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Doing The Right Thing’ Elusive When It Comes to MLB Pensions

When he was profiled in The Okmulgee Times (2012), George Kernek was described by the late Herman Brown as “being among the blessed few.”

The previous year, in April 2011, Kernek was among 874 men who were each awarded non-qualified payments of $625 per quarter–up to $10,000–for every 43 game days of service he had accrued on an active Major League Baseball (MLB) roster. Oh! He’s among the few, alright. He’s one of 12,000 men to have played baseball since 1947. But ‘blessed’ isn’t the word I would have used to describe Kernek’s situation.

That number is now down to 635 men. And get this: when the man passes, the payment passes with him. That’s why, when he dies, Kernek’s designated beneficiaries will get squat.

And that’s not counting the 200 poor, unfortunate souls who don’t receive even a plug nickel for having played major league ball–because they didn’t have at least 43 game days on an active MLB roster.

If he’s lucky, Kernek probably receives a check every February of $2,500. After taxes, he probably nets $1,750.

Unlike Kernek, a vested retiree can earn up to $220,000 a year from his MLB pension.

During parts of two seasons (in 1960 and 1961), Kernek appeared in thirty big league games, came up 81 times, collected 21 hits (including three doubles and two triples) and scored 11 runs. The other years he played professional ball didn’t count for major league service time.

Kernek and 634 other men and their families are being denied pensions by both the league and the union representing the current players–the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA)–because of an error the union committed 38 years ago.

In order to avert a threatened 1980 walkout by the players, MLB made the following sweetheart offer to union representatives. Going forward, all 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 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 failed to insist on retroactivity for all those players like Kernek

The league, which I concede 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 each club is up 19 percent from 2016–to $1.54 billion. What’s more, the thirty club owners recently wrote a $10 million check to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The owners chose museum relics rather than retirees.

To date, the MLBPA 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, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark has never commented about these non-vested retirees–even though many of them 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.

Even a post-1980 player with only 43 game days of service credit receives a minimum pension of $3,589 at the age of 62–assuming that he was called up to the majors and stayed on the active roster from August 15 to October 1.

Considering that Kernek helped pave the way so that someone like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado can reap the benefits of free agency, it is anathema to me why the union doesn’t do more for these men.

One possible answer is a quote attributed to the founder of the American Newspaper Guild, the late Haywood Broun. “Sports,” Broun once wrote, “does not build character. It reveals it.” 

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