Aaron Pointer Feels Forgotten as Baseball Gets Back to Business


Every spring for the past several years, Aaron Pointer has climbed his steep driveway, taken a short stroll down the street and opened his mailbox to find a letter from Major League Baseball. Each time, as he walks back to his home, with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge peeking out over the water, he reflects on the long struggle for this small recognition. And then he tears into the envelope, revealing a check for about $900 and a letter explaining how this payment is not 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, this is his pension from M.L.B.

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

In 1972, Pointer retired from professional baseball after a 12-season career, in which he played 40 games over three seasons at the major league level. At the time he retired, M.L.B. players needed four years of service to qualify for a pension. In 1980, after a brief strike that did not result in any missed games, a new labor deal lowered that threshold substantially. Since then, players have become eligible for health care benefits after playing one game in the majors, and they qualify for a pension after 43 days on a major league roster.

But those new benefits for retirees didn’t apply retroactively. A group of more than 600 players — Pointer among them — was 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. The players could qualify for a maximum of $10,000 annually. For his contributions to baseball, Pointer’s pension comes to $1,200 a year — before taxes.

He’s spent recent months wondering whether that check will arrive at all. In December, M.L.B. owners voted unanimously to lock out the players after the 2016 collective bargaining agreement expired. Pointer watched some of the coverage on TV — with the owners having asked for an expanded postseason, and the players having asked for an increased portion of the league’s revenue — but he tended to turn it off after just a few moments. He never hears anyone voicing concern for 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 in Major League Baseball, the ones who have control of purse strings, who are the problem. They seem to think that they don’t have the money for us, but that’s not true. They could afford it — if they cared.”

On Thursday, after 99 days of capricious negotiations, the owners and the players’ union agreed to a new C.B.A. The deal is said to include improved pay for younger players, incentives for increased competition among teams and an expanded playoff, among other provisions. Two sources, who requested anonymity because of the tentative nature of the agreement, told The New York Times that the payments for this group of pre-1980 players have been increased by 15 percent and will continue for another five years.

“We are pleased to join the M.L.B.P.A. in continuing to support these retired players,” M.L.B. said in a statement.

When informed of the deal, Pointer was ambivalent. He appreciated that players like him were considered, but he wondered why it took so long. “That’s a good move, and I’m glad they remembered us,” he said. “Although it could have happened earlier, and it should have happened earlier. A lot of guys who have passed won’t benefit, but it does help the guys who are still alive. It’s just a shame: It should have happened years ago.”

For Pointer, the protracted battle has soured many of his fondest memories from 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 connected him with a new M.L.B. team in Houston — the Colt .45s. (He and his siblings grew up singing in the church choir, and his sisters — the Pointer Sisters — became a chart-topping, Grammy Award-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’d never experienced — he was forced to sleep in separate hotels and to eat in separate restaurants from his white teammates. It was the same summer that the Freedom Riders began their demonstrations for integration, and Pointer felt the power of the movement intimately.

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

“I still get calls about my baseball career,” Pointer said, “and I’m still very proud of all that I accomplished. But I don’t speak 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 this way, but that’s how it is.”

After retiring from baseball, Pointer found steadier footing in another corner of professional sports — football officiating. In 1978, he became the first Black referee in the Pac-10 conference, and he worked as a head N.F.L. linesman from 1987 to 2003. He once officiated a game after his sisters sang the national anthem. In 1994, he was working on the field when his son Deron made his first N.F.L. catch in a preseason game in Pittsburgh. After the completion, Deron popped up off the field and handed the ball to his father.

For his 17 years of N.F.L. officiating, Pointer said he collects about $50,000 a year in retirement benefits. Under the new M.L.B. formula, Pointer stands to receive about $1,380 a year (before taxes). Although he understands that his N.F.L. career lasted four times longer than his M.L.B. career, he doesn’t understand how that equates to nearly 40 times the annual benefit.

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

For Pointer, there’s one other change in plans for this year’s check: He’s going to drive to collect it. “It’s not an easy walk anymore for a guy who’s almost 80 years old,” he said. “I’ll probably just hop in my car, pick it up, put it in the bank and move on with my life.”

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