Published Sunday, October 07, 2012

MLB pension exclusion 'bitter' pill to swallow for former Crackers, Braves pitcher


Bob Sadowski’s pitching shoulder hasn’t been the same since that fateful first spring training game of the 1966 season. Nor has anything else physically for the 74-year-old Sharpsburg resident.

Injury — and eventually in his later years — illness and old age, have now robbed the once strapping 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher of his athletic frame.

It’s been 50 years since he first arrived in Georgia as a member of the Atlanta Crackers in 1962 among at least a dozen future big leaguers, having first shared a room in College Park with two of them in future St. Louis Cardinals Tim McCarver and Phil Gagliano.

Two seasons with the Crackers equally became Sadowski’s final step toward his own major league career. While brief, it ended with a record of 20-27 an 3.87 ERA, eight saves and 257 strikeouts.

After two years with the Crackers, the first of which ended with the franchise’s final championship in the Little (Junior) World Series, the one-time Cardinals prospect landed in Milwaukee, where he spent three years with the Braves before ending his career following a injury under mysterious circumstances in the Boston clubhouse suffered prior the 1966 season.

His body has been failing him well over the past quarter century since his playing days, starting with kidney failure and then a stroke that robbed him of much of his mobility and produced slightest slur in his speech shortly after losing his first wife while living north of Atlanta prior to 1996.

The past year, under the care of current wife Gale, has equally been a struggle. Stomach ulcers and high-blood pressure keep the 74-year-old on a regiment of pills tucked in a home office, its walls dotted with black-and-white images as a former Milwaukee Braves player on teams that included Atlanta greats Warren Spann, Eddie Matthews, Phil Niekro and a hard-hitting outfielder from Mobile, Ala that wore No. 44.

Only when asked about his health does he mention his ailments.

“Look how many pills I’m taking,” he said, grabbing at a hidden Tupperware container jammed with bottles. “The last six or seven and a half months, I almost died three times.”

In so many ways, Major League Baseball has all but forgotten players in Sadowski’s case, who unlike today’s veterans, receive no medical benefits and a pension less than $10,000 a year due to shortened careers less than four full seasons of service, the standard to receive a pension during their playing days.

In all, an estimated 750 veterans who played between 1947-1979 receive no health benefits.

The rules, however, changed for current major leaguers through the shortened MLB strike of 1980, one that preceded an even longer stoppage the following year. The new agreement allowed major leaguers to receive health insurance after one game and receive a pension after 43 days of service credit.

That means that current major leaguers Will Smith and Brad Emaus, who played at Northgate and East Coweta, have benefits, while Sadowski — among a group now just over 700, some of which played as long as four seasons— is among those that don’t.

Doug Gladstone, a freelance journalist who also works for the New York State Retirement system when the Mets fan thought about looking up former Cubs outfielder Jimmy Qualls regarding his hit that broke up a near perfect-game by his beloved Tom Seaver.

In the process of talking with Qualls for his initial interview, the former major leaguer, who played in parts of three MLB seasons, divulged that he didn’t receive a pension or health benefits.

Gladstone turned the initial interview into what became a book “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve,” while attempting to contact as many players that fell through the cracks of the system as he could. They included Sadowski.

“I thought it was an inequity and an injustice that stains baseball’s history,” said Gladstone. “When I made the decision to write the book, I did so, in large part, because these were the men who gave me countless hours of entertainment growing up, they were the boyhood heroes of my youth. And I thought it was just tragic that their story wasn’t being told.”

Major League Baseball has tried to right some of its past injustices. To its credit, they initially awarded 34 Negro League veterans and their spouses health insurance in 1993. Four years later, 29 more players were given life annuities between $7,500 and $10,000 that were transferable to their wives upon their death.

Finally, in 2004, MLB gave Negro Leaguers a choice of $40,000 for four years or a monthly pension $350 for life.

“You know what? Props to major league baseball for doing that,” Gladstone said. “But this story has always been about equity, not fairness. You just cannot give benefits to groups who, strictly speaking, didn’t have a contractual employment history with the league and then turn around and hose guys who did have legitimate working relationships with this employer.”

Following a class-action suit brought forth by two of the then 800-plus players affected between 1947-79 including Sadowski, major league baseball agreed in April, 2011 to give those non-vested players up to $10,000 per year based on service. It translated to roughly $600 per quarter-season, giving Sadowski — after taxes — an initial check of $5,500.

The annuity, however, is non-transferable to spouses.

“We don’t live in a perfect world, and this is far from a perfect solution to this problem,” Gladstone said “What was announced last April 21st doesn’t provide health insurance coverage, nor will any player’s spouse or loved one receive a designated beneficiary payment after the man passes. So in my estimation, this is only a partial victory.

Ironically, Sadowski came just shy of the four years initially to be vested due to injury after being well on his way. Initially traded to Milwaukee with Gene Oliver in a trade with St. Louis for All-Star pitcher Lew Burdette, he was used as both a starter and reliever with the Braves before landing in Boston prior to the 1966 season.

“Not braggingly, I loved my chances,” he said. “I was still twenty-eight years old. Going to the Red Sox, all I had to do was keep my ERA under four. I figured I’ll win eighteen games being with guys like (Tony) Conligiaro and Yaz [Carl Yastremski]. All those guys. They’d give me an eight or nine run game. I felt real good about it. I figured I was going to get more then ten years in the big leagues, get a nice pension.”

His first pitch of spring-training that year against several former teammates with the Cardinals was greeted by a Lou Brock homer before settling down. After two-plus scoreless innings of work from there, Sadowski got a surprise pep talk from then-Sox hitting coach Ted Williams along the boundary in right field.

“[Williams] says to me, “You’re going to help this club,’” Sadowski recalled. “I said, ‘Thank you.’ He talked to me some more and then said ‘I’ll see you around.’”

Sitting in a vacant clubhouse shortly thereafter with a towel across his shoulders, the veteran pitcher claims he was attacked by a teammate, one he’d later suspect was trying desperately to make the roster.

“Somebody grabbed me from behind and was choking me,” “I was ready to pass out. So what I did was [motioning] elbowed him in the gut. And the only thing I seen running out of the clubhouse was the left foot. It was a ballplayer.”

It wasn’t until Sadowski’s next outing that the shoulder pain proved to be too much. “I was throwing flutterballs,” he said.

He’d eventually be sent down to the minor-league team in Toronto, managed by Dick Williams, with his final major league appearance coming on July 4, 1966.

By the time he had the mystery attacker narrowed down, Sadowski, was already well out of baseball before abandoning thoughts of confronting the accused.

“Sometimes I get melancholy and I know I’m too old for that stuff,” he said. “I was no Hall of Famer, heck no. [But] if he wouldn’t have done that, what would have happened.”

As for the pension issue, Sadowski doesn’t want action as he wants simple answers to questions that don’t seem to add up. If today’s major league players — whose minimum salary in 2012 was $480,000 according to —earn full medical benefits after a single game and are vested in pensions following 43 days of service, why don’t those who fit those criteria that played between 1947-1979.

“Are they just holding on ‘til we die off?,” Sadowski asked. “Are they just going to wait us out? I really don’t know any more things to say about it. I’m not crying the blues, but the last seven months haven’t been good. But I’d like to live to a hundred.”

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