Obligation or Charity: Retired Baseball Player Pensions and Fairness

It is an old ethical problem: what is “fair”?  If you help someone, are you obligated to help everyone? Does charity have to be consistent to be fair? Does a potential beneficiary of generosity have a right to demand it? It is obviously good for those who are fortunate and successful to share the benefits of their success with the unfortunate and less successful, but is it unethical if they choose not to?

These are some of the ethics issues being raised in a controversy launched by the major league baseball veterans, now retired, who played  between 1947-1979. In those days, when free agency was just beginning and top players made six-figure salaries rather than seven or eight as they do now, a player needed four full years of  time on a big league roster to qualify for  medical benefits and an annuity. In 1980, however, new rules put in place by the Major League Baseball Players Association  granted health insurance benefits to those with just one day of service, and a pension after merely six weeks. The new benefits were not retroactive.

The players were getting increasingly richer, and thus funded far better retirement plans for themselves. Of course, the players who starred in the less lucrative era before 1979  also had less money to fall back on to begin with, but fairness can’t require each new generation of a profession to bring the wealth of past generations up to current standards: imagine CEO’s of the Seventies demanding such a thing.

The players who had missed out on the better retirement deal didn’t begin feeling mistreated until the MLB Player’s Association yielded to public opinion and the lobbying of the pre-1947 players—the ones who had no retirement benefits or pensions at all, because they pre-dated the unionization of baseball–by granting retirement benefits to the older group. They also  offered financial gifts of $10,000 apiece to the living veterans of the Negro Leagues, who had been robbed of any chance at a major league career by the sport’s half-century-long apartheid.

That meant that only 874 former players were in a benefit-less retirement limbo, not covered by the generous post-1979 benefits, and not old enough or famous enough to create public pressure on the current tycoon players to share their money just a little bit more. “Taking care of those guys [the pre-1947 group]was the absolute right thing to do,” says Steve Grilli, a spokesman for the 874. “They deserved it. Nobody would ever say they didn’t. But if you’re going to take care of those guys, why not us? I mean, come on. Who was looking out for our interests? We’re in limbo here. What’s wrong with us?” A new book by Douglas J. Gladstone, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve” is part of an effort to get the teams and Player’s Union to pony up.

Undoubtedly, they can afford it. Major League Baseball is a $6-billion-a-year industry. Average player salaries are $3.3 million and minimum player salaries are $400,000. The Texas Rangers just sold for about $600 million, and the New York Yankees have been valued at close to $2 billion. But does any of that obligate the teams and players to provide benefits for Grilli’s group? Grilli’s frustration is understandable: his career lasted a hair less than four years, putting him on the wrong side of the cut-off point. Cut-off points always feel unfair to the one who just missed, whether it is college admission or a driving test. The alternative, however, is no cut-offs at all, which means no standards or limits, and ultimate chaos. Something that is completely impractical and unworkable is not ethical.

It is not unfair for players of the pre-1979 era to have to live with the conditions they agreed to when they played. Much of their argument sounds like mere jealousy and envy, which is often expressed as the sentiment that it is unfair when life treats similar individuals disparately. Bud Poliquin, a New York reporter who interviewed Grilli, writes,

“There are ex-ballplayers who put in one, two, three, nearly four years in the American and National leagues and are getting nothing while others with one day of service are being cared for. There are discarded older shortstops and such who need, rather than want, a pension. There are men, and their families, who’ve been tossed aside for no morally-defendable reason.”

Who has been “tossed aside?” Those players haven’t had their pensions taken away, they never had them, because they didn’t bargain for them. The inclusion of the older players, from before 1947, was not the same: the group included many of the game’s greatest players, who could legitimately say that they were essential in building the industry that had made the current players so wealthy.  Leaving all the older players without any pensions or medical plans from Major League Baseball looked like ingratitude toward the men who, quite literally, helped make the teams and players rich. The sport owed them, and it was right for them to help the veteran group.  Similarly, the gifts to the surviving Negro League Players was not based on obligation, but contrition and restitution (and pretty cheap restitution at that). Major League Baseball had  cheated the black players out of jobs by pure racism. The sport owed them; indeed, it owed them a lot more than $10,000 a piece

Grilli’s group, by definition, were not stars; for the most part, they were like Grilli, a journeyman spare-part player who barely held on to his job, playing less than 20 games a year in his slightly-under four year career. The fact that players with one day of service in the big leagues today qualify for a health insurance no more entitles the Moonlight Grahams of the Seventies to the same than the million dollar salaries of today’s second-string catchers entitles retired catchers who made $30,000 a year to insist on retroactive pay at today’s pay scales. Baseball players are paid what their rarified talents are worth, and those who create today’s multi-billion dollar industry are worth much more than the players who toiled before the big cable contracts and merchandising kicked in. That today’s journeyman player has a more secure future than Grilli and the rest is many things, but it is not unfair. If this is the definition of unfair, then why wouldn’t the fair thing be for current players to underwrite pensions for everyone, in baseball or any other industry, who worked a day or more? For that matter, isn’t it similarly unfair the government provides such generous pensions to its employees, while many Americans who work equally hard (me, for example), have no pension at all?  Isn’t the fair course for the government to fund equal pensions for everyone?

No. The fair thing is for people to live with the deals they freely agreed to as conditions of their employment, and when a future employee negotiates a better deal for the work you once did, the fair thing is to say to him, “Good for you!” It would be generous and kind for the Major League teams and players to close some of the disparity in benefits; I hope they do it. Nevertheless, they have no obligation to do it, and it is not a breach of fairness if they don’t.

[Thanks to Rob Neyer for the topic.]


