Out of Left Field: A brief history of MLB labor stoppages

With the signing of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — which is good for five years — on Nov. 30, Major League Baseball will have seen 26 straight years without a work stoppage by the time this one ends. This is truly remarkable given that MLB had four in-season labor stoppages from 1972 to 1994 and eight overall stoppages in that span. Of these four mid-season stoppages, three resulted in missed games, 1972, 1981 and 1994. These three strikes totaled 1718 missed games over the course of 295 days.  

The strike of 1972 was the first work stoppage in MLB history, lasting from April 1 to April 13 and totaling 86 missed games. The key reasons for this strike were the issues of the player’s pension fund and salary arbitration. Owners eventually agreed to add $500,000 to the pension fund and guarantee arbitration. The missed games affected the Atlantic League East divisional race at the end of the season, with the Detroit Tigers, who played one more game than the Red Sox, winning the division by half a game. The bigger effect of the 1972 strike was the addition of salary arbitration to baseball, an enduring aspect to this day. 

On June 12, 1981, the players went on strike and missed games for the first time since 1972. This time, the issue was free agency compensation. The owners, wanting more control over the players, demanded that when a free agent signed with another team, the player’s old team would be compensated with someone from the signing team’s roster, excluding its 12 protected players. The strike ended bitterly, with both the owners and Baseball Players Association unhappy. The deal struck created a pool of unprotected players from all ball clubs that a team could choose from when it lost a premier free agent. Both sides also agreed to restricting free agency to players with six or more years of service time.

The longest work stoppage in MLB history began on Aug. 12, 1994. The rest of the season was canceled, along with the entire postseason. The issue this time was the salary cap the owners proposed. Their new plan would see a salary cap imposed and revenue shared among all clubs in an attempt to help smaller market teams. Players, again, vehemently opposed this action which would again hamper their earning potential. The salary cap required players’ approval and with the worsening relationship between players and owners, this was unlikely.

The strike continued through the expiration of the CBA in place then and lasted until March 31, 1995, ending when District Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners. The 1995 and 1996 seasons were played under the terms of the old, expired CBA. A new CBA was agreed to in March of 1997 and saw the imposition of a luxury tax on big-market teams spending money over a certain threshold, helping smaller-market teams.

These work stoppages have hurt MLB considerably in ratings. Its also part of a shameful tradition, that dates back to the start of baseball, of owners mistreating the players. However, with this new CBA, imperfections and all, baseball seems to have put these issues in the past and is moving forward.

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