The Life Satisfaction of Retired Ballplayers

This article was written by Steve Lerch

This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal


Introduction

Although it is generally acknowledged that active baseball players lead lives of luxury, earning large incomes in prestigious occupations, the public often forgets that active careers in baseball, as well as other professional sports, are usually quite short. The vast majority of athletes must make transitions into new and different lifestyles following the end of their active careers. These transitions require both situational/structural adaptations (e.g., adjustment to a new job and from the career in athletics; readjustment to home and family life; and adjustment to less income) and social psychological adaptations (e.g., the realization that “youth” is gone; and adjustment to the loss of prestige now that one is no longer a professional athlete). A number of first-person accounts by athletes, such as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and third-person commentaries like Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, have indicated that these adaptations are rarely made without some difficulty. However, scientific research into this issue has been minimal, due primarily to the fact that gerontologists (those who study aging) have for the most part failed to consider career change — the case of the professional athlete as a type of retirement.

Accordingly, a model was developed to explain the variation in life satisfaction among retired athletes. The model included both factors which gerontologists have found to impact upon the life satisfaction of older, permanent retirees, such as income and health, and those pertinent only to the lives of retired professional athletes, such as quality and length of career. The researcher proposed that continuity of lifestyle was crucial for the career changer — that those whose lives changed the least following their active careers in athletics would exhibit the greatest degree of life satisfaction.

Method

A series of hypotheses was developed to examine the relationships between a number of factors and life satisfaction. To test these hypotheses, questionnaires were sent to nearly 1 200 ex-major league baseball players in 1978; well over 500 of these scientifically selected individuals returned completed questionnaires. Life satisfaction was measured by using a standard life satisfaction index in which the respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements like “I am just as happy as when I was younger” and “I feel my age, but it does not bother me.” After each hypothesis was tested individually, factors with strong relationships to life satisfaction were grouped together to determine which were the most important predictors of life satisfaction. These analyses were first completed on the total group and then on each of three smaller groups: those still working who have been retired from active participation in baseball for 20 years or less, those still working who have been retired from baseball for more than 20 years, and those who are permanently retired.

Results

Analysis of the life satisfaction scale indicated that the retired athletes are on the whole quite satisfied with their lives. Only 15 percent had scores which were considered low; 51 percent had moderate life satisfaction scores, and 34 percent scored high. The stereotype of the downtrodden ex-ballplayer who is extremely dissatisfied with life does not hold up under close scrutiny. The high scores on the life satisfaction scale were made more meaningful by responses to the open-ended questions. For example, the most frequent response to the question “What were the hardest things for you to adjust to when you quit playing baseball” was “none” or “nothing.” Those who indicated that there were obstacles to overcome mentioned things such as

1) loss of prestige:

Becoming an average individual and having to come down off a pedestal.

The loss of stardom — loss of recognition with baseball fans.

Recognizing that you were a former baseball player, the reception was less than anticipated, because many people were not interested in baseball.

. . . an adjustment to a new career can be somewhat traumatic. . .baseball (if you’re successful to the degree you become a major league player) provides adulation and income at an early age. Adjusting to the day-to-day status of your peers in the “other world” can be ego deflating and depressing.

2) missing spring training:

Not going to spring training — I had the itch for 23 springs following my last active season.

[I] had a hard time adjusting to not going to spring training each February.

3) missing friends made in the game:

.. . .missing the comradeship of all the friends I had made.

Not going to the ballpark each day — association with the other players. That had been the focal point of my life from the sophomore year in high school. I wouldn’t go near a ballpark for a year after retiring in an effort to wean myself.

4) the thrills and competition of baseball:

. . . at the point of retirement I didn’t realize how much I would miss the competition of playing with the best players in the game until I realized I would definitely not be playing.

I still miss the excitement and competition.

Transition into a style of living at first, the lack of travel. The thrill and excitement attributed to that life, the attention, the acceptance and availability of almost anything.

and 5) adjusting to a nine-to-five job:

[I had difficulty] 1. finding a job; 2. adjusting to work situation — the 9 to 5 system; 3. dealing with people for whom you work (very short temper — disliked being told what to do).

