Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike

A strike by Major League Baseball players set the tone for future labor relations in professional sports. Although the strike did not significantly affect the 1972 season, an unforeseen consequence of the resulting Basic Agreement, which contained a provision calling for binding arbitration of future salary disputes, was to usher in the era of free-agent players and skyrocketing salaries.

Summary of Event

Sports fans throughout the United States look forward to the opening of the Major League Baseball season, an annual ritual that through the decades has acquired almost mythic overtones in the public consciousness. The first games of each new year, played during the traditional season of renewal, are a leisurely prelude to the sterner competitions of the summer and fall. Opening day is a celebration that seems to draw out baseball’s pastoral qualities, emphasizing the game’s allure as a haven from more troubling concerns. Labor strikes;Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball;labor strikes
[kw]Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike (Apr. 1-13, 1972)
[kw]Baseball Players Go on Strike, Professional (Apr. 1-13, 1972)
[kw]Strike, Professional Baseball Players Go on (Apr. 1-13, 1972)
Labor strikes;Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball;labor strikes
[g]North America;Apr. 1-13, 1972: Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike[00670]
[g]United States;Apr. 1-13, 1972: Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike[00670]
[g]Canada;Apr. 1-13, 1972: Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike[00670]
[c]Sports;Apr. 1-13, 1972: Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike[00670]
[c]Business and labor;Apr. 1-13, 1972: Professional Baseball Players Go on Strike[00670]
Miller, Marvin
Gaherin, John
Kuhn, Bowie

The spring of 1972, however, was different. On April 1, only a few days before the season’s scheduled opening, the Major League Baseball Players Association Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced that its members were on strike pending resolution of a dispute with baseball’s twenty-four team owners over contributions to the players’ pension fund. The strike was a relatively short one, lasting less than two weeks before a compromise on the pension fund issue was reached, but the dispute went on long enough to disrupt the season’s first week and force the cancellation of eighty-six regular-season games. The national pastime itself had come to reflect the same mundane troubles that many fans sought to escape.

The 1972 strike was precipitated by a relatively minor dispute. In 1969, the owners and players had agreed to a revision of the general contract (known as the Basic Agreement) that called for the owners to contribute $5,450,000 each year to the pension fund for retired players. By 1972, however, inflation had reduced the value of the owners’ contribution, and player representatives asked for a $1,072,000 addition to the annual payment to reflect cost-of-living increases. The owner-sponsored Player Relations Committee, headed by John Gaherin, offered to raise the total by $490,000, but as spring training ended and the April 5 opening of the season approached, neither side was willing to compromise. The thirteen-day strike, which was settled when owners agreed to allow $500,000 in income earned by the fund to be used to increase payments, cost the owners an estimated $5 million in revenue and the players roughly $1 million in pay, sums far in excess of the amount in dispute.

Although the issue at hand was minor, larger issues in baseball’s labor-management relationship were not. In fact, both sides were spoiling for a fight. Team owners were eager to test and, if possible, break the MLBPA; the young union, on the other hand, was looking for a chance to flex its muscles and show the owners that their century-long domination of baseball’s power structure was nearing an end.

Marvin Miller (second from right), executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, announces the end of the costly thirteen-day strike on April 13, 1972, in New York City. From left are players Gary Peers of the Boston Red Sox, Wes Parker of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Joe Torre of St. Louis Cardinals. To his right is Dick Moss, assistant counsel for the association.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Owners exhibited confidence that bordered on arrogance. Indeed, the owners seemed to have good reason to feel secure in their power; baseball’s history of labor-management conflicts was an almost uninterrupted litany of owner victories and player losses. For decades, major-league owners had squelched every real challenge to their power, crushing rival leagues and winning important legal decisions with regularity. The owners’ hand was bolstered in particular by two trump cards: a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision that exempted organized baseball from antitrust legislation and the notorious “reserve clause,” a portion of the Basic Agreement that was used to bind players to their teams in perpetuity.

