This is a guest article by Douglas Gladstone, author of the critically-acclaimed book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. In his book, Douglas shares the story of Major League Baseball’s labor agreements and pension system, and how hundreds MLB veterans fell through the cracks. The following interview on YouTube gives an overview of his book and the situation faced by these MLB veterans. Below the video is an article about one MLB veteran, George Yankowski, who put his major league career on hold to serve our country in WWII.
Next Sunday, December 16th, marks the 68th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the major offensive Germany launched through the densely forested Ardennes mountain region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg towards the end of World War II. The 41-day battle, which concluded on January 25, 1945, was militarily defined by the United States command as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, which included the German drive and the American effort to contain and later defeat it.
The Battle of the Bulge was arguably the largest and bloodiest battle fought on the Western Front in World War II. Our troops alone sustained approximately 89,000 casualties.
Fortunately, George Yankowski, of Lexington, Massachusetts, wasn’t one of them.
A catcher signed by the Philadelphia Athletics at the age of 19 in 1942, Yankowski played for the A’s from July 1942 until October 1942. Then came his patriotic tour of duty with the Army. Released by Philadelphia A’s when he returned home from the war, he then resumed his career with the Chicago White Sox in 1949.
All told, in an abbreviated career that spanned only 18 games, Yankowski came up to the plate 31 times, collecting five hits, including two doubles.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts 90 years ago, Yankowski was a hard-hitting catcher for both the Watertown High School Red Raiders as well as the Huskies of Northeastern University, which he graduated from in 1947. One of the original six alums inducted into the Northeastern University Hall of Fame in 1974, he later became head baseball coach, as well as a teacher, at Watertown High School in 1950. He remained there for over 25 years and was elected to the Waterton High School Hall of Fame. He also returned to his alma mater, where he assumed the position of guidance counselor and coordinator of the cooperative education program.
It was while attending Northeastern that Yankowski enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1942, and left for Fort Devens in April 1943. He subsequently fought in Metz, France — in an online interview published on the Watertown High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s website, he told Robert Kaprielian that “we went in Boxcars packed like sardines” — and then moved north to Luxembourg, Germany, where he took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Fighting was obviously hard enough but I also remember it also being the coldest winter on record,” Yankowski said. “We slept outside in 20 below degree weather.”
Yankowski came home from the war in June 1945 and after a three month battle with hepatitis in October of that year, got officially discharged in January 1946.
“Playing baseball was something special but the thing I am most proud of is serving our country,” Yankowski said.
Sadly, the contributions of a man who defended our freedoms and liberties fighting overseas doesn’t mean much to an $8 billion business like Major League Baseball.
In my 2010 release, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, I write about all those former big-league ballplayers like Yankowski who have been denied pensions as a result of the failure of both the league and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association union to retroactively amend the vesting requirement change that granted instant pension eligibility to ballplayers in 1980. As you may know, prior to that year, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all you have needed is one day of service credit for health insurance and 43 days of service credit for a pension.
As a result of so much publicity that my book generated, MLB and the union announced with a lot of fanfare last April that inactive, non-vested men like Yankowski, who played between 1947 and 1979, will receive up to $10,000 per year, depending on their length of service credit, as compensation for their contributions to the national pastime. While a nice gesture, I’d hardly categorize it as overly magnanimous.
The payment plan works like this: to be eligible to collect the money, each man has to have played a minimum of 43 games, which is roughly one-quarter of a baseball season. For each quarter of a season you accrued, up to 16 quarters (4 years), MLB and the union dole out a whopping $625 to you.
Again, baseball is an $8 billion industry. The average salary today is $3.29 million. The minimum salary for even the 25th man riding the pines is $480,000. That’s hardly (cracker jacks and) peanuts.
But peanuts are what is being doled out to men like George Yankowski in the form of this life annuity, which can’t even be passed on to his spouse, Mary, or any other designated beneficiary or loved one of his choosing. When he passes, that money passes with him. And, since the payment isn’t really a pension, it also means that the Yankowskis can’t buy into the umbrella health insurance coverage plan that all retirees who do get real baseball pensions are entitled to.
