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As Black History Month Is Celebrated, Former Brewer Bernie Smith is Without a MLB Pension

(1970-71 Milwaukee Brewer Bernie Smith; Photo: Out Of The Park Baseball)

(Editor's Note: This is a guest post by author Douglas J. Gladstone, who has written about the plight of financially marginalized ex-ballplayers in his book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee.)


As MLB prepares to usher in its new season on Sunday, March 31, our national pastime is an $8 billion industry. The average player reportedly makes $3.29 million. And, in the latest collective bargaining agreement unveiled in November 2011, the union representing today's current crop of ballplayers managed to negotiate a raise in the minimum salary each player makes to $480,000, a 16 percent increase over the $416,000 they used to earn.

Unfortunately, just under 900 men who played between 1947-79 find themselves on the outside looking in. That's because they didn't satisfy the pension eligibility requirements you needed then. At that time, you needed four years to vest. Since 1980, however, all that's been required is one game day of service credit to qualify for the league's health insurance plan when you're retired, and 43 game days worth of service — essentially a quarter of a season — to be eligible for a pension benefit.

Mind you, that's not how many games you appeared in. That's how many days you were on a MLB roster.

And, though MLB and the union could retroactively restore or, at the very least, grandfather each of these men back into pension coverage, they've decided not to.

What's wrong with this picture?

All this money is being thrown around nowadays, and MLB can't do the decent thing to support a bunch of its retirees who don't collect pensions? These days, men like Ryan Howard ($125 million over five years), Matt Holliday ($120 million over seven years) and Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million per year) are commanding what some would perceive are ridiculously obscene salaries.

Mind you, I don’t begrudge Holliday or Howard or A-Roid their hefty paychecks. They’re obviously talented, gifted athletes. They should be rewarded for their skills and their contributions to the game. It is, after all, their good fortune to play at a time when owners are, in fact, doling out that kind of money.

But what about a guy like Bill Burbach, the former Yankee hurler now residing in Johnson City, Tennessee? A native of Dickeyville, Wisconsin, Burbach was the 19th overall selection in the very first amateur draft in 1965.

Or how about Bruce Christensen, the Madison, Wisconsin native who played for the then-California Angels? Christensen was at shortstop when Nolan Ryan pitched the first of his no-hitters.

Some might suggest that men such as Burbach and Christensen were part of the generation of players who helped pave the path permitting Holliday, Howard, A-Roid and Ryan Braun to earn their ridiculous salaries. How come neither the league nor the union wants to compensate them for their contributions to the game?

My 2010 book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve, took the league and the players union to task over this issue.

Here's, in part, what the Midwest Book Review had to say about the book in its official review, which was published in May 2010:

A wealth of interviews with former players, including heart-touching stories of the hard times some of them have endured, peppers this thoughtful and timely account, which gains especial relevance in light of the current debate about the state of health care in America.

And here's what Edward F. Coyle, the executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said about the book:

Mr. Gladstone does an excellent job of weaving these players' individual stories into a book that is also a social cause. He should be commended for continuing to look out for these men.

Legally, of course, MLB doesn't have to do anything for these men; I'm the first one to acknowledge that. They're not vested, the league doesn't have to negotiate over their situation, and even the union doesn't have to be their legal advocate.

Because of all the press my book has received, in April 2011 MLB and the union announced with much fanfare that men such as Christensen and Burbach would receive life annuity payments of up to $10,000 per year for their service credit and contributions to the game. Each affected player is guaranteed $625 per quarter of service, up to four years, or 16 quarters. The league and union later agreed to extend these life annuity payments through 2016.

Meanwhile, know what the average MLB pension is worth? As of 2006, it was $32,000 a year. 

Let me put it in perspective for you. A man like George "The Stork" Theodore, the wildly popular outfielder who played for the New York Mets in 1973 and 1974, is credited with 2 1/4 years of service.  Consequently, under the terms of the payment plan, his gross check is $5,625. But after taxes, you know what his payment is? A pittance of $3,700.

Also among the retired players currently being hosed by MLB is former Milwaukee Brewer Bernie Smith.

Smith is among the men who received monies in September 2011; a second life annuity was disbursed to him last January, while his third payment was supposed to have been disbursed to him this month.

Born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana in September 1941, Calvin Bernard "Bernie" Smith attended Southern University, the historically black college located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and played for the Jaguars of the Southwestern Atlantic Conference in 1960 and 1961. He and Hall of Famer Lou Brock both played for the Jaguars in 1960.

After bouncing around the Mets’ minor league system, Smith made it to The Show as a member of the Brewers in 1970, when he went 21 for 76, including three doubles, one triple and one homerun. All told, in his abbreviated career, Smith only appeared in 59 games; he came up to the plate 112 times, scored nine runs and was credited with nine runs batted in.

In 1973, Smith managed the Danville Warriors, a Class A farm team in Danville, Illinois affiliated with the Brewers, and guided them to a 66-57 record in the Midwest League. The Warriors lost the Midwest League Finals that season.

Right now, Smith and all the other retired players are losers too. So if you want to voice your support for this forgotten Brewer, as well as men such as Burbach and Christensen, please let Nick Michalski, of this great blog, know your feelings. You can also give a shout out to the following:

Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball
245 Park Avenue, 31st Floor
New York, NY 10167

Major League Baseball Players Association
12 East 49th Street, 24th Floor
New York, NY 10017

The author of "A Bitter Cup of Coffee," which is available via Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or by telephoning Word Association Publishers directly at 1-800-827-7903, Douglas J. Gladstone by day is an assistant public information specialist with the New York State & Local Retirement System. He is also a freelance writer whose baseball work has appeared in Baseball Digest and Seamheads.com.  Feel free to contact Doug by sending him an email at abittercupofcoffee@gmail.com.