Forty years ago, the Major League Baseball Players association revamped the players’ pension plan dramatically enough. They changed the vesting eligibility from four years’ major league service time to 43 days for pensions and one day for health care benefits. But they excluded players with short careers prior to 1980—approximately 1,100 such players at the time, but just over 600 still living today.
Those players were loyal Players Association members who hit the ramparts and the pickets when called upon to help end the reserve era and usher in the era that has made more than a fair number of players wealthy beyond their childhood imaginations. The late Marvin Miller, elected to the Hall of Fame at last, is known to have told some of those players that not reviewing and revamping the 1980 pension realignment to include those players was his biggest regret.
They are men such as Bill Denehy, once a New York Mets pitcher (he shared a Topps rookie baseball card with Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in 1967) traded to the Washington Senators for manager Gil Hodges despite shoulder damage. Men such as David Clyde, the mishandled Texas Rangers phenom, pushed to start in the Show right out of his staggering high school career, but not sent to the minors for seasoning after that, as manager Whitey Herzog promised, before he was ruined by shoulder issues and gone.
Denehy played parts of three major league seasons in New York, Washington, and Detroit. Clyde’s career ended when he was 37 days short of qualifying for a pension under the old plan, after playing parts of five seasons with the Rangers and the Cleveland Indians. Theirs and their fellows’ battle for pension redress has been enunciated most prominently in Douglas J. Gladstone’s A Bitter Cup of Coffee.
“I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned,” Denehy told me in a telephone interview over a year ago. Thanks to multiple cortisone shots (possibly 57 in a 26-month span) to address a 1967 shoulder injury (about which the Mets conveniently failed to inform the Senators), Denehy eventually incurred eye issues that have left him legally blind today.
“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continued then. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”
“I guess what bothers me the most about it is, the Players Association—they loathe being called a union—didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” Clyde told me in a separate telephone interview last fall. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
The late Michael Weiner, who succeeded Donald Fehr as the players union’s executive director, managed to join then-commissioner Bud Selig in getting the frozen-out players some redress: in 2011, the pair got the frozen-out pre-1980 players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. “It was a nice gesture on the part of Weiner and Selig who, undoubtedly also realized it could hardly make up for all those lost years in which the pre-1980 players got bupkis,” wrote longtime New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden in February.
But they can’t pass even that on to their loved ones upon their deaths. And, as Madden pointed out, they can’t buy into the players’ medical plan, which would help significantly enough for former short-career players now dealing with assorted serious health issues. In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, redressing that lack would have been even more significant.
Exactly why the short-career players pre-1980 were frozen out of the original pension re-alignment has never been made entirely clear. Denehy, Clyde, and other players known to have spoken on record have thought many in the union then believed that many if not most were mere September call-ups.
Denehy made each of his three major league teams directly out of spring training. Clyde, of course, was signed right out of high school with then-Rangers owner Bob Short hoping he’d goose the team’s sagging gate—which he did by winning his first two heavily hyped starts. Jim Qualls, a Chicago Cubs outfielder known best for breaking up Seaver’s perfect game bid with two outs in the ninth in 1969, made the Cubs out of spring training that season as an outfield reserve.
Another Cub, third baseman Carmen Fanzone, was once a July callup and made the Cubs as a reserve out of another spring training, but was blocked mostly by Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo before Santo’s departure in a crosstown trade to the White Sox. An Atlanta Braves pitcher, Gary Niebauer, also made the Braves out of spring training 1969 and 1970.
Clyde, Niebauer, and former longtime first baseman and coach Eddie Robinson—long key voices on behalf of short-career players within the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association—were finally removed from the association’s pension services committee not too long ago.
“The problem is, because they’re not vested, the union has no obligation to do anything for pre-1980 players — and so they don’t — even though it currently has some $3.5 billion in the pension fund,” Madden wrote. The $625 payments come from the competitive balance tax, and Madden cited an unnamed MLB insider who said today’s players union executive director, former first baseman Tony Clark, “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”
Legally, of course, MLB and the players union aren’t obligated to lift a single finger now. The Denehys, Clydes, Niebauers, Robinsons, Quallses, and others believe it’s a moral and ethical question. They were there, too, surrendering pay and preparation time to fight with their fellow players for the same rights as any American worker at any level had—to negotiate job compensation and conditions on a fair and free job market within their industry.
You would think that Clark himself having been a player might be more inclined to find a way to bring further help and redress to those players who also helped pave the way for, among other things, the reported $22.3 million Clark earned in fifteen seasons as a power hitting but often injury-compromised first baseman.
You would think likewise that numerous former players long established in the sports media—Hall of Fame pitchers Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz, 1986 World Series champion Mets Ron Darling (pitcher) and Keith Hernandez (first baseman), former outfielder Doug Glanville, former first baseman John Kruk, former shortstop/third baseman Alex Rodriguez, pitchers Mark Gubicza and Rick Sutcliffe, among others—might be more inclined likewise, if only to bring further attention to the issue.
Especially on behalf of disabusing the public’s prospective view that any former baseball player must be a wealthy former baseball player. Joe and Jane Fan today don’t always know or recall the pre-free agency era, when the owners misapplied the reserve clause to bind players for life or until traded or sold, and most players needed to work in the off-seasons to make ends meet or keep the ends within close sight of each other.
If Marvin Miller himself regretted not revisiting the 1980 pension re-alignment to do right by those players, it seems more than reasonable that the players union today, and those former players in strong enough positions to raise the issue, should think and re-think about the men whose playing careers might have been short but whose commitment to their fellow players was no less profound.