The first strike in MLB (and pro sports) happened on this day in 1972

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Navigating the internet on April 1 is an annual nightmare, but worry not, this newsletter comes bearing facts only. This date is the anniversary of an important labor battle in MLB history: April 1, 1972 was the beginning of the first strike in MLB history, and in professional sports.

MLB’s owners were shocked to find out that the players were striking, even though their actions are what pushed the players into this historic moment in the first place. It was an easily avoidable strike, too, given the issue that the Major League Baseball Players Association and MLB were negotiating in the lead-up to it. The union wanted an increase to the owners’ contributions to the players’ pension, in light of the existence of things like “rising cost of healthcare” and “inflation” and “a four-year, $70 million television deal with NBC that injected massive quantities of cash into MLB, cash the players weren’t necessarily going to ever see in a pre-free agency world.” MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller even had a plan for this increase to be funded, without the owners having to spend any of their own money to do it: the existing pension fund created income just by being there, and Miller suggested using the surplus $500,000 to fund the players’ retirement benefits.

In short, inflation over the decades would, in Miller’s own words found in his memoir, “reduce the value of [the players’] pensions to a tiny fraction of their current worth.” The additional contributions Miller and the MLBPA were pushing for were to make sure the pension was still worth something in the future when the players would actually rely on it, and again, this 1972 proposal to make this happen was going to cost the owners nothing: they just had to agree to redirect money that wasn’t even in their pockets to where it would be useful.

The owners were not interested in Miller’s solution, to the point where, mid-spring training, they declared via their labor representative John Gaherin that there would not only be no increase to pension benefits from the owners, but they would also be reducing their initial offer for a healthcare contribution increase. Miller had to adjust. He had already met with seven teams during spring training, and had been telling them there would be a deal in place soon: given his solution and previous negotiating, why wouldn’t there be a deal? The tenor of these spring get togethers changed after Gaherin spoke with Miller again, so the MLBPA Executive Director began warning clubs a deal might not be reached, and explained why it was important to get what the MLBPA was fighting for out of negotiations.

The result of this first new-message meeting was the White Sox voting 25-0 in favor of authorizing a strike. Their sentiment ended up being the norm, as players around the league would vote 663-10 in favor of authorizing a strike after hearing what Miller had to say.

Incidentally, Miller didn’t think it was time to strike, as the players didn’t have a strike fund set up: he believed that 1973 was the better time to strike if one were to happen, as Miller and the MLBPA could negotiate with owners throughout the 1972 season, strike before the ‘73 campaign after a year of preparing to do so, and then fight to retroactively apply the benefits increase from 1972 onward when an agreement was finally reached.

A funny thing happened when Miller sat down with the player reps to talk about his plan for delaying the strike: the player reps, who had never struck before, who just a few years before had to be convinced they even wanted a real union, convinced Miller that now was the time to put the MLBPA’s foot down and strike.

You can thank the owners for this. The owners were testing players with their hardline stance, as they wanted to attempt to break the union by proving to the world that there were no teeth behind a strike or a strike authorization. MLB’s owners wanted to remind the players who here was actually in charge, so they goaded them into striking with statements saying the players would not receive “another goddamn cent” from owners — that specific statement came courtesy the Cardinals’ Gussie Busch. Still, the owners were surprised all of this actually came to a strike, as they thought the union would break well before then. April Fools, I guess.

On April 1, the MLBPA announced that they would not be playing in any further spring training games, and that regular season contests were also off the table until the two sides could come to an agreement on player benefits. This strike lasted for 13 days, nine of them in the regular season, and caused 86 games to be canceled. Because the games were never rescheduled, the owners lost $5.2 million, and the players about $600,000.

The strike ended because the owners finally listened to what Miller had said about where the increase to the retirement benefits would come from. You might think they were just being stubborn (they were), but you have to remember they were also trying to reassert their authority over the players, players who, just six years prior, had no rights, no collective bargaining agreement, and no unity.

In 1968, they got their CBA, and their first codified rights. In 1972, they proved they had the unity to expand those rights. The owners, on the other hand, caved because they started to see splits in their ranks days into the strike as they realized the kind of money they were losing by holding out compared to what giving in to the players would cost them. Which, again, was nothing.

This strike was entirely avoidable, but it ended up being in the players’ best interests that it was not. Winning the ‘72 strike helped prepare for the players for the multiple lockouts by the owners over the rest of the 70s, as well as the following strikes by the MLBPA. Unity was what got them their victory, and it’s key to remember that point in the present as MLB and the MLBPA once again are at odds for economic reasons.

  • The Sports Illustrated vault has a story from 1972 on how the strike came together, if you’d like a look at what it meant in the moment.

  • Owners are still a scheming group, but the whole process is a lot more complicated than it used to be, as this Tom Ley story about the Ricketts’ acquisition of the Cubs shows.

  • Ginny Searle wonders how much longer baseball stadiums are going to be for baseball fans, given all of the added, superfluous costs and “security” measures being put into place at parks around the country.

  • Jeff Passan wrote about the state of baseball as the 2019 season began.

  • I’ll be writing more about this topic later on, but this Marc Carig piece at The Athletic about a $20 prop that signifies a $10 billion industry’s anti-player tendencies is worth your time.

  • And this Laura Wagner story shows that it’s not just the players MLB doesn’t care about, as MLBAM’s anti-worker stances seem pretty clear given their treatment of employees.

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