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A look back at MLB’s previous labor stoppages and what’s ahead for the current lockout

What can we learn from the past?

Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As we await meetings between MLB owners and the MLB Players Association this week to try, again, to get a new collective-bargaining agreement in place, I thought it would be useful to review the history of owner/player relations over the last half century.

I posted much of this here last November, but I thought it would be useful to look it over again. I’ve corrected a couple of minor errors from the earlier article and included some additional information that I had inadvertently left out.

With that as preface, here are all the MLB work stoppages, the reasons they happened, and the end result of each — except for the current lockout, which is ongoing.

1972: Strike

The disputes here were over player pensions and salary arbitration. The latter had not previously been part of the labor agreement, but was added for the first time. Players got a $500,000 addition to pension payments. I realize that doesn’t sound like much now, but the MLB minimum salary in 1972 was $13,500 and $500,000 back then was big money. It’s equivalent to about $3.3 million today.

The strike lasted 13 days and 86 games were lost from the schedule. Owners refused to pay players for the days missed, so the games were not made up and the schedule simply began two days after the strike ended. One problem stemming from that was that teams did not all play the same number of games. That resulted in the Red Sox losing out on the AL East title by half a game because they played only 155 games and went 85-70 to the Tigers’ 156 games and 86-70 record.

1973: Lockout

This wiped out a couple of weeks at the beginning of Spring Training, from February 8-25, but no games, either spring or regular season, were lost.

Arbitration was again the issue. Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons had refused to sign a contract, one of the first efforts to challenge the reserve clause. Simmons finally signed a deal mid-season, but nervous owners figured a salary arbitration deal would benefit them, so they agreed to a system very much like the one we have now.

1976: Lockout

This happened after the famous arbitration ruling by Peter Seitz that freed Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith from their contracts, making them free agents, and ended the reserve clause forever.

Spring Training camps were closed for 17 days, from March 1-17, but eventually a new Basic Agreement was signed and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered camps reopened. No regular season games were lost.

1980: Strike

This one is not well remembered because of the longer strike the following year. In fact, it was this dispute that spilled over and ruined the 1981 season, as the labor deal had to be extended by a year in ‘80 to avoid having the strike that year. The last eight days of spring training were cancelled.

1981: Strike

Free agency had begun after the Seitz ruling and owners started doling out big-money (well, for that time, anyway) contracts. Wanting to protect themselves from each other, owners wanted some form of compensation for losing a free agent. Owners originally proposed teams could select any player (other than 12 “protected” players) from a signing team’s roster. You can probably see why this proposal went nowhere.

Players struck after games of June 11. It took seven weeks for players and owners to come to an agreement which set up a compensation pool for “premium” free agent signings. Among other things, this is how Tom Seaver became a member of the White Sox. They had lost Steve Mura (Yeah, I know. Who?) to free agency and the Mets, not thinking anyone would take the then 36-year-old Seaver, left him unprotected.

This also led to the “split season” format, where “winners” of the first half (of course, when the season began no one knew there would be “halves”) would face the winner of the post-strike games within their divisions.

This led to the two teams with the best records in the NL, the Cardinals and Reds, missing the playoffs entirely, since they didn’t win either “half.” What MLB should have done is had the second-half winner play the team with the best overall record. If that winds up being the same team as the team that won the second half, then you call on the first-half “winner.”

Trust me, Rob Manfred is not the only baseball commissioner to not be a baseball fan. Bowie Kuhn screwed this up big time. A total of 713 games, a bit less than a third of a full season, were lost.

1985: Strike

This happened so quickly you might have missed it. The previous labor agreement had expired December 31, 1984 but owners and players had agreed to start the 1985 season without a deal in place.

The dispute surrounded pension payments again, as well as arbitration, and after two days owners capitulated and contribute $33 million for each of the next three years to the pension fund and $39 million in 1989. The minimum player salary was also increased from $40,000 to $60,000.

Also, at this time the free agent compensation pool was eliminated.

Games on August 6 and 7 were affected. All the games missed were made up as if they had been rainouts, either as parts of doubleheaders or on off days, but:

Players’ pay for the two lost days will depend on when the makeups are played. If a game is rescheduled as a separate date, players will receive their entire pay for that day. If a game is rescheduled as part of a doubleheader, players will receive half pay. Thus, players could miss no pay at all, or they could lose the equivalent of one day’s salary. They will not lose service-credit time for the strike.

No wonder players don’t trust owners.

1990: Lockout

Again, there had been an agreement ending at the end of the previous year and no progress had been made, so owners felt a lockout would help push the process along. (Sound familiar?)

