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A Major League shame

The pension fiasco

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World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 3 - USA v Puerto Rico

Professional sports are a big business. Big with a capital B. The NBA has total revenue of almost $20 billion, which if it were a stand-alone economy, that would place it at #113 in the world, just behind Afghanistan and ahead of Jamaica, Bosnia, and Laos. The NFL and MLB both report annual revenue of about $10 billion, which would place those two entities at #135 and #136 respectively on the world scale out of 190 countries.

People in the United States, and the world, spend a lot of money on American sports.

This article isn’t about how much money the big three make, it’s about what they do with a small piece of it, specifically for their former players.

The NBA recently corrected a grievous wrong when they reached an agreement to put $24.5 million dollars into a pool to be distributed to former ABA players. The NBA was careful not to label this a pension plan, but it has all the characteristics of one, semantics be damned. The funds come 50/50 from the NBA and the NBA Players Association.

The agreement was the result of a long-standing lawsuit between the league and The Dropping Dimes Foundation. If you’re not familiar with Dropping Dimes, the short version is they are an Indianapolis-based organization that provides financial assistance to former ABA players in need. And there are a lot of them. For years the NBA conveniently forgot about these pioneers. Believe me when I say, if you like the NBA today, it’s because of changes they made that were taken from the ABA. Some of those changes are the fast-paced style of play, the three-point shot, early entry into the draft and the All-Star game festivities, especially the slam dunk contest. When the ABA was birthed, the NBA was in serious decline. It was a stodgy walk the ball up the court, pass it into the center, low-scoring affair. There were a few exceptions of course, such as players like Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was so dominant, and different, that instead of embracing and promoting him, the NBA instituted rules to neuter him. That’s how resistant to change the old NBA was.

The ABA on the other hand, was something else. The league didn’t get much support from the television networks, whose allegiance ran with the older league. The ABA did finally get a Saturday morning game slot and it was must-see TV for younger basketball fans. The new league was fresh and exciting, what with the red, white and blue ball and the plethora of athletic young stars. Guys like Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Roger Brown, David Thompson, Mel Daniels, and James “Captain late” Silas. The new league also waived its entry rules which allowed younger players into the league. This brought forth talent like George Gervin, Spencer Haywood, and Moses Malone. The league also brought in Connie Hawkins; a seminal talent who had been banned from the NBA in a questionable gambling probe. It wasn’t long before NBA stars started looking at and jumping to the new league. Guys like Billy Cunningham and Rick Barry made the move. Wilt even made the jump but was blocked from playing thanks to a court order.

The NBA realized that they had some serious competition on their hands and finally agreed to a partial merger in 1976. Four ABA teams: Denver, San Antonio, New Jersey, and Indiana were absorbed into the NBA. The other four surviving ABA teams were folded, a move that put upwards of 50 players on the unemployment line. Twelve of those players eventually found homes with other NBA teams in a dispersal draft. Included were stars like Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas, Ron Boone, and Malone. The remaining players were just out of luck. Those out-of-luck players lost their salaries, and their health benefits and were left with no pensions. Many fell into hard times and more than a few eventually found themselves homeless.

Enter Dropping Dimes, which took as a mission the financial assistance to those forgotten players. Mel Daniels, one of the stars of the ABA, sat on the board of Dimes and was a force in trying to get the NBA to cover their early brethren. Finally, in July 2022, the NBA agreed to pay former ABA players $3,828 per year of service to players who had at least three years of ABA playing time or a combined three years between the ABA and NBA. This agreement covered about 115 surviving players. It’s not much for a league that routinely hands out multimillion-dollar contracts to players who couldn’t hold the jock straps of most of these older guys, but it’s something. No word if the NBA’s Chinese masters had to sign off on the deal. Yeah, I know that’s probably a cheap shot, but remember we’re talking about a league that muzzles any free speech that may offend the Communist leaders while many players continue to wear and market apparel and shoes manufactured by slave labor. The NBA has earned that criticism.

What does this have to do with Major League Baseball? A lot. Prior to 1980, a baseball player needed four years of service to qualify for a pension. That changed with the 1980 labor agreement. The new agreement dropped the pension vesting to a mere 43 days of service time, but, and this is a huge “but”, the Players Union made an error that has never been rectified. Players who played before 1980 and had more than 43 days of playing time but less than four years, were inexplicably left out of the new agreement. The union that was supposed to represent these very players failed to insist on adding them to the new plan. They literally fell through the cracks. At the time there were about 1,100 players who were affected by this oversight. Today, around 600 of those players are still living. Not only are they without access to a pension, but they also do not have access to Major League Baseball’s health plan. Jimmy Driscoll, an infielder with Texas and Oakland in the early 1970s, would have qualified under the 43-day rule. He called the 1,100 non-pension players “the lost boys of summer.”

David Clyde is one of the lost boys. Clyde was a high school phenom, drafted #1 in the 1973 draft by the Texas Rangers. Rangers’ owner Bob Short, desperate for higher attendance, had Clyde bypass a much-needed stint in the minors and threw the 18-year-old to the wolves. Clyde, who was billed as the next Sandy Koufax, made his first start on June 27th, 1973, less than a month after his high school graduation, and held Minnesota to one hit over five innings. What happened next was nothing short of baseball malpractice. Clyde struggled through three injury-plagued seasons with the Rangers before spending two years with the Rangers AAA affiliate. He resurfaced in Cleveland for the 1978 and 1979 seasons before arm injuries ended his career at the age of 24. He came up 37 service days short of four years.

