Aaron Pointer feels forgotten as baseball returns to action


Every spring for several years, Aaron Pointer has climbed his steep driveway, taken a short walk down the street, and opened his mailbox to find a letter from Major League Baseball. Each time, as he returns home, with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge over the water, he reflects on the long struggle for that little recognition. And then he rips open the envelope, revealing a check for about $900 and a letter explaining how that payment isn’t guaranteed to continue next year.

In 1961, Pointer became the last American professional baseball player to hit better than .400 for a full season. Sixty-one years later, here’s his MLB pension

“I just laugh when I see the check,” Pointer, 79, said in a phone interview from his home in Tacoma, Washington. “At least Major League Baseball recognizes that we exist now, but my pension is less than $100 a month with taxes. That’s barely enough to go out to dinner.

In 1972, Pointer retired from professional baseball after a 12-season career, during which he played 40 games over three seasons at the major league level. At the time of his retirement, MLB players needed four years of service to qualify for a pension. In 1980, after a brief strike that resulted in no missed matches, a new labor contract lowered that threshold considerably. Players have since become eligible for healthcare benefits after playing a game in the majors, and they are eligible for a pension after 43 days on a major league roster.

But these new benefits for retirees did not apply retroactively. A group of more than 600 players – including Pointer – have been left behind for more than three decades.

In 2011, the commissioner’s office and the Major League Baseball Players Association Agreed to apply a pension formula to these previously excluded players. Players could qualify for a maximum of $10,000 per year. For his baseball contributions, Pointer’s pension is $1,200 a year — before taxes.

He’s spent the past few months wondering if that check will arrive. In December, MLB owners voted unanimously to lock out players after the 2016 collective bargaining agreement expired. Pointer watched some of the coverage on TV – with the owners requesting a extension of the playoffs and players who asked for an increase in the league’s revenue share – but he tended to turn it off after a few moments. He never hears anyone worrying about retired players like him, and he wonders if they’ve been forgotten – again.

“I hope the players are thinking of us,” he said. “In my experience, it’s the people at Major League Baseball, the people who control the purse strings, who are the problem. They seem to think they don’t have the money for us, but that’s not the case. “It’s not true. They could afford it – if they cared.”

On Thursday, after 99 days of temperamental negotiations, the owners and the players’ union agreed on a new CBA. The deal would include improved pay for young players, incentives for increased competition between teams and an expanded playoff, among other provisions. Two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the tentative nature of the deal, told The New York Times that payouts for this group of pre-1980 players have been increased by 15% and will continue for another five years. years.

“We are thrilled to join the MLBPA in continuing to support these retired players,” MLB said in a statement.

When told of the deal, Pointer was ambivalent. He appreciated that players like him were considered, but he wondered why it was taking so long. “It’s a good decision, and I’m glad they remembered us,” he said. “Although it could have happened sooner, and it should have happened sooner. A lot of guys who died won’t benefit from it, but it helps guys who are still alive. It’s just a shame: it should have happened years ago.

For Pointer, the protracted battle soured many of his fondest memories of playing baseball.

Born in Oakland, Calif., to a pair of pastors, Pointer played basketball at the University of San Francisco before his high school baseball coach hooked him up with a new MLB team in Houston, the Colt .45. (He and his siblings grew up singing in the church choir, and his sisters – the Pointer sisters — became a Grammy-winning R&B group.)

Houston gave the 19-year-old pointer a $10,000 signing bonus before shipping him to North Carolina to play for the Class D Salisbury Braves. He was the only black player on the team.

In the Deep South, Pointer endured discrimination like he had never experienced — he was forced to sleep in separate hotels and eat in separate restaurants from his white teammates. It was the same summer that the Freedom Riders began their protests for integration, and Pointer felt the power of the movement intimately.

In a year when the league’s batting average was .256, Pointer built his up to .402. All these years later, no one else at any level in American professional baseball has been able to match him in a full season. (Gary Redus hit .462 for the Billings Mustangs in a short rookie pitch season in the Pioneer League in 1978, and several players hit better than .400 in the Mexican League AAA.)

“I still get calls about my baseball career,” Pointer said, “and I’m still very proud of everything I’ve accomplished. But I’m not talking about hitting .400 anymore. With everything that’s happened between me and Major League Baseball, it’s just something I’d rather avoid if I can. It’s unfortunate that I feel like this, but that’s how it is. »

After retiring from baseball, Pointer found a more stable footing in another area of ​​professional sports – football officiating. In 1978, he became the Pac-10 conference’s first black umpire, and he worked as the NFL’s chief linesman from 1987 to 2003. He once refereed a game after his sisters sang the National anthem. In 1994, he was working the field when his son Deron made his first NFL catch in a preseason game in Pittsburgh. After the completion, Deron came off the field and handed the ball to his father.

For his 17 years of refereeing in the NFL, Pointer said he was collecting about $50,000 a year in retirement benefits. Under the new MLB formula, Pointer should receive about $1,380 a year (before taxes). While he understands his NFL career lasted four times longer than his MLB career, he doesn’t understand how that equates to nearly 40 times annual earnings.

But he joked that at least now he could take his wife, Leona, out to dinner once more every year. “We won’t be able to afford to bring guests, but at least Leona and I can hang out,” he laughed. “It’s progress.”

For Pointer, there’s another change in plans for this year’s check: He’ll be driving to collect it. “It’s not an easy walk anymore for a guy who’s almost 80,” he said. “I’ll probably jump in my car, pick it up, put it in the bank and get on with my life.”

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