What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror, Mr. Clark?
From his rookie year, in 1995, through 2001, Tony Clark had 783 hits, including 156 homers, and knocked in 514 runs. Playing for the Detroit Tigers, he was one of the most feared and productive first baseman in the American League. Clark was one of the players who succeeded Jason Thompson at first base. Similarly, Thompson succeeded another Tigers first baseman by the name of Jack Pierce. No, not the makeup artist for Universal Pictures.
Born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1949, the late Jack Pierce was a resident of San Jose who played in 65 games over parts of the 1973, 1974 and 1975 seasons for the Braves and Tigers. Pierce’s last year in “The Show” proved to be his best: he amassed 40 hits in 170 at bats for the Tigers, including six doubles, one triple and eight homers. He passed away in Monterrey, Mexico on September 30, 2012 at the age of 64. He left behind a wife, six children and six grandchildren.
Men like Pierce, who do not receive pensions because they didn’t accrue at least four years of service credit in the big leagues, which is what you needed if you played in the majors from 1947-1949, have instead been receiving non-qualified life annuities of up to $10,000 per year since 2011.
Well, Pierce doesn’t anymore. That’s because, unlike pensions, which can be passed on to a spouse, a loved one or a designated beneficiary, nonqualified life annuities stop when the player dies. So Jack Pierce got, at most, two of these payments before he died. Since then, his widow has gotten diddly-squat. The man who could remedy that situation happens to be Tony Clark. But, to date, he’s shown no inclination to lift a finger to help these men.
As the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association — the union representing today’s players — Clark has often been described as erudite, bright and resourceful.
Sorry folks, I just don’t see that.
What I see is a man who has turned his back on his baseball brothers, a man who could help about 800 retirees who have been hosed through no fault of their own. See, a player who played after 1980 is eligible for health coverage after one game day. And he’s eligible for a pension after 43 game days. And the payment can be passed on to a loved one or designated recipient.
The maximum allowable pension limit under the IRS is $210,000. So a guy like 34-year-old Evansville, Indiana native and former Marlins and Rays pitcher Jay Buente gets an MLB pension for playing parts of two seasons, in 2010 and 2011. Overall, Buente appeared in just 10 career games, all but one in relief. He hurled a total of 16 innings. Meanwhile, for his 3 1/2 years of service credit, former White Sox, Mariners, Reds, Rangers and Yankees pitcher Rich Hinton receives a gross check of $8,750. After taxes are taken out, his net check is $6,262.
But former Cleveland Indian and Milwaukee Brave Don Dillard has it worst of all. Shy by 17 days of satisfying the four-year vesting requirement rule, the 80-year-old Dillard has been getting gross checks of $9,325 for the past six years. And that’s all he has to show for playing the game he loved.
I’m telling you this because I just found out that, last June, Clark was honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with the prestigious Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award. At the ceremonies, he reportedly declared that he had “a responsibility to leave the game better for those who come after me.”
Mr. Clark, you’ve got a responsibility to leave the game better for those who came before you, as well. Men like Hinton and Dillard. And Wayne Cage, Aaron Pointer and Tom Ragland and Pierce– all of whom are retired persons of color who aren’t receiving MLB pensions because the players union screwed up more than three decades ago.
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. So Pierce was left out in the cold. And now his widow his paying the price.
Seriously Mr. Clark, how do you sleep at night? When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself embodying the ideals of Jackie Robinson — who wanted social justice for everyone? You know what I think? I think, when you look in the mirror, you see Pierce’s ghost staring back at you. Imploring you to do the right thing.
Douglas J. Gladstone is the author of “A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.”