Still bitter, still too often

2019-03-02 DougGladstone
Douglas J.  Gladstone, promoting the original edition of A Bitter Cup of Coffee. “[T]here is no reason, other than sheer mean-spiritedness and pettiness, why the union and league cannot successfully find a way to mediate this issue,” he writes in the new updated edition.
On 9 July 1969, a Cub reserve named Jimmy Qualls, who was inserted into the day’s starting lineup, slashed his way into baseball history with a one-out single in the top of the ninth. It’s not everybody who gets to break up a Hall of Famer’s bid for a perfect game, but that’s what Qualls did to Tom Seaver that day.

Fat lot of good that did. The far more judiciously managed Mets (by Gil Hodges) ended up heating up as the far less judiciously managed Cubs (by Leo Durocher) burned out down the stretch, the Mets going all the way to a miracle World Series conquest. But Qualls eventually took another significant place in baseball, long after he left the game.

Qualls inadvertently tripped the trigger of a journalistic crusader for a lot of the game’s forgotten players. Talking for an eventual Baseball Digest story for the 40th anniversary year of his perfecto breakup, the former outfielder “casually mentioned” to Douglas J. Gladstone that he received no baseball pension, his extremely brief major league life notwithstanding.

A man who might be mistaken for a more burly version of the idiosyncratically effective title detective in television’s Monk, Gladstone was jolted enough by the revelation to hit the trail running, exhuming a considerable crowd of former players to speak up. Some were blinks-of-the-eye like Qualls, some went from big promise to bigger disappearances, some in between. They have in common that they were left in the cold when the Major League Baseball Players’ Association got baseball government to agree—as part of averting a strike in 1980—on changing the minimum requirement for pension vesting.

The change now meant a player needed one day MLB time for health benefit vesting and 43 days for a retirement allowance. The flip side of such a generous-sounding change was in the not-so-fine print: the new agreement didn’t include players whose short careers occurred between 1949 and 1980. The change left over a thousand players out, from reserves like Qualls to mishandled phenomena like David Clyde.

By the time Gladstone published the original edition of A Bitter Cup of Coffee in 2010, the number was down to 874. Now republished as A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve—Extra Innings Edition, Gladstone continues to hope, pray, and fight for these players.

The law can’t do a thing for those former players, and Gladstone knows it. But he and the players who took the cause up ask not for legal but moral redress, from the players’ union, from baseball government, and from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association alike. The further impetus for such redress came when, in the late 1990s, baseball awarded living former Negro Leagues players with monetary compensation after having had short major league lives themselves following Jackie Robinson’s entry in 1947.

Qualls and his fellow crusaders, some quiet but determined and others noisily so, came to believe that if baseball could do that kind of justice for the former Negro Leaguers, they could at least do at least minimal justice likewise for former players such as themselves, many of whom are black and other ethnic men who at least didn’t have to await the breakage of the old disgraceful colour line.

They didn’t qualify for the old four-year pension vest but many have yet made reasonably successful post-baseball lives. As Gladstone illustrates, in terse prose, such players are more concerned for those whose post-baseball lives haven’t been quite as well lived, and who could use the additional income far more.

Typical among those crusaders is a short-term 1963 Met, infielder Al Moran, whose post-baseball life includes construction work and almost a quarter century coaching college baseball. “I didn’t get on board to help myself,” Moran told Gladstone. “I didn’t give a crap about myself, because frankly, I’ve done alright for myself. But I was worried about all the guys who really needed the help.”

Another former infielder who blows his horn for his fellows can do it literally. When Carmen Fanzone wasn’t a Cub third baseman frozen behind the incumbency of Hall of Famer Ron Santo, he was a trumpeter gifted enough to sit in with jazz groups and eventually work professionally with the like of Don Ho and the Baja Marimba Band, before becoming a music teacher and American Federation of Musicians pension troubleshooter for television and film musicians.

Before that, the Cubs blocked other teams from trading for Fanzone, arguing they needed a steadily available backup to Santo, which may have kept Fanzone from catching on as a more regular player elsewhere. Finally he was cut before he might have earned the old four-year pension vest. “It used to eat me to death thinking about it,” Fanzone told the Los Angeles Times in an article Gladstone recalls. “After I got cut, I called every club, but got no answer. Then I broke my ankle and couldn’t come back.”

But Gladstone and the former players he examines have run into the next best thing to brick walls whenever they’ve approached the players’ union and the owners about it. Even White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf tried and failed. Believing that both the former Negro Leaguers who couldn’t make the old four-year major league vest and the players who followed them but couldn’t “got screwed,” too, Reinsdorf found the union “has always said no. Every time the union has been approached about this, they’ve been very negative.”

CLYDE
“Giving ’em all pensions is the least MLB can do when some of the guys are begging for Hamburger Helper. Some of these guys actually need it. Hell, I’d like one but I don’t need one. That’s the difference.”—David Clyde.

Fanzone’s is only one experience. Maybe the most formerly glittering among the pension issue fighters is Clyde, the one-time Rangers bonus phenom who went right from high school legend (five no-hitters in his senior year) to the Rangers, in then-owner Bob Short’s desperation to goose his sputtering gate.

