On September 26, 1963, at the age of 20, Larry Yellen made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut when he pitched for the Houston Colt .45s — the precursor to the Houston Astros.
All told, in 26 innings, he appeared in 14 games during his career, which lasted until the following year. All but two of his appearances were in relief.
A resident of Duluth, Georgia, Mr. Yellen was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 4, 1943. When he pitched for Hunter College’s baseball team – the “Hawks” —he was named the squad’s most valuable player two years in a row.
Yellen’s time playing Major League Baseball (MLB) might otherwise be forgotten were it not for the fact that he is among over 600 retirees who aren’t receiving MLB pensions.
Other Jewish men who are in the same boat include Don Taussig, an outfielder who played for the Houston Astros, the San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals, Stephen Hertz, a former member of the Houston Colt .45s who went on to manage the Tel Aviv Lightning in the Israeli Baseball League and Dick Sharon, who played for the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres.
Fast forward to today, and I’m wondering whether the Atlanta Braves’ Max Fried and Joc Pederson, who are among several Jews playing baseball this season, know anything about this injustice.
Fried and Pederson are playing at a time when the average MLB salary is approximately $4 million. Even the last man on the bench is making the minimum salary of $565,500 per year.
Fried is earning a reported 2021 salary of $3.5 million. Before being traded to Atlanta last month, Pederson was pulling in $4.5 million a year from the Chicago Cubs.
These days, when it comes to baseball salaries, you can set yourself up for the rest of your life.
Just ask New York Yankees ace Gerritt Cole; during the 2019 off-season, he signed a nine-year contract with the Bronx Bombers for $324 million. He will earn $36 million each year for almost a decade.
When Yellen played, there was no such thing as free agency.
Fried and Pederson are members of the union representing current ballplayers, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). But the MLBPA hasn’t lifted a finger to help all the men like Sharon, whose top salary in the game was a whopping $19,000.
Mind you, I don’t begrudge Fried and Pederson one penny. But the guys like Yellen paved the way for the stars like them to command the salaries that are being handed out these days. They’re the ones who stood on picket lines, endured labor stoppages and went without paychecks so perennial Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman could earn $22 million this year.
But for sheer outrageousness, according to its own 2015 Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the MLBPA paid its 72 staff salaries totaling $16 million. The union’s executive director, former Tigers All-Star Tony Clark, receives a compensation package, including benefits, totaling more than $2.2 million.
Unions are supposed to take care of working men and women. But the MLBPA is too busy doling out top-shelf salaries to itself at the expense of men like Yellen.
What’s wrong with this picture?
See, the rules for receiving MLB pensions changed in 1980. Since 1980, all you’ve needed is 43 games on an active MLB roster to earn a pension. But Yellen and all the other men do not get pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of service credit. That was what ballplayers who played between 1947-1979 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.
Instead, they all receive nonqualified retirement payments based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.
In brief, for every 43 game days of service, a man has accrued on an active MLB roster, he gets $625, up to $10,000. And that payment is before taxes are taken out. Meanwhile, a vested retiree can earn a pension of as much as $230,000, according to the IRS.
What’s more, the payment cannot be passed on to a spouse or designated beneficiary. So none of Mr. Yellen’s loved ones will receive the bone he is being thrown when he dies.
And because the league is under no obligation to collectively bargain about this item, if the retired men are to be helped, it is the union that has to go to bat for them.
Max, are you mad about this injustice? Joc, are you mad enough to speak out about it? Was either of you even aware that this was happening?
I hope both these Atlanta teammates will be brave enough 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.”