SPORTS WATCH

Championing the poor boys from the past

Needy ball players? Ball players, even spare infielders with sore arms, make money faster than the guy at the Ottawa mint

TRENT FRAYNE July 9 1990
SPORTS WATCH

Championing the poor boys from the past

Needy ball players? Ball players, even spare infielders with sore arms, make money faster than the guy at the Ottawa mint

TRENT FRAYNE July 9 1990

Championing the poor boys from the past

SPORTS WATCH

Needy ball players? Ball players, even spare infielders with sore arms, make money faster than the guy at the Ottawa mint

TRENT FRAYNE

Early Wynn is a very patient man who spent 23 years throwing baseballs in the big leagues. At the age of 42, he pitched his 299th victory early in September of 1962, and then he had to groan and fidget and sweat through game after game until finally, on July 13, 1963, he won No. 300, the cherished goal of all great pitchers.

Now he’s 70 and in a longer fight. Since he gave up baseball broadcasting in 1983, Early has been persistently prodding what must be the wealthiest trade union on earth, the Major League Baseball Players Association, seeking a raise in pensions for needy ball players.

Needy ball players? What kind of preposterous contradiction in terms is that? As everybody knows, ball players, even spare infielders with sore arms, make money faster than the guy with the die at the Ottawa mint. However, Early has found that today’s millionaire ball players aren’t much interested in yesterday’s needy ones. Of course, it’s not today’s players that he is concerned about, not the George Bells and Tim Raines of the Blue Jays and the Expos with their $2-million salaries (all money figures in this column are in U.S. dollars). Nor is he fretting over the current 10-year men, whose pensions now assure them of $102,000 a year for life starting at age 62. That’s $102,000, for you folks at home.

“I’m talking about the old oldtimers, and the widows of oldtimers, some of them getting as little as $350 or $400 a month,” Early growled at me last week over in beautiful Buffalo, N.Y. What was he doing getting all steamed up in Buffalo, N.Y.? He was appearing at the ninth annual National Old Timers’ Baseball Classic in a tiny jewel of a ball park in Buffalo’s refurbished downtown core, raising money for a fund for former majorand minor-league ball players and their families. An average of $50,000 was raised in the preceding eight games, feasts in nostalgia for greying fans that involved greats of yore including Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Bob Feller, Canada’s Fergu-.

son Jenkins and three dozen or so others.

Early had become an acquaintance of mine back in 1977, the inaugural year of the Toronto Blue Jays, when he broke in as a baseball commentator on radio. He stayed for five seasons, a cheery, homespun native of Alabama, and then moved on to the Chicago White Sox for two more years of attacking the mother tongue as ferociously as he had fired his fastball under rival hitters’ jaws. “Chin music,” he had called it.

As a pitcher, Early’s big years were during the 1950s, when he won 20 or more games five times. He won the Cy Young Award in 1959, by then a codger of 39 whose 22-10 record helped the White Sox into the World Series, the last time a Chicago team staggered that far. Earlier, he was one-quarter of the renowned pitching staff at Cleveland that included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia. In those days, he was called Burly Early not just because it rhymed, but also because he had a chest and legs on him that set off jealous howls from bulldogs.

As the players’ representative for the White Sox and during his prominence as a broadcaster, Early often got mail or phone calls from retired players whose pensions, accrued before

television began cascading money into baseball, were incapable of keeping pace with inflation. So upon retiring to Florida when his broadcasting ended, he began seeking to improve their lot. When a group of former players organized themselves into the Ex-Major League Baseball Players, Early became chairman of its pension committee. Rather than spending $2,500 a month or so renting office space and hiring a secretary and paying for utilities, he bought a typewriter and set up an office in his home. I asked him if his wife, Lorraine, helps. “Yeah,” Early said. “She corrects the spelling.”

These days, he distributes a business card on which these words appear:

“Help Thy Needy Not the Greedy.

The poor boys from the past.”

Baseball pensions are divided into a number of classes, ranging from Class 3 to Class 8 and categorized within each class according to the number of days of service a man accumulates as a major-league player and the age at which he starts drawing his pension. Some classes allow players to start at 45. The richest class is Class 8, the one that pays a 10-year man $102,000 at 62. Each time the association and the owners have signed a new agreement over the past 20 years, the owners have piled larger amounts of their stupefying television income into the pension pot. Currently, the clubs are contributing $55 million annually.

“Fifty-five million,” growls Early Wynn, who growls a lot on this topic.

But speaking on behalf of the players association, Gene Orza, the associate general counsel in the union’s New York City office, does not express vast sympathy for Early’s crusade. “It is based far more on emotion than on logic,” he told me in a telephone call to his office.“It is nothing more than a request for charity. I ask you, what other union in the world, after an agreement is struck, comes around asking for more money for the old members? Does the United Auto Workers do that? It’s not the role of our association to go to Babe Ruth’s widow and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Ruth, Babe did so much for baseball, here’s some more money for you.’

“Yes, today’s players have large pension plans, but don’t forget that these people who get the money put their own money at risk. Early Wynn and his group never went on strike to back up their stand. Today’s players put their necks on the line. I understand that emotion of Early Wynn’s but, no, not the logic.”

Early made his most recent appeal for a pension increase in Washington last November in the office of a former big-league pitcher, Jim Bunning, now a Republican congressman from Kentucky. Robin Roberts, a former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, accompanied Early. Representing the players association was its executive director, Donald Fehr.

“We presented a program we’d like to see implemented,” Early recalled in Buffalo. “Fehr talked sympathetic, but I can’t read his mind. He was supposed to give us the word in April. But he didn’t.” And, luckily, Early hasn’t been holding his breath waiting for the millionaires to adjust their mind-sets.