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South Salt Lake Journal

Hundreds of MLB retirees bereft of pension and health benefits

Feb 06, 2023 01:44PM ● By Jesse M. Gonzalez

Two retired baseball players are concerned about what they perceive to be a lack of a pension plan or health benefits in Major League Baseball. (Photo courtesy Unsplash)

Salt Lake City’s George Theodore, a retired Major League Baseball star, is one of over 500 players who are without an MLB pension. Theodore, whose nickname was “The Stork,” was drafted into MLB after playing for the University of Utah. He played in 105 games for the New York Mets between 1973 and 1974, coming up to the plate 195 times, even playing in the 1973 World Series.  

The MLB pension plan and health care program was only given to players who accumulated four years of credit before the year 1980. Instead, they were given life annuities on a much smaller pay scale that could not be passed down to their families or loved ones.

Theodore has kept in contact with some of his friends from the MLB, specifically players Doug Howard and Bruce Christensen. “I had two years, Doug had two years, I’m not sure what Bruce had, but we were left out,” Theodore said. “We thought ‘Well, I guess that’s just the way it is and what can we do?’”

All seemed lost in regard to the unfairness of the pension plan, until a journalist named Doug Gladstone came into the picture. 

“Ten or 15 years passed,” Theodore said. “And Doug Gladstone was interviewing Jimmy Qualls, who was famous for getting a hit with two outs in the sixth inning against Tom Seaver to break up his perfect game. And as Doug talked to him, he said, ‘Well, at least you’re getting a pension now’ and Jimmy said, ‘Oh, no, I only had two years so I didn’t qualify.’”

Gladstone worked as an actuary at the time, therefore he knew much about labor laws and relations. “That started him (Gladstone) on a crusade,” Theodore said. “A crusade where he thought that we were being treated unfairly and that baseball should do something about it.”

Gladstone ended up writing the book “A Bitter Cup of Coffee,” which details the long and complicated history revolving around the pension and health care plans that the Major League Baseball players who played between 1947 and 1979 were without.

“When you don’t get don’t full exposure and playing time, you just got into the major leagues for just a little bit, that was called ‘You had a cup of coffee,’” Theodore explained. “We were guys who were just there long enough to have a cup of coffee.”

Within his first year with the New York Mets, Theodore got into a nasty collision with fellow player Don Hahn during a game with the Atlanta Braves, which dislocated his hip and had him in the hospital for a month. “That injury really cut my career. I was really never the same player,” he said.

Theodore, as well as many other players, only gets a net payment of approximately $4,000. According to the annuity, for every 43 games played before 1980, a player is eligible to receive $718.75 with a maximum of $11,500. Currently, a vested retiree is able to receive a payment as high as $245,000. Theodore never made more than $16,100 in his whole MLB career.

“I don’t want to be rich,” Theodore said. “But I would like a little more.”

For current players of the MLB, the players’ union has made certain that the minimum salary lies at $700,000. Also, current players qualify for health insurance only after one game, and are eligible for a pension after 43 games.

In 2011, after pressure and coverage from Gladstone, the MLB rewarded its retired players with an annuity. “The annuity is something you don’t pass on. We all appreciated that but not according to Doug, who said, ‘You guys deserve a lot more than that!’” Theodore said.  “Because of that he kept up the crusade and kept on contacting people and has stories in different papers throughout the country. We’re all indebted to Doug Gladstone.”

Gladstone and Theodore as well as the other retired players have even tried to reach out to Major League Baseball Players Association executives, but, according to them, have not received a response.  

Theodore has some hope for a fair change, at least an increase in the annuity. “I think they could easily do that. As far as them bringing us an actual pension, I’m not very hopeful.”  

Theodore has a wife, a son, as well as an 18-month-old granddaughter who may never receive any pension or health benefits from the MLB. “We can’t do that to our wives,” he said.  “It’s worth a lot of security for many families.”

Theodore still follow the Mets. “The Mets have been very good to me,” he said.
“They’ve invited me to several reunions. I have nothing but good feelings for the team and the whole experience. I got to play with Willie Mays. It was an honor.”

Christensen, another player and Utah resident and Theodore’s friend, is also without an MLB pension. Christensen played for the California Angels in 1971.  

“It’s too bad,” Christensen said. “I know there’s a lot of players out there; it really hurt them financially, and with their health that would be saved if they were guaranteed to be on the program. The MLB doesn’t want to go over these things. Why can’t we sit down and talk about it and get qualified for it?”

For the many players who were without a pension, without necessary health coverage for them and their families, some had struggled drastically later in their lives. “What I look at is those individuals who are no longer with us, that they (the MLB) would go back and do something for their wives. A lot of them might still be alive today if they had the resources that the MLB players have today,” Christensen said. 

Theodore spent 38 years teaching at Lincoln Elementary School and then worked as a school counselor. In 2016, he was named Educator of the Year by the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Now, both Christensen and Theodore are managing their days in South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, helping out and coaching kids’ baseball when they can.

George Theodore had spent 38 years at Lincoln elementary school as a teacher and then as a school counselor.  In 2016, he was named Educator of the Year by the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.