Today in Baseball History: Opening Day canceled due to the first-ever players strike

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We’re dealing with a postponed baseball season and there is currently no Opening Day in sight. This is not the first time Opening Day has been delayed, however.

  • The 1919 season was delayed by a couple of weeks as the American and National Leagues waited for players to be released from military service following the Armistice which ended World War I the previous November;
  • In 1990 there was a brief lockout at the beginning of the season as the players and owners battled over free agency,  arbitration, and revenue sharing. The lockout postponed Opening Day for a week but the full schedule was played;
  • In 1995 the early April resolution of the 1994-95 strike would postponed Opening Day by three weeks. Play resumed on April 25 with a 144-game schedule; and
  • In 1972, the first two weeks weeks of the 1972 season were wiped out by the first player strike in the game’s history. Opening Day was supposed to be 48 years ago today: April 6, 1972.

To understand what led to the 1972 strike — the first ever players strike in baseball history — you have to go back a few years.

From the advent of baseball until the 1960s there were multiple efforts to organize players in an effort to get a better deal from the owners, including players even forming their own league one time. Nothing ever really came of those efforts, however, and the status quo held: the owners controlled basically everything, whatever the players got was given to them by the owners pursuant to the owners’ whim, and players were expected to simply be thankful to have jobs playing baseball. The only matter that players and owners talked about back in the day that we would currently recognize as one pertaining to actual labor relations were player pensions. A pension plan existed. It was not a very good one, but owners would, on occasion, go through the motions of negotiating with players over it, but it wasn’t really a negotiation.

By 1966, however, the players’ concerns about the pension being underfunded began to grow and, finally, after years of players themselves being skeptical and even fearful of the implications having a strong union, they decided to hire a full time executive director of their union with an eye toward having the union actually behave like a real labor union. Their first choice for the job was the then-existing players union’s part time legal advisor, a man named Judge Robert Cannon. Cannon actually had a pretty big conflict of interest in that he always wanted to be Baseball Commissioner and openly lobbied owners for the job while putatively serving the players’ interests. They even offered Cannon the job but he asked for too much money so they revoked the offer and went with a former chief lieutenant in the United Steelworkers union. His name was Marvin Miller.

Miller did not take long before he got down to work:

  • In 1966 he renegotiated the pension plan in the players favor. But he did more than just that. In the process of the negotiation he discovered — and publicized — the fact that the owners had illegally withdrawn money from the pension plan in the past. Likewise, by holding an actual adversarial negotiation, he elicited ridiculous lowball offers from the owners, which he communicated to the players. In so doing, Miller not only won the negotiation, but by showing the players how badly they had been screwed, he galvanized the once-disinterested union membership behind him;
  • Two years later Miller negotiated the first Collective Bargaining Agreement which won the players a 42 percent increase in minimum salary and written procedures for the arbitration of player grievances before the commissioner;
  • Two years after that he obtained even greater grievance arbitration rights foo the players, establishing neutral three-arbitrator panels rather than hearings before the commissioner. This would prove to be extraordinarily significant in just a few short years, leading to the advent of free agency following the decision of neutral arbitrator Peter Seitz;
  • Meanwhile, between 1969 and 1972, Miller assisted Curt Flood as Flood mounted his legal challenge against the Reserve Clause, objecting to his being traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies. While Flood ultimately lost that case, his challenge — and Miller’s support — emboldened other players even more and made them desire more than they were getting.

When the new collective bargaining agreement came up in 1972, Miller led a unified union. And that union had a beef: pension fund payouts had been stagnant for the previous three years and the players wanted an increase. It would seem like a straightforward and reasonable request, especially at a time when the concept of inflation began to be an everyday topic of conversation in this country, but the owners had other ideas.

The thinking: maybe it was reasonable for pensions to track inflation, but maybe this was a good time to draw a line in the sand and fight the union over whatever came up. The owners were annoyed at Miller’s seemingly ever-growing list of demands and they felt that the union was still weak enough to break. Pension rates were a relatively small issue, they reasoned, and they didn’t think the union had the stomach to fight too hard over it. They’d be wrong about that.

Talks went nowhere for some time. Then, a week before Opening Day, the players voted to strike, with 47 of the 48 players reps and one, Wes Parker of the Dodgers, abstaining. The Dodgers players immediately removed Parker as their rep. At least 13 years later Parker was still arguing that pensions weren’t striking over. In hindsight he might not have been the best player rep, but we’ll leave that for now.

The players officially went on strike on April 1, causing the remaining slate of spring training games to be cancelled. On April 4, the league announced that Opening Day games, set for April 5 and April 6, would not be played. The owners caved a mere week later, on April 13, 1972, agreeing to a settlement in which they would add $500,000 to the annual pension contribution. Which was basically what the players sought. The 13-day strike cost the players only nine days worth of pay.

It also caused the loss of 85 regular games. Eighty-five games which would create a pretty big problem. A problem that Red Sox fans of a certain age still like to complain about.

The week or so lost at the beginning of the season included scattered off days for various teams, which meant that teams had lost an unequal number of games. A debate ensued about what to do about that, but the owners and the players could not agree how to compensate players for the time missed and/or changes in the schedule that would lead to fewer off-days and more doubleheaders. In response Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did what he usually did: nothing. He just declared that the season would start on April 15th and go on from there with the existing schedule.

Under that setup, teams ended up playing a different number of games. This wasn’t a problem in the NL East, where the Pirates won the division by 11 games, the NL West where the Reds won it by 10.5 games or the AL West where the A’s finished 5.5 games ahead of their closest rival. The AL East, however, featured a wire-to-wire battle between the Tigers and Red Sox. A battle “won” by the Tigers, even though both teams finished with the same 70 losses. Won by a half game because the Tigers played in 156 games to the Sox’ 155, finishing 86-70 to Boston’s 85-70.

It’s impossible to imagine that happening in this day and age. The internet, talk radio and ESPN would explode. Fans of a team left out of the postseason by a half game would riot. Today’s MLB would almost certainly deal with that with some sort of mini-playoff or head it off in its entirety by making damn sure everyone played the same number of games. 1972, however, was just a different time.


Also today in baseball history:

1970: Willie Mays homers in a 4-0 Opening Day Giants win over the Padres. Mays will go on to hit homers in each of the Giants’ first four games of the season, a major league record. He would turn 39 the following month.

1973: Ron Blomberg of the Yankees becomes the first official designated hitter in major league history. Blomberg walks with against Luis Tiant with the bases loaded his first time up and winds up 1-for-3 on the day. The Yankees lose 15-5 to the Red Sox.

1977: The Seattle Mariners make their debut, losing to Frank Tanana and the Angels 7-0.

1982: The first-ever game at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is played. It no longer exists.

1992: The first-ever game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is played. It still exists.

1996 – Albert Belle throws a baseball at Sports Illustrated photographer Tony Tomsic, breaking the skin on Tomsic’s hand. Belle had told Tomsic to stop taking pictures of him doing pre-game stretches. Tomsic complied and walked away but threw the ball at him anyway because Belle is a jackass. The two would later settle a lawsuit out of court. Belle would be ordered to anger management classes by Major League Baseball. They didn’t really take.