Free agency and arbitration were the issues. Owners proposed to give players 48 percent of revenues in exchange for a salary cap, with compensation tiered to a “pay for performance” scale. (Sound familiar? This is pretty much Rob Manfred’s idea, then and now.)

This all went nowhere while Spring Training was mostly cancelled. Finally, owners agreed to raise the minimum salary from $68,000 to $100,000 and form a “study committee” regarding revenue sharing.

The lockout began February 15 and lasted a bit more than a month. Due to the subsequent cancellation of the bulk of Spring Training, the first week of regular season games was postponed and rescheduled for the week after the season was to end, pushing the end of the regular season back from September 27 to October 3. No regular season games were lost.

1994-95: Strike

Arbitration, salaries and free agency were once again at the forefront. In June, owners made this proposal to players, which would have eliminated salary arbitration, given players free agency two years earlier (but with restrictions) and institute a salary cap.

You can imagine how far this went with players.

The offer was rejected and a strike date was set for August 12, which did in fact happen. Talks continued through August and early September, with owners at one point proposing a “tax” on the 16 highest payrolls, to be divided among the other 12 teams.

Bud Selig, not yet commissioner but holding the title “Chairman of the Executive Council,” called off the rest of the season and postseason September 14:

At his news conference, Selig said: “There’s an incredible amount of sadness. It is very hard as I told the group on the phone to articulate the poignancy of this moment. There is a failure of so much. Lest anybody not understand, there can’t be any joy on any side.”

Talks continued during the fall and winter, to no avail. Bills were introduced in Congress to end the strike; all failed. President Bill Clinton ordered a resumption of bargaining in late January. By this time Players Association chief Don Fehr had declared 800+ MLB players free agents:

The union informed the clubs that the approximately 800 unsigned players who were tendered contracts two weeks ago are free agents, or will become so, because the changes the clubs made in the uniform player’s contract made the tenders improper.

Chuck O’Connor, the owners’ chief labor lawyer, immediately disputed the contention made by Donald Fehr, the head of the union. Similar to every other aspect of the ongoing labor dispute, their differences will be headed for resolution by a third party.

You can see how far this is going to go. Owners opened spring camps in 1995 with replacement players, mostly minor leaguers and others who had not been under MLB contract, and played some spring games.

I could go on for quite some time about this, but in the end an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor (who now sits on the Supreme Court) enjoined owners from using replacement players and, as the players had voted to end the strike if such a ruling was made, the strike was over.

A 144-game season was played in 1995 starting in late April. It can be reasonably stated that the biggest casualty of this labor stoppage was the Montreal Expos. They had the best record in baseball at 74-40 when the strike began. Had the Expos gotten to or won the 1994 World Series — they never did get to a WS in all their years in Montreal — they’d probably have sold a lot more tickets and gotten more corporate sponsorships in 1995. With that money they’d likely have kept star players like Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, John Wetteland and others they eventually traded away, and perhaps could have remained a powerhouse in the late 1990s. This new stadium was proposed for the Expos and likely would have been built in that circumstance. If all that happens, maybe they stay in Montreal instead of moving to Washington in 2005.

All told, the 1994-95 strike cancelled 948 games and the entire ‘94 postseason and fans were quite angry. Attendance dropped significantly for the next three years, reviving only in 1998 as a result of the Sosa/McGwire home run race.

There has been labor peace, if uneasy, in baseball since then. Players nearly went out again in August 2002, settling on a deal August 30 just hours before the first game of that day, Cubs vs. Cardinals at Wrigley Field, was to be played. I well remember paying attention to news reports that morning, wondering if there was going to be a game that afternoon. (The lousy 2002 Cubs, 95-game losers, lost that game 6-3.)

2021-22: Lockout

Owners called a lockout for the day after the previous CBA expired December 1. It took 43 days after that for the first offer from owners to be transmitted to players and since then, there have been only a handful of negotiating sessions, most lasting an hour or less. Here’s an Associated Press article from this past weekend which lists all the various topics on which players and owners disagree at this time.

Have a look at this tweet from last November:

We are now more than three months past that statement and now games have been lost, albeit “just” Spring Training games. That has put a bit more of a sense of urgency into meetings between players and owners, which are supposed to take place every day this week. It is possible a deal will be struck by the end of the week; if so, the 2022 regular season will probably start on time. There’s been a deadline floated of February 28 for a deal in order for that to happen; that’s just a week from today.

This seems important:

That does put some time pressure on. One thing owners really, really, really want is an expanded postseason, as that’s where the really big money is. It’s possible, I suppose, that owners could agree to pay players for a full 162-game season if (for example) only a handful of games are cancelled, maybe six to eight. That might be an incentive toward a deal, I think. Here are details about today’s meeting (time listed is Eastern):

As always, we await developments.