In the final episode of M*A*S*H, the pompous doctor portrayed by the late David Ogden Stiers got a sendoff that’s arguably one of the most indelible images in television history. After seven seasons of his character, “Major Charles Emerson Winchester,” trumpeting his own self-importance, sophistication, breeding, and surgical skills like a proud peacock strutting his feathers, this upper crust scion of a prominent Boston family left Korea on a garbage truck.
The late Ernie Fazio understood the irony. A former member of the Houston Colt .45s baseball team, later renamed as the Houston Astros, Fazio spent the better part of the last three decades of his life working for various refuse companies, including as a manager at a Hayward sanitation company. When I interviewed him for my 2010 book, the Alamo resident told me he felt just like disposable garbage.
Despite counting among his friends and neighbors Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, Fazio felt that baseball’s band of brothers had deserted him. That is because, in order to avert a threatened 1980 Memorial Day Weekend walkout by the players, Major League Baseball made the following offer to union representatives. Going forward, all that a post-1980 player would need to be eligible to buy into the league’s premium health insurance plan was one game day of service. And all that a post-1980 player would need for a benefit allowance was 43 game days of service. At the time, the threshold was four years to be vested in the pension plan.
The problem was, the union had failed to insist on retroactivity for all those players such as Fazio, or Richmond’s Les Cain, an El Cerrito High School alum who had more than 43 game days but less than four years of service.
According to the IRS, a current retiree from Major League Baseball can receive an annual pension of up to $225,000. Even a post-1980 player who only has 43 game days of service credit receives a minimum annual pension of $3,589 at the age of 62 if he stays on the active roster from August 15 to October 1.
The league and union partially remedied this situation in April 2011. The pre-1980 players alive at the time were each awarded annual payments of $625 for every 43 game days of service the man had. The maximum payment permitted is $10,000 per man.
So if you were called up on August 15 of this year, and stayed on an active MLB roster until October 1, when you turn 62 years old, you’d qualify for a lifetime annual pension of $3,589 that can be passed on to your loved ones. But someone such as the 71-year-old Cain, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who has 2-1/2 years of service, thanks to having hurled 373 innings, would have his annual gross payment of $6,250 stopped the moment he dies.
That’s just what happened when Fazio died in December 2017.
The league — which does not have to address this matter unless the union broaches it in collective bargaining negotiations — 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. And the 30 club owners recently wrote a $10 million check to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The owners chose relics rather than retirees.
But the onus of responsibility to help these men falls on the union representing current players, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.
The players association has been loath to divvy up any more of the collective pie. Even though the players’ welfare and benefits fund is worth more than $3.5 billion, association Executive Director Tony Clark 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.
Cain, who won a 1976 workers’ compensation case against the Tigers, who have been paying him $5,772 a year ever since, should not have to be taken advantage of by a $11 billion business a second time. Like Fazio, he should not have to be made to feel that the suits who run the game have tossed him unceremoniously out of the game and into the garbage.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a freelance writer and author of two books, including A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. You can visit his website at GladstoneWriter.com