The first response to “The Lost Boys of Summer” came in an email from Douglas J. Gladstone, who wrote the book on the issues the feature explored, 2010's A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve: “You are to be complimented big-time! (Now brace yourself for the fallout!)”
The upstate-New York author did offer one note.
“[Y]ou failed to mention that 39 vets of the Negro Leagues and their spouses received lifetime health insurance in 1993.”
He certainly did not overlook such a detail in A Bitter Cup of Coffee, which baseball retiree Ken Wright of Pensacola, Florida, credits with having helped push the MLB to at least grant small annual annuity payments to the lost boys from 2011 through 2016.
“Doug's baseball book is not only a good story, it's also 99.9 percent accurate,” Wright told me. “Baseball says some of it is not; Doug basically had a misplaced comma. It got publicity, a lot of publicity in the New York area. Doug's book, along with Gary, really pushed baseball to do this. I don't think it would have happened otherwise.”
“Gary” is Wright's friend and former ballplayer Gary Neibauer, who served on the MLB Players Alumni Association pensions committee. After he and former big-league pitcher David Clyde lobbied for the annuities while on the committee, baseball acted–and both were removed from the panel.
“Baseball really wants Doug silenced,” Wright says. “Really, more and more people know about this through Doug's book. A lot of the groundwork was done, and that was just icing on the cake.”
Read how A Bitter Cup of Coffee begins on the next page . . .
Since 1876, when the National League was founded, up until the start of the 2009 season, some 17,000 men have played the game of baseball.
This is the sad story of 874 of those players, all of whom played between the years 1947 and 1979, and each had careers in the major leagues that are typically referred to as "cups of coffee.”
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, the long defunct newspaper, The New York Globe, first used the term in its June 11, 1908 account of a game played the previous afternoon. To have a cup of coffee, explains the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, means "a brief trial in the Major Leagues by a minor league player”; these trials normally take place in September, when major league rosters are expanded to 40 players. The phrase, the dictionary continues, "seems to have been derived from the observation that a young player's first taste of the majors is usually quite short, figuratively just long enough to drink a cup of coffee.”
The average career of a Major League Baseball player is 5.6 years, according to a 2007 study by a University of Colorado at Boulder research team. The study, which also found that one in five position players will have only a single-year career, and that at every point of a player's career, the player's chance of ending his career is at least 11 percent, examined the career statistics of baseball players who started their careers between 1902 and 1993. Pitchers were excluded because they were not everyday players.
All told, the study revealed that, between 1902 and 1993, 5,989 position players started their careers and played 33,272 person years of Major League Baseball.
The fact that none of these 874 players even remotely averaged 5.6 years in the major leagues is almost a moot point. Each of their respective cups of coffee was for varying lengths. Take Jimmy Qualls, for example. Best remembered for ruining Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver's bid for a perfect game on July 9, 1969, when he singled with one out in the top of the ninth inning, over the course of three seasons, the former Chicago Cub played in a total of 63 games.
So just why is the length of a baseball player's career important? Because, together with salary earned, his service credit helps determine whether he's eligible to receive a pension from Major League Baseball (MLB).
A pension from MLB is the gold standard among the four major professional sports leagues. "Modern-day players really should have nothing to worry about [financially],” said John Westhoff, baseball's onetime associate counsel. “The pension plan should take care of their finances in their older years.”
And that's why the stories of these men are so sad. As a result of a threatened players strike in 1980, the vesting requirments to earn a pension from MLB suddenly changed. Previously, the vesting requirement was four years. Since 1980, however, all a player has needed is one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days of service credit to be eligible for a retirement allowance. Talk about a sweetheart deal!
Actually, it's the very opposite of sweet. Sour would be more like it. One might even suggest that these men gulped bitter cups of coffee.
Visit ABitterCupOfCoffee.com to learn more about the book.