Knowing Short’s desperation, Clyde cleverly asked only to start two major league games before going to the minors, to which his industrious manager Whitey Herzog agreed, both knowing he needed more seasoning. Then the eighteen-year-old lefthander, whose curve ball especially had scouts’s bells ringing, won those first two games, and Short couldn’t bear to lose his gate attraction.

Clyde stayed on the Rangers’ roster his first two seasons, finally being farmed out in 1975, “probably,” snorted Rob Neyer, “because Short had sold the Rangers to somebody who wasn’t insane.” Woefully ill-prepared for major league life, Clyde’s season and, ultimately, his career, ended up a mess. “Inside of two years,” Herzog would remember in You’re Missin’ a Great Game, “David Clyde was nothing but a cautionary tale.”

That mishandling plus shoulder trouble and alcohol short circuited Clyde’s career with parts of five major league seasons on his resume but not enough major league time to qualify for the old pension vest. Two failed marriages and a sobering up later, Clyde remarried happily, joined his father-in-law’s successful lumber business, and retired as its vice president—while returning to baseball as a pitching coach, teaching high school age pitchers fundamentals and how not to let yourself get caught in the pincers that caught him.

“The one positive that came out of my career,” Clyde told the Dallas Morning News in 2013, “is that to this very day, every now and then, when a very special talent comes along, I hear them say, ‘We are not going to do to this young man what was done to David Clyde’.”

Like Qualls, Moran, and Fanzone, Clyde doesn’t need a better pension benefit for himself. But he told Gladstone he fights for the other players out partially out of guilt: Short’s hunger for Clyde’s original box office appeal cost a roster spot for a player who also didn’t meet the old pension vest—and died of cancer subsequently. Gladstone thinks that would have been outfielder Joe Lovitto.

“There are a lot of guys who were not nearly as fortunate nor nearly as blessed as I’ve been,” Clyde told Gladstone. “Giving ‘em all pensions is the least MLB can do when some of the guys are begging for Hamburger Helper . . . Some of these 900 guys actually need it. Hell, I’d like one, but I don’t need one. That’s the difference.”

One problem is whether today’s players have much if any clue about the pension situation afflicting the 1949-80 players. Gladstone and Clyde think they don’t. So does former Seattle Pilots pitcher Dick Baney, who once thought of organising an All-Star Game protest on behalf of the un-pensioned players.

Often as not Gladstone writes, in A Bitter Cup of Coffee and elsewhere, that whenever the issue comes before the owners or the players’ union, a frequent refrain is that it’ll just have to wait until the next collective bargaining agreement. He compares that to John F. Kennedy’s response after a reporter asked when the United States’ then small military presence in Vietnam would be scaled back. “We don’t see the end of the tunnel,” the ill-fated president replied, “but I don’t think it was darker than it was a year ago.” We know how that worked out after Kennedy’s assassination.

But A Bitter Cup of Coffee achieved something, which is much the subject of the new Extra Innings edition. In 2011, then-comissioner Bud Selig and then-players’ union executive director Michael Weiner announced a new program from which $625 for every 43 days’ major league time would be awarded the players frozen out of the 1980 pension realignment.

Weiner had pushed baseball government and the union alike to agree on taking those monies out of the luxury tax payments levied against bigger market teams spending beyond a particular level. There were, alas, two catches. Catch one: 43 days represented a quarter, and the players in question were limited to sixteen quarters, equal to $10,000—before taxes. Catch Two? Gladstone says it better:

Neither the pre-1947 players nor the Negro League veterans were subject to such stringent criteria. But most of the men didn’t dwell on the restrictive terms of the awards program. They were too happy that they were at last going to receive monies.

However, in their joy to receive any monies after being taken advantage of for more than three decades, they also failed to realize that, unlike a true pension, the monies couldn’t be passed on to any widow, child, loved one or designated beneficiary. When each man died, the payment died with him.

Cooperating with Gladstone’s original book cost Clyde and former Braves pitcher Gary Niebauer their positions on the Alumni Association’s player services committee, when they were replaced by incumbent players (incumbent, mind you) Chris Archer and Nelson Cruz. And, a considerable number of the players affected by the 2011 program still waited long enough to received the promised money, if they received it at all.

Gladstone has asked incumbent commissioner Rob Manfred and incumbent players’ union executive director Tony Clark, both of whom preside over a game that earned $10.8 billion in revenues in 2018, to re-think the issue. So far, he may have an easier time asking for reparations on behalf of the Roman Empire from Attila the Hun. “[T]here is no reason, other than sheer mean-spiritedness and pettiness,” he writes, “why the union and league cannot successfully find a way to mediate this issue.”

Players since the Messersmith decision speak often about honouring the players who came before them when it came time to stare the owners down and and not back down. They could do likewise by engaging the owners on behalf of such players before them as Clyde, Qualls, Moran, Fanzone, Niebauer, all the players still living who were frozen out of the otherwise remarkably generous 1980 pension re-alignment.

That, too, would do the honourable thing, which is the periodically pugnacious but otherwise great faith point of Gladstone’s republished, updated book. It may not make them financially independent at last, but it might tell them that the game didn’t forget them, either.

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