Friday, June 7, 2024

A guest post from author Douglas J. Gladstone centering on Vince Colbert--one of 516 pre-1980 MLB retirees currently ineligible for a pension


Three years ago, I had a telephone conversation with Vince Colbert, who was born in Washington, D.C. and who attended Eastern Senior High School. I had the unpleasant task of telling him that he was not receiving a Major League Baseball (MLB) pension for his time in the game, when he was a pitcher for the then Cleveland Indians during the early 1970s.

I wasn’t trying to embarrass Colbert, who now makes his home in The Forest City on Blanford Road. Lots of former ballplayers who I’ve spoken to believe they’re receiving a pension from having played the game. 


What Colbert and 516 other men who played prior to 1980 have been getting is called a non-qualified retirement annuity. What that means is the payment cannot be passed to a widow, loved one, family member or other designated beneficiary. When the man passes, the payment passes with him.

All the men like Colbert receive are these yearly stipends of $718.75 for every 43 game days they were on an active MLB roster, up to a maximum payment of $11,500. They’re getting them due to a 1980 vesting change which made it easier for players to qualify for a pension. Prior to 1980, a player needed four years to be eligible for a MLB pension. For the past 44 years, all you’ve needed is 43 days on an active MLB roster. 

So if the Washington Nationals put you on their roster on August 15th, and you stayed with the team through September 27th, you’ll get an annual MLB pension when you turn 62-years-of-age.

Unfortunately, that sweetheart deal wasn’t made retroactive to include the men like Colbert, who had more than 43 days of service but less than four years. 

Meanwhile, the maximum pension you can get now is $275,000. But the annual stipend Colbert gets is worth only about $8,000 per year. And that is before taxes are taken out. 

In his final season, in 1972, Colbert’s salary was $16,500. These days, the minimum salary for the last man on the bench is $740,000.

Times sure have changed. Nationals pitcher Trevor Williams earns $7 million a year and he is the second highest paid player on the team. Only Patrick Corbin, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract in 2018, earns more. 

In my opinion, the game has forgotten about Colbert and the other non-vested retirees.  After all, it was the men like Colbert who walked the picket lines, endured labor stoppages and went without paychecks so Shohei Ohtani could sign a 10-year, $700 million contract.

I find that kind of money obscene. Especially when the median household income in Washington D.C. is only a reported $90,000 and 16.5 percent of people live below the poverty line. 

Colbert deserves to be treated better if only because he was the first African American to ever receive an athletic scholarship from East Carolina University (ECU).

Colbert, who pitched and played hoops for the ECU Pirates, was inducted into the college’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. According to the school, not only did the two-sport star average over 14 points and seven rebounds per game, but he helped the Pirates win back-to-back Southern Conference baseball titles in 1967 and '68.

There are two men who could help Colbert. One is Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is the union that represents current ballplayers. As the winner of the Negro Leagues Museum's prestigious Jackie Robinson Award for Social Justice in 2017, Clark should be going to bat for, not only Colbert, but all the men affected, irrespective of the color of their skin.

The other is Hall of Famer Jim Thome, the president of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MLBPAA) who had his number retired by the Indians in 2018.  

You would think the MLBPAA would be sounding the alarm about this blight on the national pastime. But you only hear the sound of crickets coming out of Colorado Springs. Remember the Robert DeNiro baseball movie Bang the Drum Slowly? The MLBPAA isn’t banging the drum loudly or quickly. It has been quiet as a church mouse. 

It is anathema to me why neither Clark nor Thome aren’t doing their more to help the men like Colbert. One possible answer is a quote attributed to the founder of the American Newspaper Guild, the late Haywood Broun:

“Sports does not build character,” he once wrote. “It reveals it.”

Douglas J. Gladstone authored the book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve





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