Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Baseball Strike and the Union

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The Baseball Strike and the Union

Nothing seemed more sturdy in the American psyche than Major League Baseball. Since the turn of the century, baseball’s two leagues � the National and American � had their share of controversies. A betting scandal nearly wrecked the sport; a player was struck by a pitched ball and killed; a world war decimated the ranks of skilled players for five years; and in the 160’s another sport � football � leaped ahead in popularity based on its title game, the Super Bowl. Even during the dark years of World War II, baseball (urged on by President Franklin Roosevelt) continued its tradition of all-star games and the World Series. Later, the Major Leagues still conducted itself prosperously and with fan support through team re-alignments in new and expansion cities. Integration of the sport, while jolting, was more or less thorough at the player’s level by the 180’s. Still, no one was prepared for the series of labor disputes of the following decade, and by the mid-10’s, the Major League Baseball Players Association � a powerful union � had masterminded a season-ending strike that canceled the World Series for the first time in history and alienated life-long fans. Baseball was in trouble.

By the time all was said and done, the 14-5 strike by major leaguers lasted 56 days, cost more than $800 million in lost revenues, and was the longest work stoppage in the history of any sports enterprise (Play Ball 1). The strike � essentially conducted to protest a cap on team salaries proposed by the owners � wiped out the final 5 days (and 66 total games) of the 14 season, forced the cancellation of division and league playoffs and the 14 World Series, and canceled the first 5 total games of the 15 season. All in all, the total missed games that could have been held before fans in all of baseball’s cities was 1, with many of those games offered up by sub-par substitutes of non-union minor league players and retired players returning as scabs.

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It was the eighth work stoppage by the union since 17 and by far the most crippling from a public relations standpoint. At the beginning of 14, owners met and agreed to a new revenue-sharing formula to use among themselves to balance out the league and enhance the ability of lesser-staffed, small-market teams to hire better talent. But the agreement was linked by an owners’ demand that the players agree to a salary cap (Strike Chronology 1). Despite that it knew the cap proposal was in the offing, the union -- Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) � took no action. By mid-season in 14, on June 14, the owners laid out their salary cap proposal, which also included a carrot to the players the lowering of free agent eligibility from existing six years of service to four.

The salary cap was to place an upper limit on the money each team could spend on player salaries, based on the teams’ averages of previous year’s revenues. Under the proposed cap, teams could pay no more than 50 percent of the average revenues, with each team required to spend no less than 84 percent of that 50 percent amount and no more than 110 percent of the amount (Grabiner 1). Before the strike the players got an average of 58 percent of the revenues, so despite the promise of quicker free agency and the ability to negotiate for higher salaries, the union encouraged the players to strike. On July 18, 14, the MLBPA rejected the owners’ salary cap offer and demanded that arbitration for free agency be lowered from the proposed four years down to two years.

A week later, the owners rejected the players union proposal and the following day, the players union set an Aug 1 strike date. While it seemed sudden, the showdown between owners and the union had been growing for some time. In September of 1, the hard-line owners grew weary of Commissioner Fay Vincent and what they thought was his soft allegiance to the players. The owners forced Vincent to resign (Strike Chronology ). Two days after Vincent’s “retirement”, the owners appointed one of their own hard-liners, Milwaukee Brewer owner Bug Selig, to the post of acting commissioner.

The union urged the walkout after analyzing the owners’ package and determining that a cap would reduce salaries by $18 million. According to the union, the 50 percent rate would not allow for inflation of possible increased revenues in the future, thus teams over the limit would offer free agent players only / of their value. On August 1, the players went on strike. When they returned to work in April of 15, the owners had tabled the cap, and the players agreed to work without a long-term agreement. There is still no solidifying agreement in place.

Though it was the most crippling to the fans, and perhaps to baseball’s credibility, it was not the first strike. In March of 17, the MLBPA organized a walkout because of its disapproval of the owners’ proposed pension plan, canceling exhibition games and casting doom for the season. By April 1, 17, the players and owners agreed to a settlement. The 86 games lost to the walkout were not made up. The same year, the United States Supreme Court upheld baseball’s reserve clause. Owners restrictions on the freedom of players to enter arbitration were softened after this ruling, but relations were further strained (Encarta 1).

The following spring players and owners were at it again, threatening to walk away from the game if a collective-bargaining agreement was not worked out. By the end of February, just before the start of spring training, the two sides settled on a three-year agreement that established salary arbitration for players with more than two year’s service.

When the agreement expired, the union and owners collided again in 176, as owners threatened to lock players out of spring training and players decided to leave informal training camps until a new bargaining agreement was reached. The issue was resolved when then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the camps opened and the season conducted in good faith. The owners and the MLBPA agreed to terms on a four-year agreement in mid season of that year, averting a walkout.

But when that four-year agreement ended in 180, the players voted to strike on opening day over free-agent issues. The union set the strike for the last eight games of the exhibition season, forcing cancellation of games, and threatening to spill into the season itself. The season began without a strike and the union and owners then negotiated a four-year agreement on May . But they left the free-agency issue on the table.

It did not go away. In mid-season 181, the players union authorized a strike, much to the fans’ dismay. It was not until July 1 that the union and league owners settled, ending the 50-day strike that resulted in 71 canceled games. The agreement extended the four-year contract an additional year, which seemed to settle things down until 185.

The day before the All-Star Game, July 15, 185, the union set an August 6 strike date, again over free-agency issues. When the date arrived, the players struck, canceling two day’s worth of games for a total of 5 games, and going on mid-season strike for the second time. The next day, the union and owners settled on a five-year agreement, with increases in salary arbitration eligibility (Strike Chronology ). The agreement held things in place for five years and allowed the strike-bitten profession to regain some credibility.

But that was crushed again in January of 10, when owners threatened to lock players out of spring training unless the expiring agreement was renewed. Players found themselves locked out of spring training facilities for the first time. Following days of lockout, the union agreed to terms with the owners, and the regular season began a week late with 78 games postponed during the lockout made up before the first pitch of the regular season.

With the tentative settlement in place following the 4-5 walkout, the sport is still reeling. The union is still wary of what they term collusion among the owners. In 185-87 several owners made secret agreements to not make offers to each other’s free agents and to limit their offers as a means of keeping salaries artificially in check. It is not collusion, however, if owners set their own limits independently and offer less to free agents, as they did in 15, when signings for free agents were considerably lower in dollar figure than in previous years.

The MLBPA is strong and the players (and their agents) are not afraid to use it to flex their bargaining muscle. The strikes hurt the popularity and credibility game, and there is no reason to suspect that strikes in baseball are behind us. Until there is a strong and independent commissioner, the owners and players are likely to be at it again in the future.

Works Cited

”Baseball,” Microsoft Encarta. 14 Microsoft Corporation. 14 Funk

& Wagnalls Corporation.

Grabiner, David, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Strike,”


“Play Ball Baseball accepts uneasy truce to start season,”


Strike Chronology, http//

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