By Douglas J. Gladstone
There are 626 retired men and their families who played Major League baseball who are being denied pensions by both the league and the union representing the current players, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA), because of an error the union committed 39 years ago.
In order to avert a threatened 1980 walkout by the players, MLB made the following sweetheart offer to union representatives: going forward, all a post-1980 player would need to be eligible to buy into the league’s premium health insurance plan was one game day of service; all a post-1980 player would need for a benefit allowance was 43 game days of service. At the time, the threshold was four years to be vested in the pension plan.
The problem was, the union failed to insist on retroactivity for all those players who played prior to 1980, who had more than 43 game days but less than four years of service.
Thanks to the late Michael Weiner, the former MLBPA executive director, the league and union partially remedied this situation in April 2011. The pre-1980 players alive at the time were each awarded non-qualified payments of $625 per quarter, up to $10,000, for every 43 game days of service the man had. However, when the man passes, the payment passes with him.
So the loved ones of Puerto Rico’s Saturnino Cuadrado (Nino) Escalera will get squat.
Don’t remember Escalera? An infielder for the 1954 Cincinnati Reds, he appeared in 73 games that year. He came up to bat 69 times, collected 11 hits, including one double and one triple, walked seven times and scored 15 runs. A native of Santurce, he now resides in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
The league – which I concede does not have to address this matter unless the union broaches it in collective bargaining negotiations – recently announced that its revenue was up 325% from 1992 and that it has made $500 million since 2015.What’s more, the average value of the each of the 30 clubs is up 19% from 2016, to $1.54 billion. And the 30 club owners recently wrote a $10 million check to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The owners chose museum relics rather than flesh and blood retirees.
To date, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up anymore of the collective pie. Even though the players’ welfare and benefits fund is worth more than $3.5 billion, Tony Clark, MLBPA executive director – the former Detroit Tigers All-Star who received the Negro League Museum’s Jackie Robinson Award in 2016 – has never commented about these non-vested retirees, many of whom are filing for bankruptcy at advanced ages, having banks foreclose on their homes and are so sickly and poor that they cannot afford adequate health care coverage.
According to the IRS, a current MLB retiree can receive a pension of up to $225,000. Even a post-1980 player who has only 43 game days of service credit receives a minimum pension of $3,589 at the age of 62, assuming he was called up to the majors and stayed on the active roster from August 15 to October 1.
Many will say it’s immaterial that Clark is an African American labor leader. But I would submit that when you receive an award named to honor one of this country’s greatest social justice pioneers, and then you don’t live up to those lofty standards, you’re not worthy of such an honor in the first place.
It is anathema to me why the union doesn’t do more for these men, both the persons of color who are retired as well as their Caucasian counterparts. After all, men like Escalera, who turns 90 years old on December 1, paved the way so today’s players could reap the benefits of free agency.
When do today’s players start to ask themselves, “Hey, we earn a lot of money, maybe we should give some to the old guys who came before us?”
A reported 200 players from Puerto Rico have played MLB since 1942, including such current stars as Carlos Correa of the Astros, Javier Baez of the Cubs and Jose Berrios of the Twins.
In this, the centennial celebratory year of Robinson’s birthday, both the league and the union need to do a better job taking care of its non-vested retirees. To really honor the social justice ideals that #42 stood for, the suits who run our national pastime need to remember that the game’s non-vested men like Escalera made contributions too.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a freelance writer and author of two books, including “A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.”