Baseball’s ‘Other Duke’ Among Old-Timers With Chiseled PensionWaretown Resident Tasted Big League With Cards, Mets, Yanks
Leon James “Duke” Carmel is the answer to this trivia question: Who was the first New York Met to later play for the New York Yankees? That was back in 1965, and since then, he has plenty of company, including former all-stars David Cone, Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
A Waretown resident, Carmel is also in the company of more than 800 former players who an author says have been unfairly denied pensions by Major League Baseball and the union representing the players, the Major League Baseball Players Association. Douglas J. Gladstone chronicled this in A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.
Carmel, who turns 80 in April, was a reserve outfielder and first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets and New York Yankees during parts of four seasons in the big leagues. He appeared in a total of 124 career games, and in 227 at-bats collected 48 hits for a .211 average, including seven doubles, three triples and four home runs. The lefty-hitter stood 6-3, and his weight fluctuated between 190 and 200 pounds.
“The rules for receiving MLB pensions changed in 1980,” wrote Gladstone. “Mr. Carmel and other men do not get pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of major league service credit. That was what ballplayers who played between 1947 to 1979 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.”
He said since 1980, players have needed just one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days of service credit to be eligible for a retirement allowance.
“But those former ballplayers who played during the 1947-1979 seasons were not included retroactively in the amended vesting requirement, and so they receive no pensions for the time they gave to our national pastime,” he said. “Instead, they all receive nonqualified retirement payments based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.”
He said for every quarter of service a man had accrued, he’d get $625. Four quarters (one year) totaled $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four years) amounts to the maximum, $10,000. And that payment is before taxes are taken out.
“The union doesn’t have to be their legal advocates, the league doesn’t have to negotiate about this matter, and the alumni association is too busy putting on golf outings to care,” said Gladstone.
Carmel said he had accrued 2½ years of service. He estimated the most he ever made in a season was around $15,000.
“What I get now amounts to about $5,000 a year,” he said. “I’m glad I’m getting something, but had I been vested in the regular pension system, I would probably be getting around $35,000 a year.”
Additionally, Gladstone said the payment cannot be passed on to a spouse or designated beneficiary.
“Mr. Carmel’s loved ones won’t receive that payment when he dies,” he said. “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.”
Carmel signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an undrafted free agent out of Benjamin Franklin High School in New York in 1955. His pro career was spent mostly in the minors, where in 12 seasons he hit 198 home runs, drove in 624 and batted .245. His best year was in 1957 at Billings, Montana, in the Pioneer League when he hit 29 homers, drove in 121 and hit .324.
His first two years in the majors, 1959 and 1960, were as a late-season minor league call-up. He didn’t make an opening day roster until 1963, when he started the season with St. Louis and was later traded to the Mets.
“It was a little frustrating because I was really hitting the ball well in spring training, but my manager (Johnny Keane) kept me on the bench,” he said. “They had a lot of good players in St. Louis. Of course, we had the great Stan Musial, who was toward the end of his career by the early ’60s. I was his caddy, in that the team would put me in for him for late-inning defense in the outfield.”
He found more playing opportunities with the Mets, who were in just their second season. In the first season of 1962, the Mets went 40-120 and in 1963 finished 50-112. He also had a teammate who inspired his nickname, Hall-of-Famer Duke Snider, who was at the end of his storied career following years with the Brooklyn, later Los Angeles, Dodgers.
Carmel recalled how their manager, Casey Stengel, was “quite the character with his double talk known as ‘Stengelese.’
“He sure was good at PR, doing what he could to promote the team,” he said.
Carmel said he experienced a career highlight shortly after joining the Mets.
“The Cardinals were in town, and I hit a home run off Bobby Shantz in the old Polo Grounds,” he said.
After playing with the Mets Triple A team in Buffalo in 1964, Carmel was picked up by the Yankees in what was then known as the Rule 5 draft. He appeared in six games and went hitless in eight at-bats.
Ironically, the Yankees manager was his former St. Louis skipper, Keane, who replaced Yogi Berra. The year before, the Cardinals had defeated the Yankees in the World Series.
“That was a mistake for the Yankees, to fire Yogi and bring in Keane,” said Carmel. “Johnny was a small-town guy, and I didn’t think he’d be comfortable in the big city like New York. The Yankees fired him early in the following season.”
Carmel also joined the Yankees at the time their decline had started, and it would not end until they made the post-season in 1976.
“Many of their stars had gotten old and were injured,” he said. “Mickey Mantle certainly wasn’t the same, but he was still friendly and a great teammate.”
Carmel hung up his spikes at the end of the 1967 season, where he again was playing in Buffalo, which by then had become a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. After retiring, he went to work for American Express and later Capital Liquors on Long Island. He has six children and 16 grandchildren.
He and his wife, Ann, moved to Waretown in 2007, where they live in the Greenbrier Oceanaire community.
“I have a daughter in Pennsylvania and a son in North Jersey,” said Carmel. “We wanted to move from Danbury (Connecticut) to a place that was halfway between the two.”
Carmel said when meeting people in Greenbriar, quite a few remembered him as a ballplayer.
“There are plenty of former New Yorkers here who followed baseball back when I played,” he said.
Several months ago, Carmel said he did a baseball memorabilia show in Westchester, New York, where he met up with an old Yankee teammate, Joe Pepitone.
“Joe was one of the younger players when I was on the Yankees,” he said. “He wasn’t a very strong-looking guy, but he had a powerful swing. He was fast, and I don’t think people realize how talented he was.”
Carmel said he still follows baseball, and sometimes he even sees himself on the screen.
“During rain delays, SNY will show old Kiner’s Korner post-game programs, and I saw myself on it,” he said. “That was good for a few laughs. It’s a much different game now, but I was still glad to be a part of it.”