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Examining the impact of past MLB work stoppages

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

June 23rd, 2020

The coronavirus compelled Major League Baseball to delay the start of its 2020 campaign and, until very recently, it appeared labor strife could sink the entire season. Here’s an abstract of the various labor stoppages suffered throughout MLB history, which could be an indicator of what the future holds for the sport.

Pre-1981

Players went on strike for the first time on April 1, 1972 due to pension fund grievances. The owners conceded after 13 days, realizing they were losing more money in attendance. The missed games were never made up, resulting in an infamous AL East victory for the Tigers (86-70), who finished a half-game ahead of the Red Sox (85-70).

The following year, players were locked out of Spring Training until a three-year CBA was reached that clearly defined salary arbitration. No regular season games were missed.

Less than three years later, MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller found a loophole in the reserve clause. An arbitrator declared pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to be free agents. Players were briefly locked out of Spring Training in 1976 in retaliation, but again no regular season games were canceled.

In 1980, arguments over minimum salary, arbitration, and free agency limits led to yet another MLBPA strike. A truce regarding everything but revised free agency was reached, again avoiding amending the regular season.

1981

The 1981 strike would have far-reaching consequences on the rest of the season and beyond.

There were no baseball games played from June 12 to Aug. 8, as the players protested the owners’ demand for free agent compensation. After a 59-day freeze-out, the MLBPA relented. From then on, players would need to attain six years of service time before becoming eligible for free agency.

But fans did not welcome baseball back with open arms. The All-Star Game, held on Aug. 9 (one day before the regular season resumed), drew a 20.1 rating, down 25 percent from 1980’s Midsummer Classic.

The trend continued when the Dodgers met the Yankees in the World Series. The 30.0 rating was down nine percent from when the same clubs collided three years earlier. Ratings have only decreased since.

Furthermore, much like in 1972, there were uneven numbers of games played by different teams. Playoff teams were determined by "first half" and "second half" records, and the Cardinals were hosed as they had the best overall record in the NL but lost out in the first half to the Reds and in the second half (by a half-game) to the Expos.

1985, 1990

In 1985, a two-day strike (Aug. 6-7) over pensions and a salary arbitration cap resulted in games being postponed, but they were made up. However, the ripples were felt in subsequent years as owners felt commissioner Peter Ueberroth gave up too much in negotiations.

The 1990 lockout over free agency, arbitration, and revenue sharing resulted in a one-week delay to the regular season, but all 162 games were eventually played.

1994-1995

From Aug. 12, 1994 to April 24, 1995, there were no MLB games played. That includes the 1994 World Series, and its cancelation had devastating effects on the sport.

In 1994, the average attendance at an MLB game was 31,256, the high-water mark for the sport. It would take 10 years before average attendance again topped 30,000.

Once the shortened 1995 season got underway, following a 232-day work stoppage, fans tore into their once-beloved players as well as the owners. Three men wearing T-shirts that said "Greed" on the front snuck onto the Shea Stadium field and tossed $160 worth of $1 bills at the players’ feet until they were escorted out of the building.

Signs like "Field of Greed" were carried by countless fans at just about every MLB stadium. It’s been argued that were it not for the captivating Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run battle of 1998, baseball would have faded into obscurity (though the game would pay a price for that down the road).

Since 1995, there have been no MLB games missed due to labor strife, mostly because both sides still remember the impact of the last one. A missed season in 2020, with the eyes of the nation focused more intently than ever, could be a crushing blow to baseball. 


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