Finally, in 2011, then-players association president, the late Michael Weiner, and commissioner Bud Selig, instituted a token payment plan for the lost boys. The pre-1980 players were still not added to the pension plan but were awarded payments of $625 per quarter for every 43 days of service time up to a maximum of $10,000. That’s $625 before taxes. The payments could not be passed to the players surviving spouses (something the pension plan allows) and the players were ineligible to participate in the players’ medical plan. The cash for this plan doesn’t even come out of the pension plan. It’s paid from what is called The Competitive Balance Tax. Said Selig at the time, “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Seriously Bud? I never held Selig in high regard, often thinking of him as a shining example of the Peter Principle, a bumbling fool who somehow advanced to the top job in baseball. Over the years, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has often been lampooned as the worst commissioner of the Big Four, though with hockey’s surging popularity, in my book Bettman has ascended to the top spot. I’ll give Silver the silver, based on his half-hearted attempt to rectify an old wrong with the ABA. Who’s the worst? Roger Goodell of the NFL or Rob Manfred of MLB? Tough one. Goodell has taken the Golden Goose of the NFL and somehow managed to alienate millions of former fans. Manfred has done nothing of note to change the direction of his sport. I mean, how many of you seriously like the ghost runner at the start of extra innings? Anyone? There have been barrels of ink spilled about baseball’s declining popularity and as a longtime fan, I can’t say I disagree.

Baseball’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, passed this March gave the Lost Boys a 15% raise! The quarterly payment bumped from $625 to $718.75, up to a maximum of $11,500! I suppose that’s better than nothing. Meanwhile, the union negotiated a 23.80% raise in the minimum salary for a ballplayer, from $565,000 to $700,000.

Several former Royals from the early to mid-1970s have been affected by this snafu. Among them are guys like Joe Zdeb, Tom Bruno, Monty Montgomery, and Randy McGilberry. Zdeb, who many older fans remember, was the Royals starting left fielder for most of the 1977 season. He appeared in 180 games from 1977 to 1980 and ended his Royals career with a .272/.317/.348 slash. He would easily qualify under the 43-day vesting but falls short of the four-year mark. Zdeb currently makes his living as a financial advisor in the Kansas City area.

Bruno, he of the fantastic handlebar mustache, was a right-handed relief pitcher. He was signed by the Royals as a free agent in 1971. He made his Kansas City debut in the 1976 season before the Royals lost him to Toronto in the expansion draft. He finished his career with two seasons in St. Louis. He appeared in 69 career games but fell just short of the four years of service time.

I spoke with Bruno recently and he expressed no bitterness over the pension issue but would certainly like to be included. His idea is a sensible one: “Take the service time we accumulated and pay people what they would have gotten had they been in the program. We were very blessed to have played major league baseball. The players today have much more long-term security than we had.” Bruno has operated a hunting and fishing guide business in Pierre, South Dakota since 1992 called Major League Adventures. An Illinois native, Bruno fell in love with the outdoors at a young age and enjoys his time guiding clients in walleye fishing and pheasant hunting. He mentioned a couple of other players who have carried the torch on the pension issue, Steve Rogers and Gary Niebauer.

Author Doug Gladstone has become the point man in the battle to get these players added to the pension plan. Over the previous two years, Gladstone, who wrote a book entitled “A bitter cup of coffee: How MLB and the Players Association threw 874 retirees a curve”, told me that he repeatedly reached out to then-Royals player rep Whit Merrifield to discuss the issue. Says Gladstone, “Merrifield has never replied to me, or even given me the courtesy of an acknowledgment. I would remind him that if it weren’t for the Zdebs and Brunos of the world, who went out on strike, who went without paychecks, all so that free agency could be ushered in, he wouldn’t be in a position to make what he earned this season. That’s what’s so reprehensible about the lockout, men like Zdeb and Bruno have been virtually forgotten as if they were consigned to the garbage heap of the national pastime. This players union just doesn’t give a flying fig about the old-timers.”

All of this should come as no surprise, given what we now know about Merrifield and his stance on getting the Covid vaccine. By the way, Whit Merrifield is making $7 million dollars this season.

Whit Merrifield is hardly the only bad actor in this play. The man who should hang his head in shame is union head Tony Clark. Clark should know better. He was a 15-year major league veteran. If anyone should understand the plight of former players, it’s Clark. One baseball insider told Bill Madden of the New York Daily News that “Clark isn’t going to have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets
Rob Manfred, Ken Griffey Jr. and Tony Clark
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Clyde went on to say, “Were not asking for any retroactive pay. I’m making $625 per quarter and I’m very grateful for every penny I have. But a lot of other guys are really struggling and others, who could afford it, would like to be able to buy into the players' health plan, which essentially covers everything. Basically, we’re just asking to treat us like you would if we played today. We’d like to be able to pass on the payments to our spouses. I know the general public probably won’t know who most of us are, other than former ballplayers who must be millionaires. The fact is most of us had to work winter jobs to make ends meet in those days. I know the union is under no legal obligation to talk to us, but don’t they have a moral obligation to take care of their past? Players who went on strike and gave up their paychecks so today’s players could be making the millions they are?”

Indeed. The current plan states that players with 43 days of vesting are eligible for a minimum benefit of $34,000 per year and those with 10 years of service receive payments of approximately $100,000 per year. The maximum amount a retiree can collect is $245,000 per year. Reports have the plan sitting on assets worth $3.5 billion dollars. In 2002, three former players filed a class action lawsuit against Major League Baseball demanding pension benefits, but the suit was dismissed.

And that’s where we are today. Many fans are not even aware of this shameful episode. And it looks like Major League Baseball and the player union, led by Clark, are content to wait until the remaining pre-1980 players die off. Until Clark grows a pair and convinces his union to allow the cash cow to spew out some green milk to the Lost Boys, this disgraceful piece of labor relations will continue to stain Major League Baseball.

A special thank you to Doug Gladstone and Tom Bruno for their time and contributions to this story.