A GREAT view of the field at AT&T Park in Chattanooga during their pre-season open house!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"A Bitter Cup of Coffee" by Douglas J. Gladstone Q & A

I mentioned the book "A Bitter Cup of Coffee" by Douglas J. Gladstone earlier.  He and I exchanged emails about his book, and about the situations with former MLB players who played before 1980 and are not eligible for certain benefits. 

One thing that really impressed me about Mr. Gladstone was the fact that I did not feel that he was pushing his book.  I certainly feel that he is proud of the great book he produced but I felt that his agenda was to push an awareness of these great older players who deserve more.  He cares about this issue and he has sincerely done something to promote it.

Doug Gladstone agreed to answer some questions for me about his book.  I really enjoyed his responses.  Please, read this entire exchange carefully.  I love Doug's discussion of how players today don't have to drive UPS trucks during the off season- thanks to men like Steve Grilli.  As Gladstone points out, the superstars of today can really enjoy the easy life because the guys before them sacrificed.

So- enjoy the discussion.  I sent Doug some questions and comments.  His responses are in bold.

Here ya go........................................

I think many people would love to brag about having a brief career as a MLB player. Some might even say that ANY baseball player has done something most of us can only fantasize about. Why should the average Joe be concerned about whether or not former pro athletes get a pension?

I think this story has resonated with people because we've all at some point or another in our lives felt the pain and sting of victimization, that other individuals or groups were getting the breaks that we perceive should have gone our way but didn't. That's a raw human emotion which is very powerful.

Also, and this might sound a bit hokey, but I was a huge fan of the television series "The Fugitive" growing up. All David Janssen, who portrayed Dr. Richard Kimble, wanted was to prove that he was the victim of a terrible error of our judicial system. As the narrator, William Conrad, reminded us week after week, the protagonist was a victim of blind justice.

Similarly, all I wanted to try to do was tip the scales of justice back into a level playing field so that these men could get the compensation I and a lot of other folks believed they were deserving of. In some small way, I hope my book helped focus attention on this issue to the point where MLB decided at long last to do right by these men.

Why do you feel this is a cause worthy of attention?

I saw an injustice being perpetrated against a group of senior citizens. Forget that they were ballplayers. They’re old people who were being taken advantage of and neglected. These were the men who gave me countless hours of entertainment growing up, they were the boyhood heroes of my youth. And I thought it was just tragic that their story wasn't being told.

You mention in your book the fact that many men who played in the Negro Leagues now receive a life annuity. Do you feel this was more of a publicity stunt by MLB to look good?

In 1993, MLB decided to award 34 veterans of the Negro Leagues and their spouses health insurance. And you know what? Props to MLB for doing that. The late Commissioner Giamatti was fond of saying, “in matters of race, in matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”

And obviously, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, MLB was just a mirror institution for the social segregation that was going on in this country. So MLB did right by trying to remedy the injustices of the past.

Then, in 1997, MLB awarded 29 veterans of the Negro Leagues life annuities totaling between $7,500 and $10,000 per year. Again, I give a big thumbs up to MLB for doing that. They also awarded Caucasian men who played prior to 1947 — the year the pension fund was established — quarterly $2,500 payments.

And finally, in 2004, MLB awarded additional veterans of the Negro Leagues $40,000 for four years, or $350 a month for life.

What people fail to realize is that many of the men who are still being taken advantage of are persons of color. Herb Washington, Wayne Cage, Billy Harrell, Aaron Pointer, to name but a few....they're all African-Americans. That's why this issue is not a racial one for me. I've attempted to frame the debate from an employment benefits perspective, not a racial one. You magnanimously give health benefits to one group, you better damn well give similar and comparable benefits to those men who actually worked for you.

You bring up Jim Bunning early in the book- mentioning the fact that he did not get back to you when you requested some comments from him about the pension. Do you feel that he owes it to the players to comment on the pensions?

I would think that, as the former Chairman of the House Ways & Means SubCommittee on Social Security, Bunning would have been particularly empathetic to the needs of this group, given that fact that he was a Hall of Fame pitcher. So it's mind boggling that he didn't go to bat for his former comrades in arms.

Some of the players are very interesting characters! Have you been tempted, as a writer, to write more about these guys individually? Mike Colbern comes to mind......

Actually, the genesis of the book was as a result of an interview with Jimmy Qualls, the former Chicago Cub who broke up Tom Seaver's perfect game on July 9, 1969. I was doing a sort of 'Where Are They Now?' story on him for Baseball Digest when he just casually, very innocently, mentioned that he wasn't receiving a pension. And that's how the whole thing started.
Since then, I've done a number of articles or posts on a lot of these guys. Three that come to mind are David Clyde, Gary Neibauer and Carmen Fanzone.  They all have great stories to tell. And I'm trying to get as many as I can out there.

I love the quote from Camilli on page 90 about some current players feeling that these guys are looking for a hand out. He says that the current ones got the hand out when the older players set the table for them. Are there any current players really pushing for the pre-80 non vested players now?  It would be nice to hear about it if some of them are trying to be supportive.

Not to sound cheeky but, when you find one, he'll be the first.
The former infielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, Craig Counsell -- he retired after last season -- was on the players' union executive committee. Not surprisingly, Craig Counsell is a VERY pro-labor guy. I mean, unions advocate for all the hard-working men and women, and their families, who are paying the taxes in this country. I’ve got no problem with unions. They support us working stiffs.

