Brooks: For those baseball retirees whose careers ended too soon, the better pay and benefits came too late

Jennifer Brooks, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Tom Johnson played for the right team at the wrong time.

A talented relief pitcher for the Twins, he played the game in the 1970s, when major league ballplayers worked second jobs and walked picket lines in hope of better pay and benefits someday.

His career ended too soon, and the better pay and benefits came too late. In 1980, two years after a torn rotator cuff took him out of the Twins lineup, Major League Baseball and the players union cut a deal that would have set Johnson up with a lifetime pension, lifetime health care and benefits that would have been passed to his wife after he was gone.

The pension plan wasn't applied retroactively, so Johnson and 873 other retirees struck out and walked away with nothing.

"We're really grateful for the opportunity to play in the big leagues," he said. "We just played at the wrong time. We just happened to be born at the wrong time."

After baseball came divinity school. The pitcher became a pastor, serving a congregation in Maple Grove and blending faith and baseball in a new venture that took him around the world — coaching baseball for children in Israel and setting up youth centers in Slovakia through the nonprofit GoodSports International.

Then, a decade ago, checks started arriving. A stipend from Major League Baseball and the players union for those shut out of the pension deal — $625, before taxes, for every 43 game days they were on the roster, up to $10,000 a year.

Johnson appreciates those checks. But they're not like pension benefits. When he dies, the checks will stop, and his wife, Debbie, will get nothing.

Even though back in his day, ballplayers and their families were expected to give everything.

The Johnsons were expecting their first child in 1974, moving from place to place so often that Debbie didn't realize she was pregnant with twin boys until she went into premature labor.

One of their twins died an hour after he was born. A few hours after that, Johnson brought Debbie home from the hospital, where their surviving baby would remain hooked to tubes and wires for weeks.

Then he headed to the ballpark.

He had a night game to play.

The next morning, he went to the mortuary to make arrangements for their son, then got back into uniform for another night game.

"That's just the way it was back then," said Johnson, who made another beeline from the hospital to the ballpark a few years later when he pitched for the Twins just hours after meeting his newborn daughter. "You were just expected to tough it out. Your spouse was expected to tough it out."

"You weren't getting paid much, so you were expendable," said Johnson, who worked a second job to pay the bills in the offseason. "So you fought like heck for your job, and part of it was showing that you were tough."

Players today get seven-figure salaries, health insurance for life, paternity leave and a pension that passes to their family when they die.

"I don't begrudge them any of that," Johnson said. "Just know that it was very, very different when I played."

It's the people enjoying these generous benefits — members of the players union, not the team owners — who would have to advocate on behalf of people like Tom and Debbie Johnson in the next round of collective bargaining.

Offering a modest stipend to hundreds of players like Johnson was "the right thing to do," said Steve Rogers, special assistant for player services at the Major League Baseball Players Association, who was pitching for the Montreal Expos when Johnson was pitching for the Twins.

There have been fewer than 20,000 professional baseball players in the 150-year history of the game.

"Everybody who's had the chance to play the game and put a major league uniform on — anybody who played a day. ... Everybody's major league service is important," Rogers said.

Retired players who were never vested in the pension plan don't have a seat at the table in the league's upcoming collective bargaining negotiations. The current players — the ones who get vested in the pension system in their first months in the majors — could fight for them. If they wanted to.

Douglas Gladstone wrote the book "A Bitter Cup of Coffee," about the retirees who struck out of the 1980 pension deal. He's spent years trying to keep their plight in the headlines.

"Legally, these men, including Tom Johnson, don't have a leg to stand on. But morally?" he said. "Let's have a little recognition of the Tom Johnsons of the world, who stood on picket lines, who went without paychecks and who endured labor stoppages. All so that a man like Nelson Cruz could cash in."

Tom Johnson never cashed in, but life brought other rewards.

The youth center in Slovakia reminds him of the rec centers of his youth in St. Paul, where any kid could come in, sign up for a team, and play ball without worrying about coaches, equipment or cost.

Pensions aren't the only benefits in this world, the pitcher-turned-pastor knows.

"Debbie and I don't have much in retirement," he said. "But if we're going to leave a legacy, we want to leave a legacy that how you live your life matters. How you give yourself away matters — maybe more than what you have in your bank account."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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