Major League Baseball strays from “The Good Book”

Credit: Twins Daily

Credit: AP Photo

If it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, it’s certainly not a good idea to upset a man of God.

Former Minnesota Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, who spent his entire career with the team before becoming a pastor, now resides with his wife, Debbie, in Bratislava; the couple runs the non-profit Good Sports International in Slovakia.

Johnson, who received his Masters of Divinity at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, appeared in 129 games (all but one of them in relief) for the Twins over five years, from 1974 to 1978. In 273 and one-third innings, he won 23 games, saved 22 others, and had a sterling Earned Run Average of 3.39.

That’s an excellent resume. But what’s not so lovely is that Pastor Johnson is among the 626 remaining retirees who do not receive pensions from having played Major League Baseball (MLB). And he’s not exactly thrilled that he’s being taken advantage of by the league.

“The collective of pre-1980 non-vested players grows smaller every day,” he told me in a recent email, “and I’m confident I speak for all former players (and spouses of those who are no longer with us) in expressing gratitude for your efforts to bring awareness to this situation.”

Regular readers of my columns here know that a lot of former Padres — the ballplayers, not priests — are affected by this dirty little secret. Pitcher Lowell Palmer and Harold Reynolds‘ older brother Don Reynolds are just a few that are being victimized by MLB.

Harold — who earns good money at MLB Network — won’t even talk about this. He has the platform to do it. But he won’t go to bat for his sibling or anyone else. But that’s another matter entirely.

For the most part, baseball players nowadays are set for life. Vested retirees can earn as much as $225,000.

Except for men like Pastor Johnson. They only get $625 for every 43 game days of service they accrued, $10,000.

Unlike a real pension, the non-qualified retirement benefit the pre-1980 retirees receive cannot be passed on to any of the players’ spouses, loved ones, or designated beneficiaries; when the man dies, the payment dies with him.

Pastor Johnson and the other men are in this position because, during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players’ strike was averted when the negotiator for the league made the following offer to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA). Going forward, every player would automatically qualify for a pension after 43 game days of service, and he’d be eligible for health coverage after only one game day.

The problem for all the pre-1980 players was the proposal was never made retroactive.

To date, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up anymore of the collective pie. Even though the current players’ welfare and benefits fund is valued at more than $3.5 billion, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark — a former San Diego high school hoops star — 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 impoverished that they cannot afford adequate health care coverage.

I know Pastor Johnson’s current work transcends money, but why take advantage of a man of the cloth this way? After all, isn’t there a good book out there that says something about fair play, kindness, and helping those who are less fortunate being pretty essential character traits?

But I’m pretty sure the great newspaperman Heywood Campbell Broun also once wrote that sports “doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”

What does that say about the folks running MLB and the union?

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Doug Gladstone on Twitter
Doug Gladstone
Freelance magazine writer.
Advocate for MLB players rights

11 thoughts on “Major League Baseball strays from “The Good Book”

  1. Doug , being one of the 600 and some players pre-1980 I applaud your efforts in trying to help us. Just only seems right we should of been Grandfathered in. We gave the same effort as the players post 1980.

  2. This is not a great article. a little disjointed and probably way too short.

    Tom played baseball until he was 27. Do you know of any career where they work 8 years and a pension sets them up for life? Maybe in today’s professional baseball, but not in any other career. Jean above is spot on.

    Tom is 68 now, which means he potentially had 40 years to save for retirement. His current job is likely one of the few he could have taken that would still offer a pension. Almost no one gets a pension anymore and if they do, it sure isn’t much before the 10 year mark. At least this guy has a small pension from Baseball, likely one from the cloth and social security. 3 more retirement incomes than the millennial are projected to get.

    1. BK,

      You’re welcome to your opinion,; I learned long ago not to mix it up with folks who want to engage with me.

      The fact is, Tom doesn’t receive a MLB pension. What he does receive every February is technically referred to as a non-qualified retirement payment. Unlike a real pension, which can be passed on to a loved one or designated beneficiary, the payment Tom receives won’t be passed on to his wife, Debbie, when he dies.

