Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and his wife, Eireann Dolan, are a very politically astute, media savvy couple. They’ve spoken up on behalf of Syrian refugees, sponsored the Oakland Athletics’ first LGBT Pride Night and written opinion pieces about military veterans.
Because he’s such a quality, standup guy, Doolittle now is needed for another cause — to go to bat for the 641 men who do not get pensions for having played Major League Baseball (MLB) because they didn’t accrue four years of service credit, which was what ballplayers who played between 1947 – 1979 needed to be eligible for the pension plan, and all they receive are non-qualified annuities based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.
In brief, for every quarter of service a player accrued on an active MLB roster, he gets $625. Four quarters (one baseball season) totals $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four baseball seasons) amounts to the maximum, $10,000. And that payment is before taxes are taken out.
When the player dies, the payment is not permitted to be passed on to a designated beneficiary, like a spouse or other loved one. And the player is not covered under the MLB’s health care umbrella coverage plan, either.
By contrast, a player who played AFTER 1980 is eligible for health coverage after one game day. And he’s eligible for a pension after 43 game days. And the payment can be passed on to a loved one or designated recipient.
According to the IRS, the maximum pension is $220,000 a year. None of these players would come close to surpassing that threshold. These 641 men are all being penalized for playing in the majors at the wrong time.
Sean Doolittle’s teammate Ryan Madson has familial lineage in this fight. Madson’s uncle happens to be Steve Barr, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox, in 1974 and 1975 and the Texas Rangers in 1976. Unlike his nephew, who will receive a pension from Major League Baseball (MLB) when he hangs up his spikes, Barr is actually one of 641 men currently not receiving an MLB pension. Barr, who turns 67 in September, doesn’t receive a traditional pension from his tenure as a Major Leaguer. So none of Mr. Barr’s loved ones, including his wife, Katherine Ann, nor his son, Tobey, will receive that payment when he dies. These men are also not eligible to be covered under the league’s umbrella health insurance plan.
During his playing career with the Red Sox and Rangers, Mr. Barr appeared in 24 games, 13 of which were starts. In 83 and two–third innings, he recorded three lifetime victories and four complete games. These days, those statistics would be enough for him to receive a pension.
Does Madson know about the way his uncle is being treated? If he does not, why not? If he does know, shame on him.
This is an injustice that must be talked about, including the writers and columnists at the Washington Post. Sports editors Matthew Vita and Matthew Rennie refuse to acknowledge my emails. Marty Baron wrote to me, but wasn’t encouraging. What makes it more unseemly is that the national pastime is doing very well financially. MLB recently announced that its revenue was up 325 percent from 1992, and that it has made $500 million since 2015. What’s more, the average value of the each of the 30 clubs is up 19 percent from 2016, to $1.54 billion.
All the men without MLB pensions are in this position because, during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players strike was averted when 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 qualify for health coverage after only one game day.
The problem for all the pre-1980 players was the proposal was never made retroactive.
The one-time players’ representative for the Athletics, Sean Doolittle two years ago was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for his support of a number of charities, including Operation Finally Home, a nonprofit dedicated to providing housing for U.S. Military veterans and their families and Swords to Ploughshares, a Bay Area group devoted to helping veterans with housing and employment.
Doolittle’s father is a retired Air Force veteran, and his seventh cousin is pilot Jimmy Doolittle, famous for the Doolittle Raid of Japan during World War 2.
In a recent interview, Doolittle reportedly told the New York Times that, “When I was a kid, my parents would say, ‘Baseball is what you do, but that’s not who you are’ — like that may be my job, but that’s not the end all, be-all. I feel I may even be able to help other people because of it.”
To date, the MLBPA has been loath to help these men by divvying up anymore of the collective pie. Even though Forbes recently reported that the current players’ pension and welfare fund is valued at $2.7 billion, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark — the first former player ever to serve as leader of the union — 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 poor that they cannot afford adequate health care coverage.
So this is my pitch to Sean Doolittle: tell Clark you want to bring some relief off the diamond as well as on the field. Tell him you want to go to bat for these neglected men.
It would be your best and most important save of the season.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a New York-based freelance writer who authored the book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.