No Pension: How Major League Baseball Abandoned "Bernie" Smith

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"Bernie" Smith back in the day

Former New York Met minor league prospect Calvin Bernard “Bernie” Smith, who played for the 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, is among the 644 retired major leaguers being hosed out of pensions by the league and the players' association.

Because they are not vested, all these men 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. Even the minimum pension for a retired ballplayer who played after 1980 is $34,000.

The men are in this position because of a rule change that occurred during an averted strike in May 1980. The players’ union 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.

Born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, Mr. Smith turns 77 in September. He and future Hall of Famer Lou Brock were teammates at the predominantly all African American Southern University in 1960.

As a rookie outfielder for the 1970 Brewers, Smith appeared in 44 games, came up to bat 76 times and collected 21 hits, including one home run.

Neither the league nor the union want to retroactively restore these men into 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.

Men like Smith are also not eligible to buy into the league’s umbrella health insurance plan.

To date, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up anymore of the collective pie. Though Forbes recently reported that the current players’ pension and welfare fund is valued at $2.7 billion MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark -- a former All Star first baseman who is the first former player to ever hold that position, by the way -- has never commented about these non-vested retirees, many of whom 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.

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. He then spent eight seasons in the New York Mets minor league system.
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.

What makes Smith’s treatment so especially unseemly is that 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 Detroit Tigers 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 gets a union salary of more than $2.1 million, including benefits, to go with 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

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