I found it difficult finding a job that I liked. I didn’t have a college education and my experience was limited to being a professional baseball player.

It was hard to adjust to a regular routine — hours, eating, sleeping, etc. It was hard to adjust to getting along and talking to people who had not been in sports and knew little about sports. It was hard to adjust to going into a business.

Even those who did point out adjustments which needed to be made appear to have made them with only moderate difficulty; to the question “Do you feel that you’ve made these adjustments, or are some of them still giving you trouble,” by far most responded that they had “no problem.” Some respondents indicated that it “took some time to adjust” but that they had made satisfactory transitions:

I missed baseball very much for about four or five years.

It took about three years for me to become adjusted to a non-baseball life.

For five years I labored diligently to make the adjustment from baseball and if it wasn’t for my wife and children I may not have been successful.

[Missing the game] finally passed after 2 or 3 years. The first year I quit was tough!

I went through three years of no job — a divorce — and bankruptcy. I’ve now adjusted fairly well except I still resent authority and feel much better working for myself.

As a player you get a lot of favors that you don’t get in real life. As a player you get a false impression that you are something special because of the way people treat you. You do adjust. . .but it does take time.

In contrast, only six percent of the ex-ballplayers noted that they were still “not 100 percent adjusted” for one reason or another. Comments indicating a failure to adjust completely to retirement and/or a bitterness toward baseball were few and far between:

I feel I’ve made some adjustments but cannot say 100%.

When I retired from baseball I had a tremendous resentment against the game. As time goes by it gets less and less.

After 6 years I still miss it.

Leaving baseball was a shock. There never was a doubt I would not [sic] be there till the day I died. I felt let down immensely when my injury healed and nobody would give me a job. I was very bitter and still am.. .1 have not made the adjustments as I should have, because every time I pick the papers up and see a lot of these guys managing in the majors that can’t carry my jock strap into the ball park when it comes to managerial ability, it makes me sick.

The comments of these dissatisfied men are by no means insignificant. However, it is clear that the vast majority of the respondents in this study experienced little or no difficulty in the transition from active to inactive ballplayer; or, if there were problem areas, they surmounted the obstacles with relative ease.

Given the fact that most of the retired ballplayers are satisfied with their lives, the next step was to determine which factors were associated with that satisfaction. For the total group of respondents, the most important factor was good health, followed in importance by high present income, high level of education, positive pre-retirement attitudes, and having a present job related to sports. Other factors which we suspected would influence life satisfaction — things like quality and length of career — had negligible or non-existent effects.

When the respondents were divided into groups according to their present employment status and time since the end of their active careers in baseball, slightly different patterns emerged. For the permanently retired respondents, the most important factors were health, present income, and pre-retirement attitude. For those still working and retired from baseball for more than 20 years, pre-retirement attitude, health, having a job connected with sports, and present income had the most influence on life satisfaction. Finally, for those still working who have been retired from baseball for 20 years or less, present income, health, level of education, and income earned as a ballplayer had the greatest effect.

Implications

The questionnaire provided the retired ballplayers with the opportunity to give advice to their presently active counterparts and to the baseball establishment, and they responded enthusiastically. To today’s ballplayer, they advised getting a good education and taking an off-season job that would develop into a full-time occupation after retirement. Furthermore, they advised planning for retirement early in the career — something few of them did.

Since health and income had such a great effect upon life satisfaction, it is clear that any increase in either health or pension payments undoubtedly would increase the well-being of the ex-ballplayers. Although most would agree that baseball now has an excellent pension plan, many of the former ballplayers were unhappy that they were not vested in it, either because they played before its creation or because their major league careers were too short. Accordingly, a number of retirees voiced the opinion that all professional ballplayers, major and minor league, should be part of the plan. Some of the ex-players placed great emphasis on the non-monetary aspects of adjustment to retirement, noting that more could be done by the baseball establishment to ease the transition.

Finally, it was clear that their careers in baseball meant a great deal to the majority of the respondents. These men would enjoy taking a more active role in the sport, even if this means nothing more than being consulted from time to time on things like rules changes. Just as America’s senior citizens represent a vast untapped national resource, so also are baseball’s retirees valuable by virtue of their experiences in the game.

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