The ‘Ripple of Hope’ Project Urges MLB To Provide Benefits & Lost Wages To Family Members Of The 25 Hall Of Fame Negro League Players
Detroit Tigers legend Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter I’ve seen in my lifetime, plans to retire at the end of this season.
The 17-year veteran is a two-time MVP, four-time batting champion, and was voted to eleven All-Star teams. He’s currently on track to be one of three players to end his career with over 500 home runs, 3,000 hits, and a batting average over .300.
There’s little doubt Cabrera will be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame, as soon as he’s eligible for enshrinement five years from retirement. It will line up nicely with his 45th birthday – which happens to be the same year he’s eligible to start to receive a pension from the league. As a veteran with over 10 years of service, Cabrera is eligible for a minimum of $100,000 a year.
His teammate, Parker Meadows, qualified for lifetime healthcare coverage on August 21st of this year – his MLB debut. By the end of this season, Meadows will likely have accumulated the 43 days of major league service time to earn a lifetime pension.
Cabrera is a definite Hall of Famer. Meadows’s career is just taking off. However, Meadows will receive more in pension payments than several Hall of Famers like Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Oscar Charleston. Buck O’Neill, whose 18-year-career as a first baseman mirrors Cabrera’s, was not eligible for a pension. The reason why is simple. They were Black ballplayers in the Negro Leagues.
Major League Baseball recognized the Negro Leagues in December of 2020, attempting to rectify decades of ignoring the history of the Black and Brown men who helped establish baseball as America’s pastime.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said at the time: “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
While it was a step in the right direction, it’s a half-measure. Recognizing the great players in the Hall of Fame is one thing, but they and their families should be eligible for the best pension program in American professional sports.
What About Pensions & Benefits For Negro League Players & Families?
The Combat Athletes Assistance Network’s (CAAN) ‘Ripple of Hope Project’ aims to push Major League Baseball to complete the full measure.
Per a proposal sent to the commissioner’s office and obtained by MLBbro.com, the Ripple of Hope Project states:
“One of American history’s most glaring examples of oppression of the African-American community (post-slavery) was Major League Baseball’s previous systematic conspiracy to exclude Negro League baseball players from pursuing careers in the white Major Leagues, thereby depriving those players of the opportunity to earn better livelihoods for themselves and their families.
The mental, emotional, and economic consequences of this conspiracy continue to this day among members of the African-American community; more specifically, among the subsequent generations of the Negro League players’ families. The existence of these conditions inspired the Ripple of Hope Project’s movement to obtain lost wages for Negro League baseball players and their families.
The Ripple of Hope Project sees this movement more as an opportunity for the current MLB Commissioner, Mr. Rob Manfred, and the thirty MLB ownership groups, to heroically correct this unjust act of their predecessors, and in the process, repair old wounds and create a new beginning for themselves with the African-American community.”
Indeed, this is a unique, yet overdue way of thinking.
The Money Trail
According to the proposal, most Negro League salaries averaged $230 in the 1920s and $170 in the 1930s. Major League salaries averaged $17,678 and $33,431 in the same decades, insinuating thousands of dollars in lost revenue at the time due to segregation.
The proposal suggests Major League Baseball pay these lost wages to the surviving family members/beneficiaries of the twenty-five Negro League players who were inducted into the Hall of Fame as players.
Ernie DiStefano, CEO of CAAN, head of the Ripple of Hope project and one of the authors of the proposal, has experience in assisting former athletes. CAAN’s mission is to “provide professional combat athletes, and those aspiring to a combat sports career, with assistance and advocacy that will help to enhance the quality of life for themselves and their families and provide them with leverage and a degree of autonomy in their fight careers.”
DiStefano says “The disbursement is more a flexible process that depends on what transpires as we go along… there are three groups: the 25 players we mentioned, other surviving players, and organizations that are currently operating to help Negro League players and their families.”
Organizations like Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players Foundation have worked to bring awareness to Negro League players and their place in American baseball history.
Co-founder Dennis Biddle has developed a network of living Negro League players. Biddle made his debut at 17 years old, making him the youngest Negro league player in the Congressional Record. At 88 years old today, he travels to tell the oral history of the Negro Leagues as president of YNLBP.
“The Major Leagues, since they made us (the Negro Leagues) a part of them, they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do with the living players.” said Biddle, in an interview with MLBbro.com last year.
“We would work with them (YNLBP and other similar organizations) to find these individuals, locate these families, some of which I’ve already spoken to…” says DiStefano. “We’re hoping that MLB would go along with our plan to not just assist the players but the other individuals and families who were involved.”
MLB’s Made Modest Efforts To Compensate Some Negro League Players
In 1997, MLB owners approved a plan to provide pension payments to about 65 former Negro League players, according to Mark Maske in the WASHINGTON POST. The plan would provide a $10,000 annual stipend to qualified players. The players who qualify are those who did not play in the majors long enough to qualify for a pension. That still left plenty of Negro League players at the time who were fighting declining health and rising medical bills without any financial help.
In 2004, Major League Baseball agreed to create a charitable program that granted monthly payments to an estimated 27 former Negro League players who were left out of a previous compensation plan.
The new program would provide the players either $833.33 a month for four years or $375 a month for life, according to sources. The first option would continue paying a surviving spouse for the full four years in the event of a player’s death. To qualify, players must have played at least one game in at least four seasons prior to 1958.
To the hundreds of Negro League players who advanced the game, generated revenue for owners and were undercompensated, these “gestures” fail to put a dent in the problems these pioneers have faced, having essentially worked for free under the oppression of segregation throughout much of their careers.
In the September 21, 1948, edition of the New York Age, Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles and now enshrined in Cooperstown said:
“Baseball is a rich man’s game… Ruppert had his beer, Wrigley had his gum, Abe and I have only each other. I am not worried about myself, but I am concerned about the 400 men and their families who depend on the Negro Leagues.”
CAAN’s Ripple of Hope Project has a plan that may finally address Manley’s concerns.