      If you want to learn more about this egregious injustice, I recommend you read all the other articles I’ve written for EVT about this topic.

      1. Hi Doug,
        Thanks for responding. My tone above probably came off harsher than intended but the points still stand.

        “real pension” – Many pensions have several different payout options, including single life payouts for a greater initial benefit. Again, he and his wife had 40 years to plan for retirement the way that everyone in today’s age must. Likely he has 2 “real” pensions from the cloth and SS. I guess i don’t see the egregious part. Is it egregious for companies today to have people work 40 years for them with no pension? Why does Tom’s 8 years count for more when he had so much opportunity to gain elsewhere?

        The comment on the article quality was for sentences like this one “They only get $625 for every 43 game days of service they accrued, $10,000.” Also, I don’t see a ton of reasoning supporting the claim that this was such a massive injustice (Hence, the comment on length) I think I’ve read all of your other articles previously.

        Your primary claim seems to be (Correct me if I’m wrong) that because players today receive a pension, all should. I would counter and say that baseball is one of the very few institutions that offer anything of a pension at all. Why is it a right? Do you view all modern day employment an injustice? Should players today that make millions (Obviously not the average player) have to fund their own retirement?

        1. BK,

          I can’t comment about other institutions and companies in the private sector. All I’m going to focus on is baseball pre-1980 and post-1980. Let’s say you were called up to the Padres on August 15 of this year. If you just rode the pines and stayed on an active roster for 43 game days, you’d qualify for a MLB pension at age 62 that is currently worth $3,589. And that benefit could be passed on to whoever your loved one or designated beneficiary is.

          But Tom Johnson– who had way more service credit than you — can’t say the same. When he goes, so goes his allowance. His wife Debbie doesn’t get it. You can not tell me that is fair.

          I recognize that this is a water cooler discussion, but comparing MLB pensions to those offered or not offered in the private or public sector is like comparing apples to oranges. All I’ve tried to do for the last decade is get these men the monies I and a lot of folks think they’re deserving of. Prior to April 2011, they got squat. But it is my continued belief that MLB can and should do more for them. The pre-1947 players — those who played prior to the establishment of the pension fund– received a straight $10K in 1996. Certainly I believe the pre-1980 players like Tom should too.

          Doug

          1. Can you sit there and say that it’s fair the full retirement age was moved up for social security? Can you say that receiving the greater of 2 social security benefits at a spouses passing is fair rather than the survivor receiving both?

            I applaud your attempt, i just don’t see any strong justification around it. Sounds to me like he had 4+ decades to plan his own retirement, is receiving 2 pensions and has another flat payout from his playing time in his 20s. He also lived in an era where real estate and education were about 10x more affordable than they are today. The rest of us would be lucky to have any retirement benefit for 40+ years of work without specifically saving it ourselves.

            Again, trying to help people you feel have been looked over by the system is a beautiful thing. If your only argument is that other people received a benefit he doesn’t, i don’t know that you’ll convince many. Best of luck.

          2. We could go back and forth about this and, as appealing as that might be, like I said earlier, I don’t engage with commentators for precisely this reason. You have your opinion and I have mine.

          3. Currently, I’d say the difference in our willingness to engage is the amount of information we’re using to support our case.

            I’ve used several examples, where your primary is that others are receiving it. Isn’t the point of your writing to bring light to something and change opinions? I commented to see if there was more to this and keep an open mind, not just to disagree.

            But, if you don’t have further cases or…just like to keep your blinders on, that’s up to you. Good luck in the overall endeavor.

  3. I don’t mean to sound callous, but the pre 1980 players are in the same boat as most Americans. The blame is on the union reps for not doing due diligence. If these same men worked years for any other business without investing in a 401K they would be in the same position they are in now. The same position most non-union workers are today. Pensions are a thing of the past.

    1. Jean,

      You are correct, the fault lies entirely with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association as well as the Major league Baseball Players’ Alumni Association for not doing more for these men.

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