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Courtesy BYU Photo
BYU baseball player Doug Howard crosses the plate.

There’s never been a better time to be a Major League Baseball player. The league is thriving, bolstered by record revenues, and the players are reaping record salaries and record pensions. Too bad they've forgotten the generation of players who made it possible — players such as Doug Howard, the former BYU baseball and basketball player.

He played in only 97 major league games for three teams from 1972 to 1976, totaling 233 plate appearances, 46 hits and a single home run. He might have played longer, but he turned down an offer from the Red Sox to return to the minors because he had a wife and four kids and didn’t have the stomach or time for another trip to a backwater team.

But Howard, now 70, along with his peers, was part of something bigger than individual careers and stats; he was part of something that laid the groundwork for future players to benefit from the game that was their livelihood. His generation of players battled for free agency, led by the courageous stand of outfielder Curt Flood, who would become one of Howard’s teammates. His generation held the first players strike in MLB history in 1972, costing 86 games. It ended only when owners agreed to increase pension funds by a half-million dollars.

Those were milestone changes that benefitted future players, and yet Howard and other players of his era have been forgotten and ignored. In Howard’s era, a player was required to spend four years on a major-league roster to be eligible for a pension. In 1980, four years after Howard retired, the rules were changed. Any player who spent a day on a major-league roster became eligible for the health plan; any player who accrued 43 game days on an active MLB roster became vested in the pension plan, with the amount of money contingent on years of service.

There was one big caveat: The rule change applied only to players who had played from 1980 on. Howard, who had accrued a total of 2½ years prior to 1980, was one of 847 retirees who received no pension. He felt betrayed.

“When I was up in the majors I was part of the meetings in which we were trying to get more pension money,” he says. “For those of us who were left out, we felt like we should have been included with all the groundwork we had done.”

He remembers sitting in the outfield during meetings with Marvin Miller, director of the players union, as Miller discussed free agency and pensions and warned that another strike might be necessary. Howard wasn’t part of the first strike — he was in the minors — but he felt its repercussions. After the strike, the players returned to the game but the fans didn’t, and the next year's salaries were depressed as a result.

Howard says he never thought free agency and pensions for more players would become a reality, but of course they did for everyone but those 847 players.

It’s not as if Major League Baseball can’t afford it. The league has seen its revenues increase every year for 15 years, reaching $10 billion last season. The average value of a franchise is $1.65 billion. The average player salary is about $4.4 million per season, and, if that weren’t enough, the annual pension for retired players with more than 10 years in the league can be as much as $220,000 annually.

But there still is no pension for Howard and his peers. This is how unfair it is: A player who got called up to the major leagues on Aug. 15 and played to the end of the season — or didn’t play, but sat on the bench — would already be eligible for an annual pension of $3,589. But a player who played anything short of four years before 1980 would receive nothing.

Of those 847 retirees who were left out of the pensions, only 641 are living today. Says Howard, “Maybe they’re realizing now, shoot, they’re all dying off, and then it doesn’t matter.”

Major League Baseball threw those players a bone in 1980. Beginning that year, they began making one annual payment each February based on years of service, but it is nowhere near the money they would have made with a true pension. Howard receives $4,000 each February (about $3,400 after taxes); he figures he would’ve made $12,000-$15,000 annually with a pension, which, unlike the annual payment, can be passed on to his wife and children after he dies.

Then there is also this to consider: Howard — and the other 640 players receiving the annual payment — received nothing from 1980 to 2011. That would’ve added up to a lot of money for Howard.

Maybe you’re fresh out of sympathy. Why should players be entitled to a pension after just 43 games? Well, for one thing, baseball players — and other athletes — postpone other careers or sacrifice education to pursue professional athletic careers. And in Howard’s era, many players didn’t earn enough money to make it worthwhile. Howard’s biggest contract paid him $16,000 for his final season. When Howard played for the Cardinals, his teammates included baseball’s first all-$100,000 outfield — Lou Brock, Willie Davis and Reggie Smith. There are players who make that much now in a single game.

It was a difficult transition when Howard retired from baseball at 28. He tried to sell real estate for a time. He drove a UPS truck. He gave batting lessons to kids. He even tried to return to the major leagues. Eventually, he took a coaching/teaching job in Payson, Utah, and a year later he took the same position at Brighton High, where he stayed for 30 years before spending another four years at Lone Peak High. His wife also went to work as a teacher. The Howards live on their teachers’ pensions.

“I took a hit when I got out (of baseball),” he says.

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Author and freelance writer Doug Gladstone, who is leading the campaign to win pensions for the forgotten players, notes that over the years the league gave health insurance to veterans of the Negro leagues and their wives; and $10,000 to players who played prior to 1947; and $10,000 to those who played a combined four years in the Negro and major leagues; and $40,000 (or $350 per month for life) to those who played four years in the Negro League.

But MLB has offered only a pittance to those 641 players who played less than four years prior to 1980, and has not offered them a pension.

“That is incredibly ironic,” says Gladstone. “And sad.”