The antitrust exemption, which stemmed from the Supreme Court’s much-criticized ruling that baseball was not a “trade or commerce in the commonly accepted use of these words,” allowed the owners to run the major leagues as a legal monopoly; the reserve clause, which deprived players of the right to negotiate with rival teams, made the owners’ bargaining strength overwhelming in most cases. Although St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood’s Flood, Curt 1970 challenge to the legality of the reserve clause was under Supreme Court review at the time of the strike, the clause was still in full effect. (In fact, the Court’s June, 1972, ruling in the Flood case extended the owner’s string of successes in labor disputes; the reserve clause would retain its potency until 1975, when it was vitiated by an arbitrator.)

If a player was dissatisfied with a contract offer from his team, therefore, his only real recourse was to refuse to play. Salary holdouts were common but were seldom very effective. Stars from every era of the game had waged salary wars with their bosses, but with little leverage apart from the uncertain help of public opinion, even such legends as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were generally forced to accept management’s terms.

In the spring of 1966, for example, Los Angeles Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax Koufax, Sandy and Don Drysdale Drysdale, Don engaged in a celebrated joint holdout asking for salaries of $175,000. Koufax settled for $125,000 and Drysdale for $110,000; although their holdout ranked as one of the most successful on record, each received far less than he thought he was worth. (In 1962, Drysdale, one of baseball’s top pitchers, had made a reported $35,000; in unrelated court proceedings, the Dodgers reported a profit of $4,347,177 for the 1962 season.) When the 1972 strike began, Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley Finley, Charles O. was already engaged in another highly publicized salary battle with Oakland’s young pitching sensation Vida Blue, Blue, Vida who was seeking a raise from $14,500 after a spectacular 1971 season. Blue settled for $50,000 plus $13,000 in bonus money, little more than half of what he had sought, and the acrimony generated by the bitter holdout cast a shadow over what had promised to be a brilliant career.

Stars such as Koufax, Drysdale, and Blue, however, were rare exceptions. Most of the six hundred or so major-league players earned salaries closer to the $13,500 minimum than to the figures commanded by the top players; in 1970, for example, the average player earned roughly $22,000. Rank-and-file players did not, for the most part, have the leverage needed to win concessions in individual holdouts. For such players, united action offered the only real prospect of bargaining power.

The man who changed the players’ fortunes was Marvin Miller, a career labor negotiator who took the helm of the MLBPA in 1966 after spending sixteen years working for the United Steelworkers of America. The owners were incensed by the hard-nosed Miller’s appointment and forbade the use of pension funds to pay his $50,000-plus salary, forcing the MLBPA to raise its yearly dues to more than $300 per player. Miller proved well worth the money, however. In short order, he more than doubled the minimum player salary and brokered the 1969 pension deal. When his negotiations over the 1972 pension increase reached an impasse, player representatives voted 47-0 (with one abstention) to call a strike. United behind Miller, the MLBPA in 1972 represented the most formidable labor foe the owners had faced in decades. The short strike offered proof of the union’s new power: Baseball players had at last stood together to win concessions from their bosses.


The spring interruption did not seem to affect the quality of play in the 1972 season, which featured several exciting pennant races and a memorable World Series won by Finley’s Oakland team. The most significant on-field consequence of the strike was felt by the Boston Red Sox, who lost the American League Eastern Division title—and a chance to compete in postseason play—by one-half game to the Detroit Tigers. The strike settlement stipulated that none of the canceled games would be made up; the Red Sox, however, lost one more game to the strike than the Tigers did, and the unplayed game provided Detroit’s margin of victory.

During the 1972 strike, both labor and management expressed concern over the possible effect of a prolonged strike on fan interest. By the early 1970’s, the explosive growth of the popularity of professional football was threatening to deprive baseball of its traditional status as the national pastime, and other spectator sports were vying with the major leagues for fan loyalty. Owners and players alike were denounced in the media as greedy businessmen, and both sides worried that the public wrangling over money might disenchant fans and lead to a long-term loss of interest in the sport. “We don’t want to give the fan an opportunity to see if he can live without baseball,” one Baltimore Orioles executive remarked. “God knows there are plenty of other things to do in the summer.” Despite such fears, baseball’s popularity showed no lasting effects; in fact, major-league attendance for the 1970’s as a whole rose by 18 percent from the previous decade.

