look at it this way — if you were a mid-August roster callup to The Show, and never took a glove onto the field, never swung a bat, never even pinch ran, just sat on the bench and rode the pine, but stayed with the club till October 1st, you’d qualify for a baseball pension when you retired from the game. True, it may not be a big pension, but you’d be getting more than what a man like George “The Stork” Theodore gets.
After he hung up his spikes, “The Stork” — the wildly popular outfielder for the New York Mets who played for the team in 1973 and 1974 — became a guidance counselor for the Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he and his family still reside today.
Remember Hank Webb? Webb, the former Mets hurler who had his best year in 1975, when he went 7-6 and threw three complete games, including one shutout, is in the same boat as Theodore. A Copiague native who currently resides in Tampa, Florida, Webb is the executive director of Clerwater for Youth. His son, Ryan, is a pitcher for the Miami Marlins.
That’s the irony, by the way. When Ryan Webb retires from the game, starting at age 62, he’ll collect a pension, but his father gets squat.
Though MLB and the union could retroactively restore or, at the very least, grandfather each of these men back into pension coverage, they’ve decided not to.
What’s wrong with this picture?
All this money is being thrown around nowadays, and MLB can’t do the decent thing to support a bunch of its retirees who don’t collect pensions? These days, men like Ryan Howard ($125 million over five years), Matt Holliday ($120 million over seven years) and Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million per year) are commanding what some would perceive are ridiculously obscene salaries. And part of the reason they’re able to earn that kind of money is due to men like Theodore and Webb, who frequently went without checks during work stoppages because they realized that a union is supposed to go to bat, not only for future players, but for past players as well.
These were the men who went out on strike, who endured labor stoppages, all so today’s players can command the ridiculous salaries they’re making now. You think Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, Zack Greinke and all the other free agents who scored lucrative contracts this offseason don’t owe these guys a debt of gratitude? Heck, Steve Grilli, who pitched for the Tigers and Blue Jays, used to drive a UPS truck in the offseason to make ends meet. Richie Hebner, the former Mets third baseman, used to dig graves. You think we’re ever going to see A-Rod drive a UPS truck or dig graves? No, because he doesn’t have to.
Since I’m a parent, I care a great deal about what kind of world my daughter is going to grow up in. We put a great premium on the future generation in this country. As well we should. Our children are our future. All I’m saying is we ought to have a healthy respect for the people who came before us. And right now, in my opinion, neither MLB nor the Major League Baseball Players Association (the union) do.
How did we get to this point? Here’s a quick history lesson:
In 1993, MLB decided to award 34 veterans of the Negro Leagues and their spouses health insurance. And you know what? Props to MLB for doing that.
The late Commissioner Giamatti was fond of saying, “in matters of race, in matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”
And obviously, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, MLB was just a mirror institution for the social segregation that was going on in this country. So, MLB did right by trying to remedy the injustices of the past.
Then, in 1997, MLB awarded 29 veterans of the Negro Leagues life annuities totaling between $7,500 and $10,000 per year. Again, I give a big thumbs up to MLB for doing that. They also awarded Caucasian men who played prior to 1947 — the year the pension fund was established — quarterly $2,500 payments.
Finally in 2004, MLB awarded additional veterans of the Negro Leagues $40,000 for four years, or $350 a month for life.
What people fail to realize is that many of the men who are still being taken advantage of are persons of color. Herb Washington, Wayne Cage, Billy Harrell, Aaron Pointer, to name but a few….they’re all African-Americans. That’s why this issue is not a racial one for me. I’ve attempted to frame the debate from an employment benefits perspective, not a racial one. You magnanimously give health benefits to one group, you better damn well give similar and comparable benefits to those men who actually worked for you
Also, let me be clear — legally, MLB doesn’t have to do anything for these men, I’m the first one to acknowledge that. They’re not vested, the league doesn’t have to negotiate over their situation, and even the union doesn’t have to be their legal advocate.
However, and I don’t want to come across as being arrogant, I’ve said on countless occasions that I didn’t open up this Pandora’s Box, MLB did back in 1993. The league opened up the door, not me, by giving health insurance to men and their spouses who it didn’t have a contractual working relationship with. So this is a matter of fairness and equity for me.
