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A baseball strike 50 years ago changed American sports forever

The Baltimore Orioles equipment is in order on April 7, 1972, but there are no ballgames because of the baseball players strike. Shown in the Orioles Memorial Stadium dressing room playing cards to pass the time is equipment manager Clay Reid. (William Smith/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
6 min

Marvin Miller wanted to take the temperature of the baseball players in the room, so he decided to play devil’s advocate. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to strike, the executive director of the Major League Players Association told the assembled players’ representatives on March 31, 1972, despite the team owners’ refusal to increase the players’ meager pension payments.

The players’ reaction was swift. “Well, screw that,” thought Tim McCarver, the Philadelphia Phillies’ representative to the union, according to John Helyar’s 1994 book “Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball.”

“Goddammit, there are just times when you’ve got to stand up for your rights,” shouted the Oakland Athletics’ Reggie Jackson.

And the players began to chant, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!”

With a vote of 47 to 0, with one abstention, the first players’ strike in U.S. professional sports history was on.

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On April 1, 50 years after the strike officially began, what should have been the start of the 2022 baseball season was pushed back by another work stoppage, which interrupted spring training and delayed Opening Day by a week. The lockout dismayed fans and raised concerns about Major League Baseball’s ability to retain a loyal following when players and teams were both seen as prioritizing money over baseball.

But the passions behind this lockout were nothing compared to 1972.

Until then, most baseball players were regular working stiffs. Their average salaries were in the low teens, and many had to hold second jobs as clerks or teachers in the offseason.

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Even stars like Mickey Mantle had no leverage in negotiations. In 1957, Mantle hit .365 and won the most valuable player award. But Yankees General Manager George Weiss cut his salary by $5,000, according to Helyar.

Throughout baseball history, owners had taken a feudal approach to their employees. A reserve clause instituted in 1879 meant that the first team that signed a player to a professional contract owned his playing rights for the rest of his career: The team could pay him what it wanted and trade him if it wished. The player’s only recourse was to quit.

“The reserve clause locked you in as though you were on a plantation somewhere outside of Sumter, South Carolina,” Bill Lee, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 to 1978, said in a phone interview. “We were like slaves for life, and we could never go to another club on our own.”

Marvin Miller helped the players develop a better sense of their value and a determination to have some say in their careers. For them, the unfairness of their position was obvious. But the owners, the press and the public saw it differently. Sportswriters called the players “selfish” and “spoiled” money-grubbers.

Team owners were threatened by six years of Miller’s increasing challenges to their rule. But they assumed the players wouldn’t stay united and the fledgling union could be crushed by hardball negotiating tactics.

To win, Miller and the players’ representatives knew they’d have to change the public perception of their situation. The stars set the tone; Jackie Robinson pointed out that players had short careers and needed to make sure their futures were secure. “They may make big money for a few years, but Uncle Sam takes a big hunk of that and then they’re out of baseball,” said Robinson, whose pension from Major League Baseball was $250 a month.

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Ostensibly, the goal of the strike was to add money to the players’ pension fund: a 17 percent increase to match inflation over the previous three years. But the real issue, according to Miller, was power.

From the start, the players had the support of other professional athletes. After the players’ representatives voted to strike, Miller flew from Florida to New York. When the plane stopped over in Baltimore, a dozen of the “biggest men I’d ever seen” boarded the plane, he wrote in his autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game.” It was the New York Knicks, who had been playing the Baltimore Bullets earlier.

“The Knicks greeted us with cries of ‘Right on!’ ” he wrote. “Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier and most of the others came over to talk about the strike, which was how we spent the rest of the flight.”

The basketball players could see this historical moment for what it was: the first instance of professional athletes asserting their right to define their futures.

As the strike dragged on for nearly two weeks, each passing day without baseball gave the players more leverage over the owners, who were losing money and resolve.

Miller kept working on the owners at meetings in New York’s Four Seasons Hotel. He pointed out that they had accumulated an $800,000 surplus in pension contributions and could add to the pension fund simply by releasing the surplus.

The owners initially balked, but they soon realized that they were stuck. To save face, Athletics owner Charles O. Finley told reporters many owners hadn’t been aware of the pension surplus. On April 11, the owners agreed to release $500,000 of the pension surplus and to allow limited salary arbitration. But the owners insisted that players make up the 86 games that had been canceled.

Miller and the players accepted the money but refused to play the makeup games. Realizing how much money they were losing as the strike dragged on, the owners caved on April 13.

The players declared victory, ushering in what Bill James, baseball’s pioneer of statistical analysis, called a new age for American professional sports.

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“It was like the moment in the ‘Lion King’ when the young lion finds his strength,” James said in an interview.

But the post-strike era in baseball was marked by rising inequality, he added.

At the time of the strike, the top salaries in baseball were about $100,000 a year. Fifteen years later, they’d jumped to $12 million. Exorbitantly high salaries for top performers soon spread to all major American sports — and, indeed, across American industries, James noted.

The lockout this year ended without any games being canceled, and the settlement gave both sides only some of what they wanted. The players couldn’t declare victory, but maybe they didn’t need to. After all, not many of them are working second jobs as clerks anymore, thanks to their predecessors 50 years ago.

Diane Bernard and Bill McKenna are writers based in the Washington area.