The millions lost by the owners in revenue and by the players in salaries represented perhaps the least important consequence of the strike. Both sides were clearly more concerned with the symbolic effect of their actions; the players had made their declaration of independence, and the owners had expressed a continued unwillingness to share power. Hard feelings between labor and management persisted, portending future struggles.

The most significant part of the strike settlement, ironically, proved not to involve the central issue, the pension fund. The new Basic Agreement contained a provision calling for binding arbitration of future salary disputes by outside parties, a concession the owners would soon come to regret. It was arbitrator Peter Seitz Seitz, Peter who pulled the teeth of the reserve clause in 1975, not by judging the provision illegal but by ruling simply that its language did not bind players to their clubs for longer than one year. The decision ushered in the free-agent era, and competitive bidding among owners for top players soon pushed salaries to undreamed-of levels.

In 1976, in the wake of Seitz’s decision, the owners locked players out of training camps briefly as a negotiating ploy, but the season was not affected. In 1981, however, full-scale warfare erupted between the factions, and more than a third of the season was lost to a midsummer strike. The owners, having learned the lessons of 1972, took out a $2 million strike-insurance policy before the 1981 season and collected more than $40 million as compensation for lost revenue. Players were generally much less well prepared, but the MLBPA again held its ground. Thereafter, the owners changed their tactics; rather than trying to break the union through direct confrontation, they tried to hold down salaries by refusing to bid for free-agent players. A series of arbitration decisions found the owners guilty of illegal collusion, however, and the affected players were awarded millions of dollars in damages.

The success of the MLBPA can perhaps best be measured with respect to its counterpart in professional football, America’s other most lucrative spectator sport. The National Football League Players Association National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), hamstrung by leadership disputes and poor decision making, failed to achieve anything like the gains made by Miller and his colleagues in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even though professional football did not enjoy baseball’s treasured antitrust exemption, football salaries consistently lagged far behind baseball salaries. In 1987, a midseason strike by the NFLPA ended in disaster for the players, as strikebreakers and substitute players quickly eroded the union’s strength. The result was the virtual destruction of the NFLPA, which subsequently decertified itself as the players’ negotiating arm in order to allow its members to pursue independent legal challenges to their employers’ policies.

The 1972 baseball strike was the opening shot in a new phase of an ongoing war over sports revenues. Although fans and media analysts would continue to lament the intrusion of such prosaic concerns on their favorite diversions, the enormous and seemingly ever-growing sums involved made such battles appear to be a permanent adjunct of modern sports. Labor strikes;Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball;labor strikes

Further Reading

  • Dworkin, James B. Owners Versus Players: Baseball and Collective Bargaining. Boston: Auburn House, 1981. A useful overview of baseball’s labor relations up to the time of the sport’s biggest strike.
  • James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press, 2003. A fascinating compendium of history, anecdotes, and penetrating statistical analysis. Contains much useful and hard-to-find information on the game’s attendance figures, player salaries, and labor disputes. Unique and indispensable.
  • Korr, Charles P. The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-1981. Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Explores the labor disputes of the decades and the personalities who led the Major League Baseball Players Association. For a general audience.
  • Kuhn, Bowie. Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner. 1987. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Commentary on the game’s crises by its commissioner from 1969 to 1984, who was often taken to task for his inaction during the momentous events of the time.
  • Miller, Marvin. A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1991. Reflections on the owner-player disputes of the 1970’s and 1980’s by the players’ champion of the era. Provides an interesting contrast of perspectives with Kuhn’s book.
  • Scully, Gerald W. The Business of Major League Baseball. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A useful discussion of how economics affects big-league baseball on a variety of levels.

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