Baseball's pension pains

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

TORONTO - He introduces himself, when in Toronto, as the career Blue Jays earned run average leader.

And he’s not fibbing.

Steve Grilli just doesn’t mention the fact that his Jays’ career consisted of 2.1 scoreless innings in his one appearance against the 1979 Boston Red Sox.

Grilli’s Toronto ERA amounts to the same as his Players’ Association pension, despite the fact he toiled more than two years in the majors.

Career ERA with the Jays 0.00.

Lifetime major-league pension: $0.00.

“I pitched 11 years in the minors, two in the majors, scouted five for the St. Louis Cardinals and what do I have to show for 18 years in baseball?” Grilli asks from Baldwinsville, N.Y.

“Like Italians say: ‘Stugots’ ... nothing.”

Grilli is one of 872 retired major leaguers who played between 1947 and ’79 but did not have four years in to qualify for a pension.

Players who entered the majors after 1980 needed one day of service time for health benefits and 43 days to be eligible for a pension.

“I’ll work until they call my name for the escalator upstairs,” said Grilli, 60, an insurance broker, owner of the A Change of Pace tavern in Syracuse and a broadcaster for the triple-A Syracuse Chiefs.

Current major leaguers have told Grilli that, had he qualified, his pension would be $30,000 US per year.

Now, thanks to an excellent book written by Douglas Gladstone entitled A Bitter Cup of Coffee (Word Association Publishers), the lost pension issue has been brought to the forefront again.

Few knew this many major-leaguers, players who helped create today’s billion-dollar industry, were without pensions.

Gladstone, a Glen Falls, N.Y.-based author, exposes the hole in the floor.

* * *

Lefty Dennis DeBarr appeared in 14 games for the 1977 Jays. DeBarr, 57, does not have a pension.

Promoted from triple-A Toledo, DeBarr made his debut with the Jays, May 14, when manager Roy Hartsfield summoned him in a 13-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins. DeBarr got Mike Cubbage and Rich Chiles on ground balls, then allowed singles to Larry Hisle, Disco Danny Ford and Rob Wilfong.

“The Players’ Association should take care of its own,” said BeBarr, from Freemont, Calif. “You get out of the game and no one knows you exist. Legally, they don’t have to give us anything. I’m sure they’d appreciate something from us, if the shoe was on the other foot.

“Negro League players who played a year or so were given pensions in 1997, but it’s tough to use that as an argument. If baseball had allowed Negro Leaguers to play, they’d have played long enough to earn pensions.”

DeBarr was running in the outfield at Exhibition Stadium in June of ’77 when he spotted Reggie Jackson, the New York Yankees outfielder. DeBarr, like Jackson, grew up in the Oakland area.

Jackson called the rookie over and told him: “You know there’s no difference between you and I, except I’m making millions and you’re making the minimum ($19,500). You’ll get there.”

DeBarr came on in relief that day, June 30, fanning Jackson for his first big-league strikeout.

DeBarr’s lone decision came July 11 at Tiger Stadium — a 9-7 loss in which he worked five innings.

“It took so long to get there (nine years in the minors) and to not have a pension is depressing,” DeBarr said. “I had the opportunity. I was traded to the Cubs, traded to the Indians. I didn’t perform.”

DeBarr remembers that 1977 spring in Dunedin when pitching coach Bob Miller told a group: “See those guys across the street working construction? If you pitchers don’t pull your socks up, that’s where you’ll work.”

After retiring following the 1979 season, DeBarr worked in construction. He was a drywall taper for 25 years until he went on disability in January.

* * *

Tom Bruno pitched 12 games for the 1977 Jays.

Bruno, 57, does not have a pension.

After pitching in 1976 with the Kansas City Royals, Bruno made his debut in the third inning of the Jays’ 13th game, replacing Bill Singer with the Jays down 4-1 to the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.

Bruno allowed a run-scoring double to Ford and retired Wilfong to end the inning.

Bruno was not a charm for Jays fans ... they lost 11 of the 12 games he appeared in, the only win a July 11, 5-4 decision over Seattle.

“I’m a Catholic. When you go to the church to get a divorce, you get an annulment, it’s like it never happened,” Bruno said from Pierre, S.D.

“I’m like marriage: You might find my numbers in the big leagues, but it’s like I never happened. To my own union and Major League Baseball, I never existed.”