However, while I commended Counsell last year for speaking out against attempts by Republican Governor Scott Walker to strip Wisconsin's public employees of their right to collective bargaining, he and the players union have clearly dropped the ball with respect to this issue. That's why the statement he made in the official press release announcing last April's agreement was such a joke. Counsell said that, as a current player, "it is truly an honor to be able to take this step and help pre-1980 players."

That's just lip service, plain and simple. And while Michael Weiner, the new executive director of the players' union, has done way more for these men than Don Fehr ever did while he was in charge, more can be done. And more should be done.

In my observation, it seems that the 80s was the time when ball players REALLY started making the big money- and it has snowballed from there. I remember reading one of Gary Carter's biographies where he talks about guys he played with (in the 70s) still having to have winter jobs to get by.

Sure, when I was growing up, all the ballplayers either sold insurance, ran restaurants or drove cabs to supplement their income. Perhaps most famously, Richie Hebner, of the Pirates, worked as a gravedigger. That's right, he dug ditches in cemeteries. Steve Grilli -- the father of current Pirate hurler Jason Grilli -- drove a UPS truck during the offseason to help make ends meet. You think we'll ever see A-Rod drive a UPS truck?  No, because he doesn't have to, because the Grillis and the Clydes and the Qualls' and all those other men who played between 1947 and 1979 were the guys who went without paychecks so that today's players can make what they're making. All those players who scored lucrative contracts the past season or two -- Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols all come to mind -- they owe the guys I wrote about a debt of gratitude. They were the ones who went without salaries, who endured labor stoppages, all so today's crop of players can command the ridiculously obscene salaries they're getting.
All I'm saying is that maybe it's about time that today's players recognize that sacrifice, and not be content with merely throwing 'em a bone. Cut these men in so that they can enjoy a slice of the pie. Baseball is an $8 billion industry -- there's certainly enough money to go around.

I did not know the story about Sam Jethroe trying to get his pension! Do you know of any other former Negro League players who tried similar tactics to get pensions and who may have also influenced the owners to pay the Negro leaguers their life annuity?

I know Wilmer Fields, who played for the Homestead Grays and was active in the Negro League Baseball Players Association, was a leader in the fight for compensation, as was Bob Mitchell, who pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs.

When players negotiated in 1980, there seemed to be very little concern for the pre-80 players. Even then, few noted this issue. You mention that even historian Charles Korr did not feel this was "on anyone's radar at the time." He did his research around 2000. Why do you think this was not as big of an issue at that time?

I don't think a lot of people really appreciated what happened when Ray Grebey presented Marvin Miller and Fehr with that offer during the strike negotiations in May 1980. Essentially, if the union agreed to soften its position on the direct compensation to the clubs of free agents, the league would allow all men whose careers began after 1980 to be eligible for health coverage after only one day on a major league roster and a lifetime annuity after only 43 game days of service. Goodness, that's only a quarter of a season. If you or I were called up to the Show in mid-August and just sat on a bench till October 1st, we'd be eligible for a pension! Now that's what I call a sweetheart of a deal.
But the problem was they either forgot or purposely didn't make this arrangment retroactive, and that's why all these guys I wrote about who played between 1947 and 1979 are on the outside looking in.
In the book, Mike Marshall, the former Dodger reliever who won the Cy Young Award in 1974, says that Mr. Miller used to keep a lot of facts and important information from the players. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. In my book, Mr. Miller strenuously objected to that allegation.

Why do you think some guys who would benefit from the pension, like Rod Gaspar, seem indifferent at this point?

A lot of these guys have told me that they're not young Turks anymore, that if they were still in their salad days, they'd fight harder to remedy the situation. Truthfully, after more than three decades, I think most are just grateful for any amount of money they get at this point.

Your book came out in 2010.  At the end of the book, you bring up talks that will happen in 2011.  What happened in 2011?

On April 21, 2011, announced with much fanfare that men such as Carl Bouldin 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.
That's not so bad, you're probably saying to yourself. Actually, it is. A guy like Kenny Wright, who pitched for the Royals and the Yankees, and who is credited with 3.25 years of service, got a gross check for $8,125 recently. After taxes are taken out, however, his net is only $5,900.

And remember, since it's a life annuity, when Wright passes, that payment passes with him. So his widow gets nothing. And that's not right; it's terribly wrong.

Am I elated that these men are at long last finally receiving some type of payment for their time in the game? Of course. This was a wrong that should have been righted years ago. In fact, I've said on numerous occasions that this whole disgraceful chapter in labor relations was a terrible inequity and injustice that stained baseball's history.

Significantly, I think the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association should share a lot of the fault here. Their leadership doesn't want to do anything more for these guys. If they really wanted to advocate on behalf of their constituency, they would. They would bang the drum...and loudly. But they're never going to. Sadly, the alumni association is the quintessential example of an old boys network, and they have no intention to rock the boat. They're just happy with this token gesture of support.

Also, towards the end of your book you bring up the Legendary Nellie King.  I think your book must have come out right before his passing.  I think we can all agree that he had a great long life…. But he is one of those guys that feels more like a pal than a celebrity baseball guy.  I loved his book too.  Any thoughts on Nellie and his situation relating to your book here in 2012?

Nellie died in early August 2010. And I'm very good friends now with both Amy and Laurie, his daughters. And I really believe that he went to his grave thinking that MLB and the union had turned their backs on him. But what is even more unseemly is that he served this country, he defended our nation's liberties and freedoms, in the Korean War. A guy like him deserved to be treated better if only for that reason and that reason alone. A lot of these men -- Frank Fanovich, George Yankowski, Nellie, to name but a few -- they all served our country in the armed forces. Yet this is how we're treating our veterans?  MLB and the union ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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