Wake Up and Smell The (Bitter Cup of) Coffee!
Former Pittsburgh Pirates player and broadcaster Nellie King passed away yesterday at Family Hospice Center in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.Â Nellie was 82 years old.
Signed as an amateur free agent in 1946, King didnâ€™t make his major league debut until 1954. Three years later, at the age of 29, he was out of baseball because of the â€œdead armâ€ he said he developed. He subsequently worked a variety of odd jobs he despised just to make ends meet, including caddying at a golf course and being behind the cash register at a liquor store.
Years later, after he had cemented his professional reputation as a great storyteller who, along with the late Bob Prince, routinely entertained listeners with his calls of Pittsburgh Pirate games on the radio, King endured the public humiliation of being fired by Westinghouse Broadcasting in 1975. And, more recently, when money was tight, he swallowed his pride and sought financial assistance from the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT).
Why did Nellie need to contact BAT? Because he was one of the 874 retirees who played between 1947 and 1979 who are classified as inactive, non-vested ballplayers. None of them receive pensions for their contributions to the game, all because neither Major League Baseball (MLB) nor the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) want to retroactively amend the vesting requirement that conferred instant pension eligibility on every ballplayer who’s had even a day’s worth of service credit in the big leagues since 1980.
Through much of his last six decades, King remained cheery and even-keeled because he says he took to heart some advice proffered to him and other Pirate minor leaguers by none other than Branch Rickey. Rickey, of course, was the executive vice-president and general manager of the Pirates who had helped integrate baseball in 1947 when he famously signed Jackie Robinson to a contract while serving as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
â€œMr. Rickey was fond of telling us this story about a commercial painter who kept being distracted from his job by this stray dog,â€ King told me in a conversation we had last year, when I interviewed him for my book.Â â€œHe would say, â€˜All the painter wanted to do was pet the dog, but it kept running away from him. Finally, when he returned in earnest to his work, when he wasnâ€™t looking, thatâ€™s when he felt the dog cozy up by his leg.â€™
â€œIt was Rickeyâ€™s own parable for a road map to success in life,â€ Nellie explained to me. â€œHe would tell us, â€˜Boys, you canâ€™t get up in the morning and say youâ€™re going to be happy today, because you canâ€™t will happiness to occur. Just like that painter who always tried to reach and grab at that dog. The more he attempted to pet the dog, the more it ran away from him. Same thing applies to life. The more you try to get something, the more you fail. When youâ€™re not trying, you usually get what you want. When you least expect it, happiness will embrace you.â€™ â€
Nellie told me that Rickeyâ€™s advice left such an impression on him that he based the title of his autobiographical memoir, Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog: The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster (Author House), on that one story.
While that storyâ€™s lesson is certainly instructive, and most people would be well served to heed it, the pre-1980, inactive, non-vested ballplayers should not. That’s because neither MLB nor the union have given them any hope to believe otherwise.
How many more decent, honorable men like Nellie King have to pass away before Allan H. “Bud” Selig and Michael Weiner, the commissioner of the league and the executive director of the union, respectively, do right by them?
How many more men will go to their graves thinking that today’s players have turned their backs on all the old-timers who paved the path for them to command the ridiculously obscene, outrageous salaries they’re getting paid today?
Don’t know the answers?Â Neither do I. So here’s what I propose — contact both Commissioner Selig and Mr. Weiner and ask them those very questions.
If you’d like to voice support for all those men like Nellie King who both MLB and the union have forgotten to do right by, here’s where you can direct your communications:
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
Oh, and if you feel up to it, you can also contact Dan Foster, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, at 719-477-1870, x112.Â Call him and ask him why the board of directors of his group has never formally voted to support these 874 men. If you’d rather write, here’s the alumni association’s address:
Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association
1631 Mesa Avenue
Copper Building, Suite D
Colorado Springs, CO 80906
Tell ’em it’s about time they all wake up and smell the (bitter cup of) coffee!
(Gladstone’s book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve, was published by Word Association Publishers in April. To order it, please contact the publisher directly at 1-800-827-7903)