Black ballplayers hit with bad retirement pitch
Eighty-two-year-old Don Dillard, of Greenwood, never made more than $9,500 a year playing the sport he loves. A fourth outfielder and pinch hitter extraordinaire who played for the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Braves for parts of six seasons, Dillard’s best campaigns while he was playing for The Tribe in 1961 and 1962, when he came up to bat a combined 318 times and hit 12 home runs.
All told, when Dillard’s career came to an end, he had played in 272 games, gotten 116 hits and wound up with a lifetime batting average of .244
But on April 22, 1974, Dillard, who resides On Orchard Park Drive, says he received a letter from Major League Baseball (MLB)’s retirement administrator indicating that, in spite of all the time he had, he was still 17 days shy of a pension.
Though vesting changes that occurred during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend dropped the days needed for a pension from four years to 43 game days, the MLBPA forgot – some cynics and jaded types would say refused – to retroactively include the men such as Dillard.
Technically, the league doesn’t have to negotiate about this issue unless the union broaches it first in collective bargaining negotiations. Despite the fact that the MLBPA’s pension and welfare benefits fund is valued at more than $3.5 billion, the union’s executive director, former Detroit Tigers All-Star Tony Clark, will not comment about this matter, though some of these retirees cannot afford health insurance, are defaulting on their mortgages and filing for Chapter 11.
As for MLB, few businesses understand the value of good publicity better – in 2008, acting on an idea of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield’s, 30 former Negro League veterans were matched with a league team that paid them $5,000 in what was the equivalent of draft signing bonuses. And in 2017, Commissioner Rob Manfred presented the National Baseball Hall of Fame a check for $10 million to help preserve its collection of 40,000 artifacts, including bats, balls, gloves, uniforms, trophies, 135,000 baseball cards, 14,000 hours of recorded media, 250,000 historic photos and 3 million pieces in its library.
Museum relics got $10 million from the league. But flesh and blood retirees get squat.
One year after the book I wrote on this injustice was published, in April 2011, the league and the union partially gave the men some relief. For every 43 game days of service they had accrued on an active MLB roster, each retiree received $625, up to a maximum of $10,000 per year. A drop in the bucket, considering that a vested retiree can earn up to $225,000 per year.
And when the man passes, the payment he gets passes with him. So Dillard’s 80-year-old wife, Elma, will get nothing when her spouse goes to that great baseball diamond in the sky.
Cicotte’s last game had been 15 years earlier, in 1962, when he was a member of the expansion Houston Colt. 45s. But here he was on the bench of the Tigers, who had signed him for one month in order that he could become eligible for an MLB pension.
The Atlanta Braves had done the same thing for Hall of Famer Satchel Paige at the tail end of the 1968 season. Needing 158 days on a big-league payroll to qualify for a pension, Paige never pitched for the club but, instead, became a coach who stayed on through the following season.
If the suits who run our national pastime could help Cicotte and Paige, they can certainly help Don Dillard.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a freelance magazine writer and author of two books, including A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. You can visit his website at www.gladstonewriter.com