641 former MLB players do not receive a pension. This is the story of one of those ballplayers, a former member of the Mets and Brewers.
Former Southern University Jaguar Calvin Bernard “Bernie” Smith, who spent eight seasons in the New York Mets minor league system, is one of 641 retirees not receiving a Major League Baseball (MLB) pension.
Bernie Smith (pictured above), who played for the MLB Milwaukee Brewers in 1970 and 1971, and who later guided the team’s Single-A Danville Warriors affiliate to the Midwest League Finals in 1973, broke in with the Brew Crew in 1970. The rookie outfielder appeared in 44 games, came up to bat 76 times and collected 21 hits, including one home run.
Because he is not vested in the league’s pension plan, all Smith and 640 others have been getting since 2011 are non-qualified retirement payments of $625 per quarter, up to 16 quarters, or a maximum payment of $10,000. Meanwhile, the maximum IRS pension limit is $220,000.
The men, including former MLB players from the Mets Les Rohr, Bill Denehy, and Jack DiLauro, are in this position because of a rule change that occurred during an averted strike in May 1980. The union representing the players, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA), accepted an offer to make eligibility for health coverage for all players only one game day, and 43 game days for a monthly benefit.
Unfortunately, the union didn’t attempt to retroactively include the men like Smith, Denehy, Rohr or DiLauro.
Born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, Mr. Smith turned 78 last month. He and future Hall of Famer Lou Brock were Jaguar teammates in 1960.
Neither the league nor the union wants to retroactively restore these men into MLB’s pension coverage; instead, taxes are taken out of the nonqualified retirement payment, which cannot be passed on to a surviving spouse or designated beneficiary. So when Smith passes on, the payment he is currently receiving is not passed on to any of his loved ones, such as his four sons. His wife, Creola, reportedly passed away circa 1985.
By any standard, Smith has had a hard life. According to baseball card collector Tony Lehman, he hitchhiked 400 miles to earn a minor league baseball tryout with the Mets.
Smith was famously convicted in 1985 of receiving $500 in stolen goods at the store he ran on North Railroad Avenue in Lutcher, Louisiana. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but upon appeal, that sentence was set aside. Lehman, for one, believes he was railroaded, and that he was set up by the police. Twenty-nine-years later in 2014, Smith couldn’t pay property taxes on the store.
Things haven’t been great for Denehy, Rohr or DiLauro either. Denehy, who shared his rookie card with Tom Seaver, is now legally blind and uses a seeing eye dog to get around. When I last spoke to Rohr — the Mets’ number one pick in the 1965 draft and the second overall selection after Rick Monday — he was receiving messages at a tavern in Billings, Montana. And according to former teammate Bobby Pfeil, DiLauro had to sell his 1969 World Series ring because of his economic circumstances.
What makes Smith’s treatment, so especially unseemly is that the executive director of the MLBPA, former Met and Yankee Tony Clark received the coveted Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, in June 2016. In accepting the award, the former All-Star first baseman referenced a quote from the late Muhammad Ali.
“Success is what you achieve,” said Clark. “Your significance is what you leave.”
How do you say that and then have the gall not to help a man like Smith?
If Clark — who earns a $2.1 million salary as union executive director on top of his MLB pension — actually does something about this situation, he really would be leaving Mr. Smith and all the other men something of great significance. And that would be a nice achievement on his part.
Douglas J. Gladstone authored the 2010 book, “A Bitter Cup of Cofee; How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.” His website is www.gladstonewriter.com
Responding to the introductory post by Mr. Gladstone titled, “Opening The Door On The Plight Of Pensionless Ballplayers”, many readers objected to the attention paid to a small handful of ballplayers (workers) without pensions in America, while millions also are living pensionless.
I would suggest the stripping of pensions from workers (generally) in America is a problem that exists for all of us to solve – for ALL workers.
It is also no coincidence that as labor unions (not only the MLBPA) have declined in membership and political power, benefits once enjoyed by millions of workers are now gone.
Steve Contursi, Editor, Reflections On Baseball