Wednesday, July 17, 2024

MLB lockout: A brief history of strikes and lockouts as baseball comes to a halt for first time in 26 years

As feared, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that governed the 2017 through 2021 seasons has expired without a new CBA agreed upon. That prompted owners to lock out the players on Thursday. While some will see this as a move to hasten discussions, it’s an effort by team owners to put pressure on the union and force them to agree to whatever their most recent proposals are. Whether or not that works — this is the sport’s first offseason lockout, so who knows — the reality is that Major League Baseball is now experiencing its first labor stoppage since the players’ strike of 1994-95

The current lockout marks the ninth work stoppage in modern MLB labor history — i.e., since Marvin Miller became head of the Players Association in the late 1960s and made it into an actual functioning union. Under Miller’s leadership, the union remade the economic structure of the game, but owners put up a fight every step of the way. At this point, recent events merit a look back at the work stoppages that preceded the current one. We’ll do so via cursory “walking tour,” and even the long view will show you that it’s always about money and how it’s divvied up between players and owners. Work stoppages come in two flavors — the lockout, in which owners shut down the industry from top to bottom, and the strike, in which players do the same via calculated refusal to work. As you’re about to see, we’ve had plenty of each. Onward.

The 1972 strike

How long it lasted: April 1-13, 1972

What it was over: The players’ three-year pension agreement with owners had expired, and teams were resistant to even modest increases in benefits. When owners refused to have the matter settled by arbitration, as proposed by Miller, the players struck. After 13 days, the owners capitulated and agreed to a prior pension proposal the players had made. In all, 86 regular-season games were lost, and they were not rescheduled. This wound up playing a crucial role in the AL East race. The Tigers claimed the crown with an 86-70 record even though they finished just a half-game ahead of the Red Sox. The two teams were even in the loss column. 

Why it mattered: It was the first players’ strike in MLB history. Player reps voted 47-0 in favor of the strike (with one abstention), which spoke to the solidarity that Miller was able to build within their ranks. 

The 1973 lockout

How long it lasted: Feb. 8-25, 1973

What it was over: The spring training lockout, which delayed the opening of camps but didn’t affect the regular season, was undertaken in the absence of a new CBA. That new CBA, most notably, established salary arbitration, which over the years accrued to the great benefit of players.

Why it mattered: It was the first owner lockout in MLB history.

The 1976 lockout

How long it lasted: March 1-17, 1976

What it was over: In one of the great tectonic shifts in league history, Miller and the union were able to win the right to free agency when in December of 1975 independent arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players’ position in their dispute with owners. In that case, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the “test case” that altered the reserve clause, which had for the prior sprawl of baseball history bound a player to one team until that team traded or released him.

Curt Flood pioneered the legal assault on the reserve clause with his 1972 Supreme Court case, but it wasn’t until Seitz’s ruling some three years later that players won the right to become free agents. In response to the Seitz Decision, owners locked out the players. During the lockout, however, a federal appeals court upheld Seitz’s ruling and made Messersmith and McNally free agents. With the writing on the wall, commissioner Bowie Kuhn mandated that spring camps be opened. Players and owners agreed to begin the season without a CBA. The two sides finally agreed to a four-year agreement in July — one that established the right to and framework of free agency.

Why it mattered: It was a desperate measure by owners that signaled the game had changed forever.

The 1980 strike

How long it lasted: April 1-8, 1980

What it was over: CBA negotiations led to this brief strike. The players struck late in spring training, but the regular season started on time after the two sides agreed to continue talks during the season. In May, players and owners agreed in principle to a new CBA, but critically they also agreed to revisit the issue of free agency the following offseason.

Why it mattered: The 1980 strike led to the forging of a new CBA, which in turn set the stage for the most damaging labor fight to date. 

The 1981 strike

How long it lasted: June 12 – July 31, 1981

What it was over: After a 50-day strike that led to the cancellation of 712 games and forced the abbreviated season to be split into two halves, the two sides finally agreed upon the matter of free-agent compensation (i.e., how teams that lose free agents are remunerated). In the end, teams losing free agents were compensated with some combination of unprotected professional players chosen from a league-wide pool and draft picks. Owners had initially insisted upon a compensation structure that would supply the team losing a free with draft picks from the signing team and players chosen from the roster of the signing team. The union, in turn, saw this as an unacceptable drag on the free-agent market. 

Why it mattered: It proved that labor spats can become all-out wars between players and owners — wars that compromise the integrity of a season. In ’81, division winners from the first and second halves of the season advanced to a one-off expanded postseason. This led to the unintentional absurdity of the Reds being left out of the playoffs despite having the best record in all of baseball (66-42) because they didn’t finish in first place in either half. 

The 1985 strike

How long it lasted: Aug. 6-7, 1985

What it was over: This brief strike was owing to a dispute over owner pension contributions and the owners’ desire for a cap on salary arbitration earnings by players.

Why it mattered: It proved that even in-season labor stoppages need not be all that damaging, as all lost games during the strike were made up. However, it also laid the foundation for owners’ colluding to suppress the free-agent market in three straight offseasons. That collusion would eventually cost the owners more than $400 million in damages payable to the players.  

The 1990 lockout

How long it lasted: Feb. 15 – March 18, 1990

What it was over: That collusion noted above? This lockout was in essence an owner tantrum over that arbitrators’ judgment against them for rigging the free-agent market. Spring training camps opened late, but the regular season wasn’t affected beyond pushing back Opening Day for a week. Putatively, disagreements over free agency and salary arbitration caused the lockout.

Why it mattered: During the lockout, commissioner Fay Vincent held a press conference in which he proposed ending the lockout in exchange for a “no strike” pledge from the union. However, Vincent made the bold offer without the consent of the owners. That in addition to Vincent’s general anti-lockout leanings helped lead to his ouster. He was replaced by Bud Selig, who as an owner himself fully converted the commissioner’s primary role into serving the interests of team owners. 

The 1994-95 strike

How long it lasted: Aug. 12, 1994 – March 31, 1995

What it was over: The 1994 season began without a labor agreement in place, but owners’ insistence upon a salary cap prompted the players to strike late in the regular season. Barely one month in, Selig announced the cancellation of the World Series. Throughout the 232-day strike, the owners’ lead negotiator resigned, a federal mediator tried and failed to bring the two sides together, owners implemented a salary cap, the union declared all unsigned players to be free agents, and Selig and his fellow owners attempted to populate rosters with replacement players/scabs. Only a National Labor Relations Board complaint and injunction issued by future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor brings owners to heel and ends the strike. In addition to the entire 1994 postseason, 938 regular-season games are lost across the 1994 and 1995 seasons. 

Why it mattered: It remains the nuclear war of MLB labor stoppages, and it damaged the game for years to come. The harm done, however, did in some ways motivate the years of uninterrupted seasons to come (“labor peace” is too strong a phrase for what followed). 

The 2021 lockout

How long it lasted: Dec. 2 – TBD

What it was over: Owners and players were unable to come to terms on a new CBA by the time the current accord expired. In an effort to fracture the union and pre-empt a players’ strike during the season, owners locked out the players. A host of economic points of conflict must be resolved before a new agreement is in place, and the lockout will not end until a new CBA is provisionally agreed to.

Why it mattered: The 2021 lockout marked the first MLB work stoppage in nearly three decades.

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