Most Idahoans who follow major league baseball know that Harmon Killebrew, the Hall of Fame home run slugger for the Minnesota Twins, was born and raised in Payette. They can probably tell you that Larry Jackson, a stalwart pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Vernon Law, a star pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates, were also Idaho-born.
Ask even the most fanatic fan one can find if they could tell you anything about others on the list of 30 Idahoans who made “the show” or are still in the majors, and one is liable to see nothing but a blank look.
Ask if they could say any factoid about Bruce Ellingsen, a pitcher born in Pocatello, or Bob Martyn, an outfielder born in Weiser, who graduated from Twin Falls High School and went on to Linfield College.
Or how about Frank Reberger, a pitcher born in Caldwell, the younger brother of Phil Reberger, the former chief of staff to Dirk Kempthorne when he was a U.S. Senator and Idaho’s governor and considered by many to be the most influential Republican operative in Idaho.
The latter three “unknowns” share or shared one common denominator: for years they were denied the retirement benefits of Major League baseball which in 1980 adopted a rule that eligibility required a minimum of four years of major league service and was retroactive to players who were in the show between 1947 and 1979. The rule change caused 500 former major leaguers to be left high and dry, as if a high and inside fastball had been tossed at their heads.
The pooh-bahs of baseball do toss a small carrot to these players based on a complicated formula that doles out $625 for every quarter of service these players may have accrued. Under this formula a non-beneficiary could receive a maximum payment of $10,000 a year if he served slightly less than four full years.
Compare that to a vested retiree who can receive a pension as high as $210,000. Nor can the dole for a non-beneficary be passed on to a surviving spouse or other designee. This is what happened to Weiser born Bob Martyn, an outfielder for the Kansas City Athletics who played in 154 games between 1957 and 1959 and died at age 85 in 2015.
Given that the Major League Pension Plan has $2.7 billion in assets, according to Forbes, one would think baseball could be a tad more generous. The four year requirement explains why many former players cultivate relations with the management of various teams in part because if one becomes say a bull pen coach or a pitching coach he can significantly pad his retirement benefit or qualify for a nice pension.
Take for example Caldwell born former Vandal pitcher Frank Reberger. Drafted by the Cubs he made it to the majors in 1968. Shortly after making the roster he was drafted by the first year expansion San Diego Padres. He enjoyed some success against the San Francisco Giants so they went out and picked him up and the rest of his brief caeer was spent with the Giants until he left baseball in 1972—just short of the four year requirment adopted in 1980.
Ten years later he realized the value of qualifying for the major league pension. During his brief career he had gotten acquainted with the great Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi who helped him get into the Angels organization as a bull pen coach. The day he reported for work in the Angels organization he qualified for the pension program. Later, the expansion Florida Marlins made him their first pitching coach.
During Reberger’ slightly less than four year player career he won 14 games and lost 15. His ERA was 4.51; he pitched 389 innings giving up 404 hits, issuing 197 walks and striking out 258 batters. He appeared in 148 games for the Cubs, Padres and the Giants. He started 37 games, and pitched five complete games.
Since he was a National Leaguer there was no “designated hitter”so he had 100 at bats with 23 hits (no home runs) for a .230 batting average. Today he is retired and resides on Camano Island in Puget Sound.
Pocatello born Bruce Ellingsen pitched briefly for the Cleveland Indians. He appeared in 16 games and was the starter in two. He pitched a total of 42 innings and finished with a respectable ERA of 3.21. Today he is retired and living in Laguna Hills, California.
In Bob Martyn’s 154 games he had 358 at bats with 94 hits which included 12 doubles, 11 triples ¸3 home runs, 35 rbi’s, and scored 35 runs while with Kansas City. Brief as some of these careers were one can bet that they all will always treasure that they were in “the show.” It would be nice to receive equity in a pension but there are some things money cannot compensate for or buy.
(Note: I am indebted to author Douglas Gladstone for much of the research in this column.)