Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Cambridge-born George Yankowski played Major League Baseball and earned the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge in Work War II. (Photo: George Yankowski Jr. via Facebook)

Decorated  serviceman George Yankowski, who was one of the 625 retired Major League Baseball players not receiving a league pension, died Feb. 25. He was 97 years old.

Born in Cambridge, Yankowski was a hard-hitting catcher for the Watertown High School Red Raiders as well as the Huskies of Northeastern University, which he graduated from in 1947. One of the original six alums inducted into the Northeastern University Hall of Fame in 1974, he later became head baseball coach, as well as a teacher, at Watertown High School in 1950. He remained there for more than 25 years and was elected to the high school’s Hall of Fame.

It was while attending Northeastern that Yankowski enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1942, and left for Fort Devens in April 1943. He wanted to become an aviation cadet, but ended up in the infantry and trained as a sniper. He sailed for Europe in 1944 with the 346th Infantry Regiment in the 87th Infantry Division. In 2014, Miami’s French Consul General awarded him the French Legion of Honor Medal.

He fought in Metz, France, and moved to Luxembourg, Germany, where he took part in the Battle of the Bulge. He earned the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge for his frontline encounters during that famous 44-day campaign. Yankowski came home from the war in June 1945, officially discharged the next January.

He had been signed by no less than Connie Mack, catching for six games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1942 before doing his patriotic tour of duty. He resumed his career with the Chicago White Sox for a dozen games in 1949.

Sadly, the contributions of a man who defended our freedoms and liberties fighting overseas didn’t mean much to MLB or the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

Yankowski wasn’t receiving a traditional MLB pension because the rules for them changed in 1980: Ballplayers active between 1947 and 1979 needed to accrue four years of service to be eligible.

Instead, they all receive nonqualified retirement payments based on a complicated formula that had to be calculated by an actuary. In brief, for every 43 game days of service a man had accrued, he’d get $625, up to the maximum, $10,000 – before taxes.

By contrast, the maximum allowable pension a retired MLB player who is vested can make is $230,000.

What’s more, the nonqualified payment cannot be passed on to a surviving spouse or designated beneficiary. So none of Yankowski’s loved ones, such as his wife, Mary, will get that payment now that he is deceased.

These men are also not eligible to be covered under the league’s umbrella health insurance plan.

They are being penalized for playing the game they loved at the wrong time.

Though the current players’ welfare and benefits fund is valued at more than $3.5 billion, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up more of the collective pie. Many of the affected retirees are filing for bankruptcies at advanced ages, having their homes foreclosed on and are so poor and sickly they cannot afford adequate health insurance coverage.

George Yankowski was willing to take a bullet for us. To die for us. And how did the national pastime repay him?

With a gross check of $2,500. (Before taxes.)

When he got his first check nine years ago, you know how he spent it? He used the money to pay for sorely needed dental work.

Which is fitting. ’Cause this situation really bites.

Douglas J. Gladstone wrote, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.” He lives in Albany, New York.