A brief history of MLB’s lockouts

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The history of strikes in Major League Baseball gets a lot of play in historical look backs, but lockouts? Not nearly as much. Baseball Reference’s comprehensive encyclopedia Bullpen doesn’t even have a page just for lockouts: it just lumped them in with the “Strikes (labor)” page instead. Part of this lack of attention is because there has never been an MLB game canceled because of a lockout: even the one that dragged into the start of the season just pushed back when games were played. They tend to be a thing that occurs during spring training, with the owners balking at some demand the players are making, and then, the lockout ends shortly after.

So, with a lockout potentially on the horizon this winter or next spring, let’s take a look back at the previous times the owners locked all the doors to keep the players out.

February 14-25, 1973

Before the 1972 season was the first strike in MLB and in professional sports. It was over the players’ pension fund, which, at the time, had no cost-of-living adjustments or anything of the sort, making it so that its eventual payouts were going to be functionally worthless, thanks to inflation. The strike was unexpected — even executive director Marvin Miller didn’t think the Players Association was quite ready for a strike at that point — but it’s what the players wanted, and it worked, too. The owners decided to take a hardline stance over the pension in order to attempt to break the union’s growing solidarity, and did so over an issue with a clear solution that had been laid out, pre-strike, by Miller, one that wouldn’t actually cost the owners anything to give the players what they asked for. In the end, the players got what they wanted, and the owners’ clear attempt at breaking the union had failed.

They weren’t about to give up, of course. Before the very next season, in 1973, an 11-day lockout was staged by MLB’s owners during spring training. The two sides were working on a new collective bargaining agreement, and arbitration was at its heart. While the owners didn’t want arbitration, they wanted additional challenges to the reserve clause that gave them complete control over where players played even less: they weren’t about to readily admit that they’d prefer an arbitration system, of course, as their true preference was for the players to get nothing and like it, hence the lockout. Games never really appeared to be in any danger — it’s actually pretty difficult to find information on the 1973 lockout, with Marvin Miller’s memoir and John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm not even including it under the “lockout” section of their respective indexe — but the key thing is that the players got what they wanted by introducing salary arbitration, and it helped to set the stage for the next lockout, too.

March 1-17, 1976

The introduction of free agency was imminent, but the owners just hadn’t admitted as much yet. They were in denial about what was going on with the challenges to the reserve clause by the likes of Andy Messersmith — according to Lords of the Realm, some owners actually believed Messersmith’s case would end up only applying to him and not every single MLB player — and weren’t ready to give in just yet. A lockout ended up happening later in spring training than the last time, and that, in the end, ended up being its downfall.

It was widely believed, or at least suspected, that Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley talked commissioner Bowie Kuhn into ending the lockout, even as it was clear that the players were getting antsy and didn’t all agree about whether pushing for free agency was going to be worth missing games and paychecks. Players didn’t used to be paid year-round, you know, so as the first paychecks of the year were supposed to be approaching, and weren’t going to because of a lockout, well… some players got nervous, is all. Some even spoke to the media about how they wanted to play ball, which got Marvin Miller, rightfully, on their case: he had to explain that statements like that made the players look like they were in a state of disunity that the owners could exploit. Things weren’t quite as bad as a few players speaking to the media made it seem, but most of the owners were still thinking that, if they were going to allow free agency, it was going to be fully on their terms. And that they could wait the players out to make it so that free agency wouldn’t happen until a player had been in the league for 10 years, for instance, or that there would be compensation attached, or that they’d be limited in the number of teams they could negotiate with.

Instead, O’Malley (and other owners in massive markets like the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner), who knew they’d be fine even if they had to start paying free agents, let Bowie Kuhn know it was time to end the lockout. Kuhn denied and denied that he was pressured into doing anything, but instead had opened up the gates because it was simply time to do so. Regardless of whether Kuhn did it because he was talked into it or because he thought it was the right thing, though, the takeaways were thus: free agency now existed, the reserve clause was gone, and the owners were still not nearly unified enough to take on the players, even on issues that the players weren’t 100 percent unified around.

Feb. 15 – March 20, 1990

This is the big one. The 1990 lockout wiped out nearly all of spring training, and caused Opening Day to be pushed back to April 9 in order to accommodate for that and maintain a 162-game schedule, too. The issues at hand were, unsurprisingly, free agency and arbitration, which had also been at the center of the strikes of the 1980s. The owners regretted ever giving the players either of these economic levers to pull on, and wanted nothing more than to get rid of them entirely. Tensions would have been high enough just because of this state of things, but the owners had also just colluded against the players for three years under previous commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, and the players were upset about this. Meanwhile, the owners were upset that the players were upset.

That the owners were clearly on the wrong side of history here is what ended up working against them in the end. Once again, a commissioner stepped in to try to keep things moving along and end the lockout: Fay Vincent essentially telling the owners they were in the wrong here and the players were right to be furious with them over collusion is part of what led to him being forced out of the role down the line, and also why the owners stopped hiring outsiders to be commissioner and instead turned to then-owner Bud Selig to take over: they didn’t expect to be “betrayed” or what have you by one of their own. It did help lead to the kind of owners’ solidarity that brought the lie that is labor peace to the fore, so, they weren’t wrong about the need for change at the top.

Just like collusion fed into the anger of 1990 and caused a lockout to occur, the losing effort of the lockout — which saw the minimum salary jump to $100,000 for the first time, the owners increase the pension contribution for players, and an expansion of arbitration eligibility, all happening without the revenue-sharing or the salary cap that the owners wanted — fed into the eventual 1994-1995 players’ strike. Which, as has been discussed in this space before, was not the “fault” of the players.


And now we’re in the present. Maybe there will be a lockout this winter, or maybe the current collective bargaining talks will be wrapped up by the Dec. 1 deadline. Maybe there will be a lockout, but it once again won’t cause any games to be missed. Or maybe this will finally be the one that sees games canceled, like has happened with strikes in the past. It’s hard to tell now, with a little less than a month to go before the deadline and an entire offseason and spring training to go before a game would be canceled, to know for sure.

  • The Athletic’s Evan Drellich wrote about what a lockout would look like if one were to happen this offseason.

  • Sports Illustrated ran a bonus chapter from Britni de la Cretaz’ and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo’s Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the Women’s National Football League, so you should check out both the “excerpt” and the book, my pre-ordered copy of which should be in the mail soon.

  • For Fanbyte, Natalie Weiner wrote about how there is no end in sight for sexual abuse in sports.

  • San Francisco Giants’ owner Charles B. Johnson is once again making political donations to super far-right candidates he’ll have to pretend he didn’t know he was making now that he’s been caught for it. Again.

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