SAN DIEGO — That millionaires are bickering with billionaires should come as no surprise when it comes to major league baseball.
This dispute was brought on by something new, a global pandemic, but there has been no love lost between players and owners for more than 100 years, when players made per season what they now pull now per pitch or at-bat.
There are individual examples of the two sides being at odds: Such as when Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey promised his players a bonus for winning the 1919 pennant. Their reward? Flat champagne.
We all know how that played out.
There are collective examples as well: Such as when owners colluded from 1985-87 to restrict player movement and, therefore, reduce free-agent salaries.
That resulted in the average major league salary declining for the first time since free agency began a decade earlier. The average free-agent salary went down 15% at the same time MLB revenues increased 16%.
The Major League Baseball Players Association filed grievances all three years. The owners lost in each instance and agreed to pay $280 million to the MLBPA to be distributed to the impacted players.
It’s doubtful many of today’s ballplayers know the history of acrimony between the sides — just as young Hatfields and McCoys probably didn’t know what started the feud four generations earlier when the first shot was fired. All they knew is they had a great dislike for each other.
Much of the animosity from the players’ side stemmed from the “reserve clause,” a stipulation in contracts that allowed owners to tie a player to the same organization in perpetuity. Without the freedom to sell one’s services on the open market, salaries were severely limited.
The tables began to turn in the 1960s when Marvin Miller helped the players organize into what would become the world’s most powerful union.
Once free agency arrived in the mid-1970s and the players finally got some control over their futures, it was the owners who got all worked up.
There have been eight work stoppages through the years. To review:
1972: The players went on strike for the first time in history, primarily because they were seeking improved pension benefits. The owners gave in two weeks into the strike after realizing they were losing more money from not playing games than the pension increases would cost them.
Games lost: 86.
1973: The owners locked the players out of spring training in February until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was worked out, specifically as it dealt with salary arbitration, before the end of the month.
Games lost: None.
1976: Another lockout by owners, this one on the heels of an independent arbitrator’s ruling that made pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents. Miller had figured out a way to break the reserve clause.
The lockout lasted only the first couple weeks of March and did nothing to stem the tide on one of the most earth-shaking developments in the game’s history — free agency.
Games lost: None.
1980: Negotiations over a new CBA were hung up, leading players to go on strike for the last eight days of spring training.
They agreed to start the season but set a May 23 strike date if an agreement wasn’t reached. All issues but free-agent compensation were settled by then, and a strike was avoided when a player-management committee was established to study the free-agent compensation issue.
Games lost: None.
1981: The strike began June 11 and play did not resume until Aug. 10 (that year’s All-Star Game was played Aug. 9 in Cleveland).
The season was split into two halves, with the division winner of each half meeting in the first round of the playoffs.
It was messed up in more ways than one, most notably when Cincinnati and St. Louis finished with the two best records in the National League — and neither team made the playoffs.
Games lost: 717.
1985: The players struck for just two days, Aug. 6-7, over pension fund and salary arbitration issues again.
The issued were resolved in the players’ favor, with the owners privately planning among themselves — colluding — another solution that would cost them down the road.
Games lost: None.
1990: The owners locked out the players in spring training again, once again over free agency and arbitration, and opening day was delayed a week before the sides could settle their differences.
Games lost: None.
1994-95: This, of course, was the big one, the one that saw the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
The issue centered around money — what else? — as owners tried to get a handle on spiraling salaries they maintained were causing franchises to flounder.
The strike began following the games of Aug. 11 and players did not return to the field until April 1995.
Baseball became the first major U.S. sport in history to cancel postseason play.
Padres fans remember the strike most for costing Tony Gwynn a chance to hit .400, his average forever frozen at .394.
Baseball fans also lost the opportunity to see Giants third baseman Matt Williams, who had 43 home runs, make a run at Roger Maris’ single-season record 61 homers.
Also out the window was the Chicago White Sox making potentially the biggest September call-up in baseball history. Michael Jordan that year was toiling in Double-A for the Birmingham Barons.
The biggest losers of all, though, had to be baseball fans in Montreal. The Expos had the best record in baseball when the strike came. The club was broken up during the winter of 1994 through trades and free agency. Within a decade the franchise was relocated to Washington, D.C.
Games lost: 921 (669 in ‘94/252 in ‘95).
The home run saved the game after the strike, and in the 25 years since then we have enjoyed the longest lasting labor peace in half a century.
While the current stoppage was brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, an inability to get things going again rests squarely on the players and owners.
What’s going to rescue baseball this time if the sides can’t resolve their disagreement over how much the players should be paid this season? Who knows. Even worse, it could be the sign of things to come with the current CBA set to expire following the 2021 season.
The last thing baseball needs is to be out of sight and mind for another year. As it is, the calendar is going to suddenly become crowded with the NBA and NHL resuming their seasons just as college and pro football are ramping up.
Maybe most of this has just been posturing. Whatever, they need to get their act together before it’s too late. Prospects for an 82-game season seemed bad enough. Now MLB is proposing 50 games?
Much more back-and-forth and Opening Day will coincide with Labor Day and the playoffs won’t conclude until Christmas.
Maybe a lesson can be learned from 1979, when descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys came together for a weeklong taping of the game show “Family Feud.”
They played for cash prizes. And a pig that was caged at center stage throughout the competition.
Everyone made money and went home happy (except maybe the pig).
If only players and owners could settle their differences similarly. You know, tap a buzzer, answer a few questions and collect the cash. As far as the pig goes, there may be some common ground there as well.
After all, who doesn’t like bacon?
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