Submitted by Douglas J. Gladstone
To hear officials from both sides tell it, Major League Baseball (MLB) and the union representing its players, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) are positively giddy about the new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was agreed upon last November and ratified 29-1 by the baseball owners last December.
Sure, the unprecedented streak of labor peace the game’s enjoyed since 1994 will now continue through 2021. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s singing Kumbayah at a campfire.
There are approximately 500 former players not vested in the pension plan who will tell you that things aren’t alright, that they’re being shafted and that today’s players are unappreciative, greedy mercenaries with short memories who are getting rich off the sacrifices that were made on their behalf more than four decades ago.
One of these former players is Bill Murphy, who played for the New York Mets in 1966.
Nicknamed “Murph the Surf,” the 72-year-old Bill Murphy now resides on 66th Avenue Court West, in University Place, Washington. He turns 73 in May.
Born in Pineville, Louisiana, Murphy appeared in 84 games for the Mets in his abbreviated career in the big leagues. An outfielder, he came up to the plate 135 times, collected 31 hits, including four doubles, one triple and three homeruns, scored 15 runs and knocked in 13.
Murphy and the other men impacted by this situation all receive up to $10,000 in nonqualified retirement payments for their time in “The Show,” based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.
In brief, for every quarter of service a man has accrued, he gets $625. Four quarters (one year) totaled $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four years) amounted to the maximum, $10,000.
And that payment is before taxes were taken out.
So former Mariner pitcher Rich Hinton, who is credited with 3 ½ years of service, has been receiving gross checks of $8,725 for the past six years. After taxes, his take home is $6,262.
Here’s a quick history lesson:
The player pension fund was established on April 1, 1947. You had to be on an active major league roster on that date to qualify for a pension. At that time, the rules stipulated that you only needed five years to retire. Twenty-two years later, that threshold was lowered to four years. Therefore, effective 1969, all you needed was four years to qualify for a pension.
Now to the heart of the matter: during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players’ walkout was averted when the league and the union agreed that players would be eligible for health benefits after only one day of service and a pension after 43 days — roughly one-quarter of a season.
The problem? The proposal was never made retroactive.
If Murphy and the other pre-1980 players had attained enough service credit, the current IRS pension limitation is $210,000. But that’s certainly not what these men are getting for having played the game they love.
Oh, get this — these payments also stop when the player dies. Their spouses or other designated beneficiaries don’t continue to get them. So when Murphy passes on, the payment he is currently receiving won’t be passed on to his wife, Lola Mae.
Makes you all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?
So while MLB and the union are singing the praises of their new CBA, and letting it be known that the minimum salary will rise to $555,000 by 2019, and that the owners are kicking in $200 million to fund the pension and welfare benefits of the players, or that each member of the Chicago Cubs who was voted a full post season share for winning the World Series received $369,000 last year, or that ballplayers who participate in special events in London, Asia and the Dominican Republic will each get $15,000 to $100,000, or that the minimum salary rose to $4.4 million, remember that men like Murphy endured work stoppages so that free agency could happen for today’s players.
Men such as Clayton Kershaw, who is due $32.17 million this year. As a result of the seven year, $215 million contract he signed in 2014, Kershaw will make $8,959.83 for every pitch he throws. That’s an average of $33,778.55 per batter, $130,145.33 per inning, or $931,822.32 per start, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
In a close to $10 billion industry largely fueled by the $12.4 billion in licensing fees that Fox, TBS and ESPN are paying MLB, the MLBPA doesn’t want to divvy up more of the pie for these old-timers, choosing instead to nickel and dime the guys who grew the game.
Guys like “Murph the Surf.”
By the way, “Come By Here,” which is what Kumbayah actually means, was originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need.
MLB and the union would be well served to remember that.
Douglas J. Gladstone is the author of A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve (Word Association Publishers, 2010).