7 thoughts on “Obligation or Charity: Retired Baseball Player Pensions and Fairness

  1. Fair’s fair except that the mores of the times are different. Back then, nobody would have dreamed that they were “entitled” to something just because they showed up for a day of work. In today’s entitlement society, it seems that everyone is out for himself, and say “screw the public, the community, the society, the nation, and the sustainability of our way of life,” in so many words or less. In that context, the players’ unions have the balls to make the demands they do, and the general public, oblivious to the implications of making such obscene salary and benefit offers, since it’s not “their money,” see nothing wrong with that. At least, not wrong enough to bully the players into backing off. It’s just another example of the corruption of our times, and the loss of personal responsibility and obligation to society, present and future. When multiplied, this attitude is what has given us a $1.4 trillion deficit and politicians who reflect a public that doesn’t realize, as Margaret Thatcher said about liberals, “that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

    • At least the money that pays the players’ salaries and benefits are paid by the public voluntarily, and the players actually do a great deal to create a product that costs so much. Baseball players actually do create more that society values than teachers, for example…the fact that society’s values may be warped doesn’t change the fact of the value. The owners could have stuck to their lock-out in 1994, but realized that lowering salaries and benefits would require killing the golden goose. The public would rather have millionaire heroes than no heroes at all.

  2. Mr. Marshall,

    First, thanks greatly for attempting to help illuminate the issues raised by my book. While you genuinely seemed to try to be as even handed as possible, I respectfully disagree with you on one big point, namely, that the pre-1947 players were owed the monies because they, in essence, grew the game. That argument is difficult to accept, if only because you’re essentially contending that their contributions and service were more important than the contributions and service of the men who played the game from 1947-1979. I’m sorry, I just don’t follow the logic. I commend you for trying to tackle the subject, but I truly feel your POV is a flawed one.

    • Dear Doug,

      1) Thanks for writing in. 2) I have not read your book yet—only the commentary on it and Steve Grilli’s interview. But I did just order it from Amazon! 3) As I understand it, the pre-1947 group included all the pre-union players, including stars like Allie Reynolds and many of the WWII veterans who lost their careers to the war and didn’t last into the Fifties. That group, those who were still alive, can be fairly said to have grown the game, and to have a legitimate claim to respect and thanks from the players of today. 4) The group “left out in the cold,” on the other hand, consist exclusively of the players between 1947-and 1979 who didn’t vest, meaning that they played less than four years. Now, I don’t know the list of players, and there is probably among them a few genuine stars, but as a group, these are not the players who can be said to have built baseballs popularity like the pre-1947 group, which included players with long and distinguished careers.

      I think that’s a material distinction. In the 1947 group were war veterans and Hall of Famers who had no benefits at all; in the ’47-’79 group, the uncovered players 1) knew the conditions 2) were not significant to the history of the game 3) had not had, by definition, long careers.

      Many of us have worked in industries that required 5 years of service for retirement benefits to vest (myself included) —it is hard to see this as an injustice. The veterans, heroes and trailblazers of a now-wealthy industry who played for years at small salaries with no benefits at all, however, arouse legitimate sympathy.

      If my assumptions are wrong, I’ll gladly re-think the whole issue. Base on what I’ve read, however—and again, this does not yet include your book—I don’t think they are.

      • Dear Mr. Marshall,..

        I feel that I should wade in on the subject and comment on your stance reagrding post 1947 players. Although your comments regarding the pre-`1947 group are essentially true about being important to the game of baseball and helped to grow it, you have essentially said the post-1947 guys had no real impact on growing the game.

        I am one of the Major League Alumni guys trying to get these guys a pension, both pre-1947 and post 1947. How can you readily dismiss the post 1947 group and their contributions? Were you involved in the player strikes of 1972 and 1974? These strikes were for free agency and were necessary to procure it. Many of the guys who were “locked out” of spring training in 1972, like myself , lost a full year of Major League experience and pension time because the ball clubs did not have time to evaluate their young talent and therefore basically went with the previous years team after the shortened spring. This happened again in 1974.

        There was real sacrifice there in playing time and major league service which as you know counts toward a pension. What about the guys who played but were “released” just short of their pension vesting time, this happened after 1947 all too often.

        In short, all Major League players had a valuable impact on the game during their prospective playing days and should be rewarded for that with a pension.

        Can you explain to me why you begrudge a pension for the post 1947 players ??

        I await your reply!!

        It’s not fair of you to say that post 1947 players had no real impact on growth in baseball. They were the guys who layed the groundwork for “free agency” by sacrificing big league time. And in the case of Curt Flood, fell on the sword and were basically blackballed by baseball because of his efforts.

        • Dear Craig:

          First of all, I saw you pitch, more than once. I have your baseball card. I’m honored.

          Second, please don’t misinterpret what I wrote. I wouldn’t deny the pre-1947 group, if it was up to me. I think the best and most ethical thing would be to include them. What I said was that the comparison with the group before 1947, before the union, was not a good one, and it isn’t; and that the fact that MLB and the players yielded to public relations realities with that group and the Negro League players did not create an obligation to include your group, and it doesn’t generosity to one group does not create an obligation to be generous to all groups.

          But the strike argument is a good one, at least as it applies to your generation of players. and I will think about how that fits in, and revise ny post accordingly. I had not examined it from that perspective. I would say that that is a much stronger argument, one of shared gratitude for advancing the cause of fair working conditions, than the one advanced by Steve Grilli, which was, essentially, “you did it for them, so you have to do it for us.” They don’t have to. They probably should. And your comment gives me what I need to talk about that.

          Thank you.

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