We don’t live in a perfect world, and this is far from a perfect solution to this problem. But in my estimation, this is only a partial victory. It’s appeasement, pure and simple, the equivalent of throwing these men a bone, And that’s really sad. The way we treat our retirees and seniors in this country is really sad.
Look, I’m a parent. Our kids are the future generation. But I think we also owe something to the men and women who came before us, men like George Yankowski. We need to show them a healthier respect too.
Especially since he was willing to take a bullet for us. To die for us.
I was first contacted by George and Mary in late May of last year, when my book tour took me to North Conway, New Hampshire. George read about my appearance at a local independent bookstore there, and sent me an email. Since he and Mary had just left for their winter home in Florida, he couldn’t make it. But I was impressed that he was willing to reach out to me and offer to drive to the Granite State just to hear me.
Like a lot of snowbirds, Mary and George enjoy their time in their home away from home.
“We do love it down here in the warm weather and plan on selling our home in Lexington when we return there so we can stay down here in Florida on a full time basis,” Mary wrote me after my New Hampshire event. “The weather is much better for our bones and George plays golf 4-5 times a week. Pretty good, right? We figure the years as an athlete helped keep his body going so strong.”
We agreed to subsequently meet up when they returned from the Sunshine State at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, since I was making a promotional visit there too. The three of us looked forward to it, and I was truly honored to meet this man. Not because I’m a baseball fan. But because I had never met a man who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge before.
Of course, by this time, MLB and the union had announced that men like George were supposed to get their payments. But by the time of our meeting at the Rockwell Museum last July, he still hadn’t gotten his first payment.
“I don’t know what goes on there,” George later the Lexington Minuteman’s Michael Liuzzi. “It would be nice if they took care of the guys under the pension plan. I always felt like I was on a roster, playing for two teams. I still get fan mail, so I feel like an ex-major leaguer.
“I suppose (Major League Baseball) is very busy. It would be nice if they did something for the old players, but they haven’t contacted me yet.”
“(Doug) deserves a medal,” Yankowski also told the Minuteman. “He’s a good writer, and he made some good points in his book. It was nice to see someone come along and take an interest.”
When he finally did get that first check, the whopping $2,500 the folks at the Commissioner’s offices had calculated he was due, you know what he did with it? He used the money to pay for sorely needed dental work.
I suppose that’s a fair trade-off. Go to war, we’ll pay to make you smile better.
Mary took the time to send me a followup email. “We sure appreciate all you time and efforts you have given to this matter, ” she wrote. “George does receive something and, like you say, it is a small pittance. But you know Doug, as long as we have our health, we are happy.”
A second life annuity payment was sent to Yankowski, as well as all the other affected men, this past January. In the collective bargaining agreement unveiled between the league and the union two days before last Thanksgiving, these life annuities were extended through 2016.
When he turned 90 last month, not too long after, appropriately enough, Veteran’s Day, I made sure to send the birthday boy a congratulatory email. My pen pal, Mary, responded promptly, as is her style.
“Thanks for remembering George! We did have a wonderful birthday party at home in Boston with all the family. He was thrilled. And all the family had a great time too, ” she wrote. “There were over 56 of us and it was quite a day!
“We are so blessed to have him still around,” continued Mary. “I also want to say he mentions you and your assistance in him getting at least a small token for his talents. Shame on the MLB for not giving him more. What greed.”
Greed indeed. I’ve said on numerous occasions that this whole disgraceful chapter in labor relations was a terrible inequity and injustice that stained baseball’s history, and I won’t rest until these men are properly taken care of. It’s the least we can do to honor a man like George Yankowski.
Douglas J. Gladstone is a freelance writer whose critically-acclaimed book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, can be purchased directly from Word Association Publishers at 1-800-827-7903. To learn more about the book, you may also visit its official website at http://www.abittercupofcoffee.com).