Their brainstorm, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, will celebrate its 30th birthday Friday, and the anniversary will celebrate the growth of an institution that has raised upwards of $20 million for charities such as Boys & Girls Clubs and the Special Olympics.
Jim Hannan, chairman and a founding member of the organization, said Wednesday that the MLBPAA's 30th birthday is one that allows him to take stock of its growth over the years.
"It's been a tremendous adventure and a very satisfying one at that," Hannan said. "I'm in the brokerage business, securities and stocks. It's like starting a company and seeing it grow. But the most satisfying thing is that we've been able to find out how much people are really fans.
"We're able to keep tradition alive. At the clinics that we host, what you see is the connection between parents and kids. And it's all about baseball on one level or another."
The MLBPAA's main mission is to keep former players in the limelight and to provide free baseball instruction to as many youngsters as possible. The organization held more than 50 free clinics last year, and it had more than 1,700 former players show up at more than 120 events.
Those numbers, impressive as they are, never could've happened without a humble beginning. Hannan said he could recall the initial seed of thought for the MLBPAA, which was based on the pre-existing NFL model and began with vague hopes for a golf tournament.
Hannan can remember attempting to solicit players for their involvement, and he also recalls an early meeting with Edward Bennett Williams, the former owner of the Orioles. Hannan remembers pitching the concept to Williams, as well as the man's anticlimactic response.
"'You're coming to the wrong place,' he said. And my heart sunk," Hannan said. "I think the heart of everyone in the room sunk. But then he said, 'You don't want to come to me. You want to go to the Commissioner.' So we set up a meeting with the Commissioner and the league presidents."
The MLBPAA was started with a modest contribution from the league's owners, an investment that has paid off over the years. Dan Foster, who has served as CEO of the MLBPAA since 1986, said that he never could've imagined the journey his job would lead him on.
"I suppose if you asked me 30 years ago, I'd have said no," Foster said. "It's happened gradually, so it's been easier to accept. But the work is never done and there's still a long way to go.
"It's great to expect success, but like a lot of other jobs, it's 'What have you done for me lately?' Complacency is not acceptable, and if you follow sports, you know you're only as good as your last game. The guy who gets complacent doesn't last long. It's wonderful that we're able to make people happy. But we have to find the people that aren't happy and find a way to make them happy too."
Foster said that the MLBPAA's next step is to improve the career transition program and prepare big league players for their life after baseball. The MLBPAA has made a point to register and try to involve the league's current players in alumni business before the end of their playing days.
And the point, he said, is to make them aware that they're part of an inclusive family. Major League baseball players are an exclusive fraternity, and that doesn't change once they retire.
"We need to strive to be relevant to the current player," Foster said, "Because the current player doesn't know he'll be a former player until the day before it happens. And your support group -- your agent, your coaches, your friends -- might not come with you into retirement.
"Most times, these guys are young, they have money and they ask, 'What do I do now?' And chances are that they'll be a former player a lot longer than they were a current player.
Hannan, now four decades removed from his final big league pitch, can understand that more than most of his peers. He said that players in his day never really fraternized with the opponents, and they found that they had a lot in common with them once they wound up on the banquet circuit.
The MLBPAA, Hannan said, has allowed players to rekindle old friendships and to make new ones, and he said he's been impressed with the diligence they've shown to company business.
"It's amazing to see them show up for team meetings. They think they're playing again," Hannan said. "I think often of Sam Moore, our legal counsel, who began working for us pro bono. He thought we were going to form a little local organization, and he always says, 'I can't believe how much it's grown.' Me? I think it's going to go higher and higher. I think we can do more and more."
The MLBPAA has served free baseball education to more than 35,000 kids in more than 100 different cities over the years, and it's even leaped to other nations like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. People can donate $50 to sponsor a child for the Legends for Youth clinics around the country, and the MLBPAA expects to reach more than 13,000 kids in 2012 alone.
Hannan, a businessman in his life after baseball, isn't sure what's next for the organization he helped birth, but he knows that the creation of the MLBPAA was an idea whose time had come.
"I always say this to my kids," he said. "If you want to be a successful businessman, find a void and fill it. There was a void there. There was no vehicle for former players to get re-involved with the game." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.