The Men Baseball Left Behind

Douglas J. Gladstone’s important new book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, examines the plight of 874 Major League Baseball players who played between 1947 and 1979, all with brief trials in the majors—careers figuratively "just long enough to drink a cup of coffee." These men, the author suggests, have gulped bitter cups of coffee because they haven’t been included retroactively in the pension plan’s amended vesting requirement since adopted by the MLB Players Association.

At the collective bargaining table in 1980, the Major League Baseball owners made an offer to the union that, at first glance, would seem generous. It was a move that was intended to divide the union membership and bring about a settlement that would be favorable to the owners. Ultimately, the divide and conquer strategy failed as the union held together and accepted the offer. Unfortunately many former players would not share in the victory. Douglas J. Gladstone’s A Bitter Cup of Coffee is the story of 874 big league baseball players. Each of their careers lasted less than four year. Many, were simply “cups of coffee”. None of these men would collect a pension from Major League Baseball.

Starting in 1947, Major League Baseball offered a pension to any player with five years of service in the big leagues. In 1969, with Marvin Miller at the head of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, the years of service needed was reduced to four years. Since service as a player, trainer or coach counted towards the pension, player’s who were close to qualifying would seek out a roster spot or a coaching position to get those last few days of service. Unfortunately, not everyone who was close was given this opportunity.

In the 1980 contract negotiations between the owners and the union, the owners would make their offer and the change would make the MLB pension plan generous to a point almost beyond belief. A player with even a single day of service in the big leagues would receive health care for the rest of their life. After just 43 days on a Major League roster, a player becomes eligible for the pension plan. A player with the minimum amount of service would earn around $34,000 a year. It certainly isn’t a king’s ransom, but for a player who didn’t make a fortune during a brief stay in the majors, it’s financial reassurance.

That reassurance was not available to those players who played before 1980. The owners certainly did not offer to make the changes to the pension plan retroactive and the union seemed unwilling to go to bat for their former union members and risk losing the offer for their current membership. Despite the ever-increasing amounts of money that both the owners and players have been raking in over the past three decades, there has been little movement to help out these players.

Helping them would certainly not be without precedent. Annuities were awarded by baseball to those players whose careers ended before the 1947 pension plan went into effect. Additionally, MLB attempted to right a wrong by awarding service time and consequently annuities as well to many former Negro League players. These moves are widely considered to have been just and overdue.

Asked if giving a pension to men such as himself is the right thing to do, Sadowski diplomatically answers that it’s not for him to say. However, he does volunteer that, given his assorted list of ailments, he could always use some more money to help defray expenses.

Gladstone on former Braves pitcher Bob Sadowski, from Chapter 1

Gladstone’s book is less a history of the pension plan and more the story of those remaining players who do not receive pensions. It is the story of former Braves pitcher Bob Sadowski, who has suffered from the aftermath of kidney failure and a stroke. It is the story of former Braves reliever Gary Neibauer, who despite his own ailments, works with the Major League Baseball Player’s Alumni Association to try and get a pension for his fellow players. It is the story of Craig Skok, another former Braves pitcher, who left the game a few weeks shy of qualifying, and thanks to the generosity of Ted Turner, was placed on the roster so that he could vest. It is the story of many of their contemporaries, their struggles in both life and in their attempt to get what Gladstone sees as their rightful pension. Some of the players are bitter, and others hopeful. All of their stories are compelling, and a few are even heartbreaking.

These players are clearly flesh and blood human beings and they do not all comes off as sympathetic. The bitterness occasionally expressed towards the payouts awarded to the former Negro League players seems especially misplaced. Still, this is their honest feeling. They are not looking to get rich. They are simply looking for something that acknowledges that their cup of coffee is as important to baseball as to those players who got a cup of coffee in the post-1980 game.

Will you agree with these players? Do you think they deserve the same pension rewards as those players who came in under the new plan? I don’t know and I can’t say for sure that I do. Stories like this bring up a wide range of emotions. Is it possible to be sympathetic towards these players and not believe they should receive a pension? Again, I don’t know. One thing I think we can all agree is that MLB and the MLBPA can certainly afford to help these guys out.

Even though he is a fervent supporter of these players, to his credit, Gladstone points out that these men are not owed anything. Major League Baseball has no legal obligation to pay them anything. They are not active members of the Player’s Association and the union has no obligation to provide these players legal services and cannot negotiate for them. Gladstone isn’t on a legal crusade. He’s on a moral one. With passion and unflinching honesty, A Bitter Cup of Coffee does a masterful job of both telling the story of those players without a pension and advocating on their behalf.

A deal was reached in April 2011 to begin to extend some limited benefits to these players. The benefits were originally scheduled to run through 2012, but they have been extended through 2016 in the most recent CBA. About this deal, Gladstone said, "I'm glad that these men will be getting something for the next five years but it still is anathema to me why neither the league nor the union want to do right by them and retroactively restore them all into pension coverage."

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