Illustration by Jesse Lenz.
Richard Lee Baney still remembers the excitement he felt in 1963 as a fireballing freshman in high school. Scouts like Los Angeles Dodgers' legend Tommy Lasorda already had their eyes on him. "I was told that I'd be the first Mexican signed out of Orange County," he says.
He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox three years later, and went on to devote nine of his prime employment years to the game, mostly by riding stinky school buses to places like Rochester, N.Y., Indianapolis, and Des Moines, Iowa. He debuted in the big leagues with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. His last appearance came with the Cincinnati Reds five years later. Career highlights included getting a win for the Big Red Machine in a 1973 playoff game, and striking out Henry Aaron twice just a year before Hammering Hank broke Babe Ruth's home run record. While in the Show, Baney compiled a 4-1 record with three saves, 38 strikeouts, and a 4.28 ERA.
After baseball, he worked with his father, a developer, then went into the oil business and other ventures that proved him a natural salesman. He's now mostly retired as a real estate investor and property manager, and lives in a nice home.
But many of the guys he played with had no such luck, post-baseball. Most landed menial jobs. They had families to support and no time to return to school once they walked away from the diamond. Some fell into drug and alcohol abuse.
Baney doesn't begrudge current players their seven-digit salaries. What does irk him is that a game with a $500,000 minimum wage (compared to $1,500 when he played) can't take better care of the 800 or so retirees and wives from his era that he hears from daily, an aging group existing in a pension limbo that has turned them into baseball's lost boys.
Due to negotiations over the years between owners and the players' union, if you played at least five years before 1947, or were in the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that same year, you receive annual $10,000 pensions, medical benefits and, once you die, coverage extended to your spouse or children. For those who spent at least 47 days in the bigs from 1980 forward, you also get the pension — and medical is extended to those who played just one day. But players who clocked fewer than four full seasons between 1947 to 1980 received nothing.
If that does not sound unfair, consider this: If you were in a big league dugout for just one minute in 1980, your medical is covered in your golden years. If you pitched your arm out of a career after 3.99 years of MLB service by 1979, you are not.
Finding it cruel that those who played fewer games before and after they did are covered in their golden years — including Negro Leaguers who were never part of Major League Baseball — three former ballplayers in 2002 sued Commissioner Bud Selig and the 30 team owners, claiming 1,045 retirees were subjected to reverse discrimination.
The suit and appeal eventually broke baseball's way; publicity and a book about the issue, as well as recommendations from the MLB Players Alumni Association pensions committee, led Selig to announce in April 2011 that the Collective Bargaining Agreement includes annual annuities up to $10,000 to baseball's lost boys, paid by the league and the Players Association — through 2016. Since MLB is not legally obligated to cover them, and the union does not have to represent them, the lost boys consider the annuities, which range from $621 to $9,375 yearly after taxes, better than nothing.
But for those like Baney, who have been working on righting what they consider a wrong since the early 1980s, it was a major league letdown, especially when they read about current players like Angel Albert Pujols pulling down $250 million, or MLB kicking in another $1 million in quasi-pensions to 27 Negro Leaguers who played after 1950 but never in the bigs, on grounds the national pastime was too slow to integrate.
"Ninety percent of players aren't happy with it," Baney says of baseball's lost boys. "The others are just happy to be getting anything."
Over the years, former ballplayers such as Baney, Gerry Janeski of Huntington Beach, David Clyde of Texas, and Ken Wright and Jimmy Hutto of Florida have written reams of letters to Hall of Famers, spoken out in newspaper accounts and on sports talk radio, and, in Baney's case, threatened to picket All-Star games on behalf of their baseball brothers who are struggling to make ends meet, dealing with medical issues and in some cases dying without health coverage. They maintain the lost boys deserve lifetime $10,000 annual pensions, medical coverage, and benefits extended to survivors, just like almost all other baseball retirees get.
"Baseball has the best revenue it has ever had," Baney says. "I realize it's a business — I realize it's a business that does not want to take care of a few players. So the only chance we have is to embarrass baseball."
At 65, Baney doesn't need the retirement money. Though he was up and down between the minor and major leagues over a nine-year span, Baney is officially considered to have one year of total MLB service, with the Pilots, Reds, and Red Sox. That earns him annuity checks of $2,400 each. But that's not the point, he says — fairness is. And because he's been so vocal, he routinely fields phone calls from sick and financially strapped retirees who now hope he can produce the ultimate late-inning relief.
"What do I tell all these guys or their widows who call every day?" he asks in between cough drops. "Why isn't more being done?
"I feel this was a way to say, 'You guys are a bunch of nobodies. You never made it big,'" Baney adds. "But who was giving up all these home runs to Harmon Killebrew and Willie Mays? I was part of it."