Bruno had a 1.99 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978, appearing in 18 games and 27 the next year. He paid union dues for three-plus years. In 1980, he was released by manager Whitey Herzog on the final day of the spring training.

“If I get one more day that season, I’m fine,” said Bruno, a guide and outfitter on Lake Ohae where he takes people fishing for walleye (“You guys call them pickerel.”)

“If I spent more time studying hitters than studying the Severn River in Gravenhurst, I’d have done better in Toronto,” said Bruno.

He points out how players with similar experience — before and after him — were awarded pensions:

- As of October, 1997, those who played prior to 1947 began receiving quarterly $2,500 payments totaling $10,000 a year. The pension plan was established April 1, 1947 and players had to be on a roster at the start of that season to qualify. Pre-1947 players successfully argued that because their careers ended before the plan began, including Dolph Camilli, the 1941 NL MVP, they deserved payments.

- Negro leagues players began receiving $7,500-$10,000-a-year payments in January 1997. To be eligible, players had to either play in the Negro leagues for a minimum one season before 1948 or play a combined four years in the Negro leagues and majors before 1979, according to Gladstone. In 2004, more ex-Negro leaguers were given payments, referred to as charitable contributions. Players who never played in the majors were given an option of accepting pensions totaling $375 per month ($4,500 a year) for life or $10,000 a year for four years.

“Even if they don’t give us a dime, they should acknowledge us,” Bruno said. “Don’t treat us like we were never there, We’re the forgotten people. It would make my life better if I was to get what I was entitled to. Fans think we’re making millions or ‘gazillions’. We helped pave the way.

“Why should people like me be left out? A guy plays for 43 days in 1980. He’s vested? Baseball knows what the right thing to do is.”

In South Dakota, Bruno baseball cards continually arrive in the mail. He signs them all and writes: “Thank you for being a baseball fan.”

* * *

Ernie Fazio, a Houston Colt .45s bonus baby, former Mets infielder Al Moran and ex-Chicago White Sox catcher Mike Colbern were the prime litigants in the original class action suit over pensions, filed October 2003 in U.S. District Court. Judge Manuel Real granted MLB’s motion for a summary judgement in March 2004, according to Gladstone.

The players appealed on Dec. 6, 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court in California heard oral arguments from both sides. On May 22, 2006, the court of appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

“In the lawsuit, the judge said the statue of limitations had run out,” Grilli said. “Freddie Holdsworth and I played for the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Leafs in 1971. There was a car dealership across from where we were staying. We were so poor, making $500 a month, we used to siphon gas out of the cars. I hope that statue of limitations ran out too.”

Grilli loves the game. He runs clinics. He’s helped seven Syracuse-area players get signed.

“I don’t charge,” Grilli said. “Bill Julio from Gannon College helped me, I help others.”

His hat is featured in Cooperstown as part of an exhibit, as the losing pitcher when Rochester fell to Pawtucket 2-1 in 33 innings in 1981, a game with took eight hours and 25 minutes to play.

Grilli spoke to people from the MLB Alumni Association who say they are looking at the pension matter and it may be discussed in the next collective bargaining agreement.

“Good news but we don’t know if it will happen,” Grilli said.

The saddest thing of this story is that in February of 2000 the players without pensions numbered 1,400.

In October 2003, there were 1,053.

“It was down to 874 the day the book came out. We’re losing guys fast,” Grilli said. “I’ve been told by people with the union there’s a bitter taste due to the lawsuit, but when you’re drowning, you reach for a life preserver.”

Gladstone took up the players’ cause after interviewing former Chicago Cubs outfielder Jimmy Qualls, 64, the rookie who broke up Tom Seaver’s perfect game in 1969. Qualls played 144 games but does not have a pension.

“These guys are dying at a rate of six per month,” Gladstone said. “Given the economy, a lot could use pensions to supplement their income. These guys were dues-paying members and now they’re being told their contributions went for naught.”

Many of these players helped form the union under leader Marvin Miller.

“Now,” Grilli said, “Doug Gladstone is our Marvin Miller.”

* * *

Morally, the right thing to do is to give a pension to these players — some of them need it desperately.

Or maybe throw a lump sum into a pot and let them distribute it, as was the case with free agents in 1987-90 when ownership was found guilty of collusion.

There is a finite number of players so there is limited liability.

It’s not like 5,000 guys will come out of the cornfields 10 or 20 years from now with their hands out.

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