The pastor and the pension problem

Tom Johnson, in Twins jersey and a 1977 Twins cap, at GoodSports Slovakia, a program teaching and ministering Slovakian youth in baseball and in spirit. (GoodSports photo.)

In 1980, righthanded relief pitcher Tom Johnson—former Minnesota Twin, credited with sixteen relief wins in 1977; struggling with shoulder trouble in 1978; missing 1979 rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery—had reason to believe his career would still have a second act. He was signed by the Chicago White Sox during Bill Veeck’s second ownership of the team.

After five seasons as a Twin, Johnson pitched in the White Sox organisation in 1980. The same year, major league owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the player pension program. Johnson had every reason to applaud—at first.

The new plan vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day. Johnson believed he would come back strongly enough to pitch for the White Sox.

“When I initially heard they had made the decision to make the change, I was very excited,” Johnson said during a telephone interview a few days ago. “I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it because I was in the midst of trying to come back from surgery. So I had my eyes focused on getting back to the major leagues, and I had every reason to believe I was going to do that.”

But in January 1981, saying he couldn’t afford to operate in the full free agency era any longer, Veeck sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and his minority partner Eddie Einhorn.

The new owner didn’t offer Johnson a new pitching deal, but they did offer him a gig as a roving minor league pitching coach. His pitching career was over—and he was now going to be without a baseball pension to look forward to. The 1980 re-alignment omitted short-career players who played between 1949 and 1980.

“When I heard that the [pension] change had taken place,” he told me, “I was excited, because in the past all improvements to the pension plan had been retroactive. So I had every reason to believe, until I found out otherwise, that that would include me.

“I was looking forward to the new system and having a pension, only to find out this was one of the few times in which it was not retroactive,” Johnson continued. “That came later. The disappointment compounded itself when I realised I wasn’t going to make it back, my shoulder wasn’t responding the way I hoped.”

Johnson today is one of 618 still-living, pension-less, pre-1980 short-career players. Their only redress since has been the plan devised in 2011 by then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner—giving them $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. It was a start, but should they pass away before collecting the entire dollars due, those dollars can’t be passed to their families.

“That’s kind of a hard one to take,” Johnson said. “It’s like, that would be such a small thing but a good thing for us and give us some comfort in knowing that this small payment we get once a year is going to pass on [to our families].” Johnson told me that, after taxes, he gets $5,800 per year under the Selig-Weiner adjustment.

Weiner died of brain cancer two years after he and Selig struck that deal. Neither the players union nor the owners have sought to revisit the pension issue for the pre-1980 short-timers since. Asked why not, Johnson says he doesn’t know. “I have no idea, other than that people just don’t want to be bothered,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He thinks that if the issue ever has arisen in negotiations between the owners and the union since, it’s taken off the table very early if it got there at all. “Probably the reason that it hasn’t gone forward is that there hasn’t been a strong advocate in the system that believes changes are needed,” he said.

Tom Johnson, on the mound for the Twins during his career year 1977. (Twins Daily photo.)

The pre-1890 short-timers have had varying lives since leaving baseball. Johnson became a full-time minister later in the 1980s. Active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his playing days, he’s also worked for GoodSports Slovakia, a program that ministers and teaches baseball to Slovakian youth, since 1995. He’s been its president since 2006; he and his wife, Deb, lived in Slovakia full-time promoting baseball from 2005-2017.

When not supervising and making sure GoodSports staffers are paid on time—a task made arduous thanks to the coronavirus pandemic—Johnson wants to see the pension plan redressed on behalf of his fellow 1949-1980 short-career players.

Like several other affected short-career players, Johnson believes Marvin Miller—the longtime players union leader who was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously for his groundbreaking work—took one major regret to his grave: not revisiting the pension issue and redressing the freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers.

“Nobody has picked it up,” Johnson said, referring to people within the professional baseball system. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

And, like several such players to whom I’ve spoken since first interviewing former pitcher Bill Denehy in spring 2019, Johnson believes that if Weiner had lived he might well have worked toward going beyond the 2011 deal with Selig on behalf of those players. “Absolutely,” he said.

Why doesn’t Clark—the first former player to head the MLBPA—address the issue or even give it a single listen, on behalf of these former players who also partook of all players union actions pre- and post-free agency?

Clark’s playing career began two decades after the Messersmith decision ushered free agency in. Johnson isn’t alone among his fellow pre-1980 short-timers in believing the former first baseman wasn’t close enough to the key battles for which players like Johnson fought just as arduously as did baseball’s major stars.

“I would just go back to something I believe strongly about,” Johnson said. “Any issue of what you might call injustice, it’s easy not to address it if you’re not close to it, if you’re not proximate to it. And I would say, for Tony Clark, he’s just never taken the time to sit down with people like myself and hear us and get close enough to us and hear what we have to say.”

If Johnson could tell Clark one thing, it’s to take that time. “Take some time to get to know us,” he continued. “Take some time to hear from us. We played. We did walk the picket lines. We did participate in lockouts. We did work on behalf of players who are now making six and seven figures, to make it possible to make it happen.”

He might tell likewise to dozens of former ballplayers who’ve made second careers in the sports media and who could wield major influence but don’t for now. “I think it’s the same reason, it doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t know anybody that’s personally affected by it, so it’s just easy to dismiss it. I would guess some of them aren’t even aware of it, some don’t bother to be, and the ones who are made aware of it, it’s just too easy for them to go on to other things.”

If the union and commissioner Rob Manfred today can’t be made to look twice at the 1980 pension re-alignment freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers, what about individual owners—say, Steve Cohen, the new owner of the Mets; or, John Middleton, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies—each taking up just on behalf of those short-timers who played for the teams they now own?

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Johnson said. “I would love to think there would be people who would lead the way and call on other owners to step up. They don’t have to; after the difficult situation they’ve faced financially with the pandemic, I’m not hopeful.”

Not for now. But perhaps down the road that option might be considered. Perhaps by a Cohen, or a Middleton; perhaps by another. It would be a strange irony if the union that made such a terrible mistake found itself upstaged over four decades later, by even a single owner persuaded that it’s long past time to do the right thing.