MLB’s Poor Pre-1980 Player Pension Plan – The Bob Coluccio Story

Outfielder Robert (Bob) Collucio is among 626 former players not receiving adequate pensions due to an agreement between MLB and the players’ association. Players between 1947 – 1979 needed to accrue four years of service credit.

Collucio was born in Centralia, Washington on October 2, 1951. He started playing organized ball when he was 5 years old in a Pee Wee League. While the Seattle Pilots 1969 MLB draft is known for selections of outfielder Gorman Thomas and pitcher Jim Slaton, 17-year-old Coluccio was also chosen. The Pilots drafted him in the 17th round (405th overall), but he was the only player drafted in that round to play in the majors.

“It was $500 a month [his first season in the minors] and they offered me $8,000 to go to college,” said Coluccio. “I went off to Billings, Montana to play in the Rookie Pioneer League.”

Coluccio spent four years in the minors with the Pilots, Brewers and Phillies. He took a hiatus in 1971 to get married, during which time his contract was optioned to Philadelphia. There he played with future Phillies stars Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone.

Coluccio returned to the Milwaukee organization in 1972 and after hitting .300 at AAA, he was invited to major league spring training with the Brewers in 1973 and made the team as an outfielder after an injury to Dave May.

The Macaroni Pony and the Milwaukee Brewers

Suddenly Coluccio was a full time major leaguer at age 21 in 1973, batting .224 with 15 homers while playing in 124 games in the outfield.

Coluccio became popular early on with Milwaukee’s Italian-American population. Broadcasters Merle Harmon and Bob Uecker came up with a colorful nickname that cemented his popularity – “Macaroni Pony”.

He said, “They would sell the most beer out of any stadium with the least amount of violence. The fans in right field would bring me jugs of wine.”

After his rookie season, Coluccio sat down with Brewers owner Bud Selig to discuss his contract.

“I’m going to give you a $5,000 raise and an off-season job with our Schlitz beer distributorship in Arizona,” Selig told Coluccio. His salary went from 18,000 a year to 23,000 and he said he made pretty good money driving that beer truck, too.

The 1974 season brought more game appearances (138) and a similar batting average of .223 overall for Coluccio.

Coluccio said his decline as a hitter in the majors had to do with the advice of then-Brewers’ hitting coach Harvey Kuenn. He wanted to make Coluccio a prototypical leadoff hitter and diminished his aggressiveness at the plate.

“If I had stayed with my style and what I do, I probably would have been much better off,” said Coluccio.

Trades and an Early Retirement

Coluccio played 22 games in 1975 for the Brewers before being traded to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Bill Sharp. He went on to play in 61 games for the White Sox that season.

Coluccio spent 1976 in AAA and returned to the White Sox in 1977. He was released on April 1, 1978, six days before Opening Day. He signed with the Houston Astros shortly afterward. After two months in the minors for the Astros, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. His final five MLB appearances came with the Cardinals that season.

Coluccio was just 35 games shy of a pension and 26 years old when he retired from the game due to his father’s illness. He was traded to the New York Mets from the Cardinals after the 1978 season but responsibilities outside of baseball kept him from returning.

In 370 games, Coluccio came up to bat 1,095 times, scored 141 runs, drove in an additional 114 and collected 241 hits, including 38 doubles, 15 triples and 26 home runs.

Career highlights include hitting game-winning home runs in both games of a doubleheader against the White Sox. Coluccio also crushed a slider off reliever Ken Sanders into the left field bleachers for a 5-4 Brewers victory after Gaylord Perry threw the first 15 innings.

Penalized for Playing MLB in the Wrong Era

Players short of service time such as Coluccio have been getting non-qualified life annuities since 2011. These annuities were based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.

The players receive $625 for every 43 game days of service they were on an active MLB roster, or a maximum payment of $10,000.

Contrast that against the maximum IRS pension limit for vested retirees of $230,000.

For his three and three-quarters years of service, Coluccio gets a net payment of approximately $6,262. That payment is not permitted to be passed on to a beneficiary upon death, so cannot be transferred to Coluccio’s wife, Terry.

Fortunately Coluccio had a successful post-baseball career and has other retirement income. Other pre-1980 players subsist on the inadequate MLB payment, SSI and Medical received to pay subscription drugs.

Players after 1980 are eligible for a pension after only 43 game days. Their benefits are transferable upon death.

“To me it’s like saying we want to invite some of our family members to dinner,” says Coluccio, “but they have to eat in the kitchen.”

An Unfair Playing Field

For every story of an aging ball player stashed on a roster in late September to accrue service time such as Harvey Kuenn, there are examples like Bob Coluccio falling just short of a pension.

During the 1971 season, the Brewers put Kuenn on the active roster for the last month of the season. GM Frank Lane did this so Kuenn could to add service time in order to improve his pension. Kuenn never got into a game. In fact, on September 17 he left Milwaukee to help coach the Brewers Instructional League team in Arizona.

These days a player can join a team for August and September and easily be on the roster for 43 games. Though he clearly had more service credit, Coluccio doesn’t get a pension but today’s player does. He also went 31 years without receiving a cent until the 2011 agreement brought on by then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner and commissioner Bud Selig.

This sad state of affairs needs to be corrected. MLB has roughly $3.5 billion in pension funds but obviously doesn’t want to do anything for the pre-1980 non-vested players. They do not have a legal obligation to rectify this but it should be a moral obligation. “The best pension plan in all sports” only applies for players after 1980.

My book Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee is available to be ordered on the McFarland website.

(The story you just read is not part of the book)

Thanks to Douglas J. Gladstone for the article idea and some information. Douglas is a freelance magazine writer and author of two books, including A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. Visit his website: http://www.gladstonewriter.com.

Other sources:

Baseball Reference

Wikipedia

SABR.org – Harvey Kuenn bio

Coluccio Reflects on Baseball Career (August 13, 2013) – LA Times

Centralia Native Bob Coluccio Reflects on Major League Career (July 20, 2012) – The Chronicle (Centralia, WA)

Time for Tony Clark, MLB to do right by the former players excluded from pension benefits (February 8, 2020) – New York Daily News

3 thoughts on “MLB’s Poor Pre-1980 Player Pension Plan – The Bob Coluccio Story

  1. Great story on Bob. I am also one of the pre 1980 players and really appreciate your article. A little note for you, Steve Rogers took me to the side at a Brewer game to tell me the MLBPA did not proceed to go after all players pensions because their was not enough money when the owners made the new offer . I said that is fine but why not go after it now. No reply. Thanks again for getting this out.

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    • Thank you for responding and telling a bit about your story, Gene. I agree about going after it now, especially considering the money tossed at other “things” rather than human beings that played the game.

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  2. Chris, Thank you for the story, I’m one of the pre 80 players also. Doug Gladstone has been championing our cause for many years . I played against Bob , he was a very good player , and good guy. Thanks again for your effort to inform people about this issue .we hope many others will write about the subject and inform people ! Stay Healthy!! Tom Bruno

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