Major League Baseball Locks Out Current Players … and Elderly Retirees
In December 2021 Major League Baseball owners “locked out” current players, a pre-emptive move calculated to gain negotiating advantage in the pending negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. But did you know that elderly MLB retirees have been locked out for decades?
As we move into the new year, keep in mind that every year, more of these former players pass away without the dignity they deserve. I recently started receiving my Major League Baseball pension, but my elderly father, who enjoyed a more accomplished and longer-serving career, is denied his rightfully-earned pension benefit. Today’s society is highly sensitive to social injustice, yet my dad, and hundreds of other major league retirees like him, are being treated unfairly because of their age.
Mine is a baseball family. My brother and I were Holy Cross and Harvard baseball All-Americans, respectively. I played for the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, while brother, Dave, reached Triple-A with the Toronto Blue Jays. But it’s our father who reached star status in “The Show.” Dad, Dave Stenhouse, pitched for the Washington Senators and, as a rookie, started the 1962 All-Star Game. After his playing days were over, he coached the Rhode Island College and Brown University baseball teams.
Although Dad, who turned 88 this past September, has fond memories of his many years in pro ball, he is embarrassed that he cannot claim to be part of the brotherhood of Baseball pensioners. MLB and its union, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), have refused to grant a pension to him and other retired players in his class.
Former New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson wrote about this unfairness in his March 13, 2004 piece entitled “Remembering Players MLB Has Forgotten.” The first person Mr. Anderson mentioned was my father. Men like Dad are in this position because of a 1980 rules change. Previously, a player needed four years of big-league service credit to be eligible for ongoing health coverage and a pension. But in order to avert a strike that year, a new rule was adopted moving forward; all a player would need to be eligible for a lifelong pension benefit was 43 game days on an active MLB roster after 1980. This rule change covered me, who amassed just under 3 years of active roster status in the 1980s.
But my father, with just under 4 years of active roster duty in the early 1960s, was left out, as were about a thousand others at that time – maybe half that many remain alive today. For some inexplicable reason, the union never requested that this rule be made retroactive for the men like my father, who had more than 43 roster days but less than four years of service prior to 1980. I can assure you, knowing his story, that Dad and his peers worked just as hard as me and current players to make it all the way to the big leagues. It is shameful that they are being punished … simply for being older.
The injustice put upon these former big leaguers, was highlighted by author and baseball historian Doug Gladstone in his 2011 book A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. Even more outrageous, is that Dad and most of these retirees, actually paid into the pension system during their playing days. However, after the 1980 ruling, their payments were unceremoniously returned to them as they were notified that they were being excluded from entry into the newly expanded MLB pension system.
In 2011, the league and union made a feeble attempt to respond to a growing cry for equal treatment: Dad and others like him were to receive a “stipend” for each 43 game days of roster service. Still not granted the dignity of being a full MLB pensioner, as do thousands of less experienced and more recent players in the baseball fraternity, Dad and his disenfranchised peers receive far less than they have earned, with no spousal or health insurance benefit. These stipends only amount to about 20% of what their pension payments should have been. To add further insult, about 25% of the stipend is withheld for New York City tax purposes, home of MLB headquarters, because the stipend is not considered “pension” income.
“They are being thrown a bone for growing the game of baseball,” complained Gladstone. “They are being penalized for playing the game they loved at the wrong time.” I believe they are being taken advantage of because of their age.
Why has Baseball locked-out some of their own brothers for so long? Consider the injustice. A more recent retiree, for example, who may have pitched only few dozen innings in a handful of career appearances, qualifies to receive an MLB pension, and is also eligible to buy into the league’s health coverage plan. And when he passes, his beneficiaries will continue to receive his pension. But when Dad, who pitched almost 400 career innings, passes on, that minimal stipend he receives passes with him. My mother, Phyllis, won’t receive a plug nickel.
Players like Dad, who helped usher the game of baseball from America’s pastime into an international mega industry, with previously unimaginable television revenues and hundred-million dollar+ player contracts, have been systematically humiliated over what amounts to pennies on the dollar.
This injustice can only be rectified if the current collective bargaining impasse leads to negotiations between the league and the MLBPA that actually takes up this issue. Yet, so far, no prominent champion has stood up for this aggrieved group of retirees.
Prior to the pandemic, MLB announced that its revenue was up 325 percent from 1992, and that it has made $500 million since 2015. I don’t need my degree in Economics from Harvard to figure out that the math doesn’t add up. The national pastime is recovering and is in good shape financially … MLB can easily afford to allocate the few million it would take for these retirees to receive what they have earned.
So why do MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, a former player and retiree himself, resist providing this earned-benefit to their older brethren? Even though Forbes recently reported that the current players’ pension and welfare fund is valued at $2.7 billion, Clark has never adequately explained why these non-vested retirees are being denied their due. Many are filing for bankruptcy at advanced ages, some with their homes being foreclosed, and still others who are so sickly and poor that they cannot afford adequate health care coverage. Dad’s personally-invested retirement funds are steadily dwindling, and while the stipend helps a little, he worries how he and Mom will get on when they reach their 90s.
I am ashamed, as a former big-leaguer myself, that Major League Baseball should allow their own to unnecessarily worry this way, when their more contemporary brothers will never suffer financial insecurity! Unions are supposed to support all of their hard-working rank-and-file men and women. And unions have always valued “seniority.” But for some reason, these seniors are being discriminated against.
Dad sometimes goes to a local senior center in our hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island to share his cherished baseball memories. But sadly, suffering the financial and emotional impact of being left out of the MLB retiree brotherhood, it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to autograph baseballs with the same pride that he once felt for his sport.
I call on the MLB Players Alumni Association, current players, and baseball writers to stand up for their brothers by contacting league and union officials and by spreading the word in the media. I urge Baseball’s leaders to accept Dad into the official MLB pensioner fraternity by granting these men the pride and benefit they have earned.