Because of all the press my book has received, in April 2011 MLB and the union announced with much fanfare men such as Theodore and Webb would receive life annuity payments of up to $10,000 per year for their service credit and contributions to the game. Each affected player is guaranteed $625 per quarter of service, up to four years, or 16 quarters. The league and union later agreed to extend these life annutiy payments through 2016.
That’s not so bad, you’re probably saying to yourself. Actually, it is. A guy like Kenny Wright, who pitched for the Royals and the Yankees, and who is credited with 3.25 years of service, got a gross check for $8,125 recently. After taxes are taken out, however, his net is only $5,900.
And remember, since it’s a life annuity, when Wright passes, that payment passes with him. So his widow gets nothing. And that’s not right; it’s terribly wrong.
Meanwhile, know what the average MLB pension is worth? As of 2006, it was $32,000 a year.
Theodore has it even worse. He is credited with 2 1/4 years of service so, under the terms of the payment plan, his gross check is $5,625. But after taxes, you know what his payment is? A pittance of $3,700. And in a state like Utah, which the American Federation of Teachers ranked 49th out of 50 in terms of teacher salary, George could use all the help he can get.
But Les Rohr‘s situation is the worst of all.
Don’t remember Les Rohr? A native of Lowestoft, England, the 66-year-old Rohr was selected number two overall in the first round of the initial 1965 amateur draft by the New York Mets, Rohr had a 2-3 record while appearing in six games over three years with the Mets. A resident of Billings, Montana, he is one of only 33 men born in England who have played Major League Baseball in the States.
You read that right. Rohr was the Mets’ first ever selection in baseball’s draft. It was Rick Monday and then Les Rohr.
Though he once bested Hall of Famer Don Drysdale 2-0, he is perhaps best remembered for being the losing pitcher in one of baseball’s longest games — throwing three innings of relief in a 24-inning contest which the Mets lost to the Houston Astros. The game, which ended at 2:37 a.m., actually led to a rule change wherein ground crews would drag the infield every seven innings, regardless of how long the game lasted.
Somewhat ironically, Rohr’s last appearance in the majors was on September 19, 1969 — two years to the day that he made his major league debut, on September 19, 1967. The Mets clinched the National League East division on September 24, 1969, beating the St. Louis Cardinals.
Rohr’s lifetime ERA was a very respectable 3.70, but he only hurled 24 1/3 innings. According to the Mets media relations department, Rohr was on an active major league roster for 89 games; he is therefore eligible to receive gross payments of $1,300 per year for 2011, 2012 and 2013. After taxes are taken out, that’s realistically a net of $1,000.
The Hall of Fame counters he actually accrued only 63 days worth of service; he’d still be entitled to a gross check of appx $900. Under this scenario, his net would be appx $630.
Know how much Les Rohr has received so far? Nothing. Nada. Not a plug nickel. MLB hasn’t sent him a penny. He has truly fallen through the cracks.
The only way I’ve been speaking with Les, who doesn’t have a cell or landline of his own, is through the cell he borrows from a woman who tends bar at his favorite watering hole in Billings. Also, given the name of the current general manager of the Mets, it is perhaps somewhat fitting that Les now resides on Alderson Avenue in Billings.
Rohr, who reportedly had spinal fusion surgery after being released by the Mets in 1970, now receives disability payments and Social Security benefits. He spent more than three decades in the concrete business after retiring from the game. Though he does not have a World Series ring, for years he was reportedly seen around Billings driving a pickup truck that sported the plates, “69 Mets.”
But imagine if Les got his payments. That’d be pretty heartwarming, wouldn’t it?
Listen, am I elated that these men are at long last finally receiving some type of payment for their time in the game? Of course. This was a wrong that should have been righted years ago. In fact, I’ve said on numerous occasions that this whole disgraceful chapter in labor relations was a terrible inequity and injustice that stained baseball’s history.
Significantly, I also think the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association is at fault here too. Their leadership doesn’t want to do anything more for these guys. If they really wanted to advocate on behalf of their constituency, they would. They would bang the drum…and loudly. But they’re never going to. Sadly, the alumni association is the quintessential example of an old boys network, and they have no intention to rock the boat. They’re just happy with this token gesture of support.
While the payments are a step in the right direction, I continue to hope that both the league and the union will ultimately restore these men into pension coverage. And, if in some small way my book shed some light on this issue, I couldn’t be more pleased.