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Volume 23 No. 9
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Recalling a bad year, and a good one, for MLB

New book looks at the strike of 1981

In 1981, Major League Baseball became synonymous with infighting. Players and owners led the way, feuding and exchanging public accusations and insults for months before the players union went on strike on June 12. The dispute cost Major League Baseball 712 games before play resumed on Aug. 9 with the All-Star Game.

Other than the 1994 strike that cost baseball an entire postseason and World Series, no other modern-era season rivals the elements of 1981. The MLB labor wars spawned a tortured split-season format devised to rescue the resumption of play, a format that caused the team with the most wins — the Cincinnati Reds — to miss the playoffs.
These misadventures prove to be entertaining yin-yang narrative threads in Jeff Katz’s aptly named “Split Season” ($27.99, St. Martin’s Press, 326 pages). Katz, in a bit of poetic symmetry, also happens to be the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y.

Ray Grebey, a veteran of labor relations in the steel industry and with General Electric, was the lead negotiator for the owners. The strike grew out of yet another failed attempt by the owners to break MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller and the players union, this time over the issue of teams being forced into free agent compensation. Continuing a tradition that began with free agency itself, the owners wanted concessions from the players to lower salaries, discourage player mobility and, most of all, save the owners from their own reckless spending sprees.

Grebey, in talks with Miller, took the hard-line approach favored by the likes of August Busch (Cardinals), Calvin Griffith (Twins) and Ted Turner (Braves). Others, including Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn (White Sox), Edward Bennett Williams (Orioles) and Eddie Chiles (Rangers), questioned Grebey’s strategy — and openly mocked the commissioner, Bowie Kuhn.

Williams, for example, told Grebey, his ostensible ally, “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do before I die.” Chiles said of his colleagues, “We have a worse problem with some of our owners than we do with Marvin Miller.”

Perhaps most anachronistic from the perspective of 2015 is Kuhn’s best-interests-of-baseball stance during the labor talks and subsequent strike. Time and again, Katz culls Kuhn’s public statements to illustrate his tone-deaf lack of awareness. To cite but one of many examples, Kuhn, in a speech at the 1980 winter meetings, crowed over “unprecedented unity among club ownership.”

The compromised strike season led to an extra round of playoffs, the precursor to the division series, as Kuhn and the owners grasped for a way to keep fans interested in baseball’s late-summer revival. Ratings and attendance were abysmal, but expanded playoffs would later be added — and thrive.

Katz also delves into the mess the strike caused for newspapers and networks. Simulated fantasy games became staples of sports pages in some cities while the lack of baseball added to the massive box-office hauls of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman II.”

Katz spoke to SportsBusiness Journal about 1981 and the following are excerpts from that conversation.

On his perception of 1981: I knew [the strike] was about free agency compensation, I knew the owners were pushing for [a strike to break the union] and I knew that the owners really precipitated the strike.

On telling the story: I’m a pro-player guy by default. It drives me crazy when people analyze baseball labor issues as, “The players are greedy, end of story.” Even more absurd is when they say, “The players are so greedy, I’m on the owners’ side.” So I really wanted to get into that story, to explain to people that the players didn’t want anything, that the owners were provoking the strike. What was lucky for me was by the time I really got into the heavy-duty research, the Kuhn papers were available at the Hall of Fame, so were Harry Dalton’s papers — he was GM of the Brewers at the time — Miller’s papers were at NYU, so I really got to see some behind-the-scenes notes no one had seen before.

I don’t necessarily believe anything that came out of the ownership side and commissioner’s office about who was losing money and who wasn’t [in 1981]. When I was talking to Jerry Reinsdorf, who was one of the new owners of the White Sox in 1981, his feeling back then was they should have opened the books because there really wasn’t that much money in the game back then. He said when they bought the team from [Bill] Veeck, the amount of money they made from TV was negligible. What’s interesting is, by 1994, Reinsdorf was the hardest of the hard-liners, so owners are owners. But in 1981, the game really was not in the economic state it is now. Not to say they were losing money, but the overall pot was relatively small.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, champions of the strike-shortened 1981 season, are congratulated by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
On tension among owners: Back in 1981, one of the things that was put forth was that the players were always going to cave, they would miss a paycheck or two and they’d come crawling back, but the owners would be unified. But the players are conditioned to be team players, so they always stick together. And the owners, 30 people now — 26 people then — had completely different priorities and business models. So the idea the owners were going to stick together was provably false. Another myth back then — to some degree, I have, if not sympathy for Bowie Kuhn, I see him as a tragic figure — because he did want to be like a Judge Landis commissioner. But he had to deal with Marvin Miller, who said, “You don’t run all of baseball, you’re the owners’ guy. They hire you, they fire you.” And that was a point that was debated.

On the machinations of the strike: It was very clear, the directions [from teams] were, “If this strike happens, [the players] are nothing to you. You don’t help them, you don’t get them transportation. If they have any events in the course of the strike, like clinics, you are not to help, you are not to sponsor, they can’t use the [stadium].” Which makes sense. If you’re going to play hardball, then you play hardball. But, you know, it does show the mindset, like that little story about when the Yankees finish playing the White Sox at Comiskey [Park before the strike] and [Bobby] Murcer and [Lou] Piniella had to get the cops to drive them back to the hotel. There’s an absurdity to that.

On the split-season format: The people who put it forth felt this was a way to maybe galvanize fans of the worst teams. The Mets, the Mariners, the Blue Jays, teams like that. Which is possible. It could have happened that the Mets could have won the NL East and still have been a terrible team through the course of the year [because the format awarded first- and second-half division leaders with playoff spots rather than cumulative seasonlong victory totals determining who qualified].

But pennant races do take more than a few weeks to galvanize people’s interest. It was a poorly thought out idea not to mention the fact that they gave zero credit to the teams that did best over the long haul, like the Reds, who had the best record in all of baseball, and the Cardinals, who had the best record in the NL East and didn’t make the playoffs.

But there was no appetite from a viewership point of view for that first round of playoffs. Whether that was because it was new and not on people’s radar, or there were still bad feelings about the strike, who’s to say? But it was a ratings failure and I wonder in retrospect whether that delayed the introduction of an extra round of playoffs because Bud Selig was very much on board with that idea in 1981 and then it didn’t take place again until he became commissioner in the mid-1990s.

On whether the 1981 or 1994 strike benefited the game: 1981 did help the game. The subtitle [of my book] that says, “The strike that saved baseball.” … What the owners were looking for in their attempt to kill free agency was to pull back on their own lack of control on salaries and restrict that movement again.

… I would argue [with] free agency, attendance was going up, baseball was being talked about 12 months a year the way it had never been before and competitive balance was increasing. If you look at the 1980s and who made the playoffs and the World Series, there’s more diversity in that era than any era. So I think the 1981 strike really paved the way for the growth of the sport.

In the 1994 strike, the hard-liners who were pushing for a salary cap really were able to stick together. They believed again the myth that the players would fold, which nothing in baseball experience had shown true. But they did stick together, and once they stuck together on the ownership side and they canceled the World Series, that was devastating.

The 1981 strike and the 1981 season is fascinating because, unlike other strikes, there was baseball, there was no baseball and then there was baseball again. Every other strike delayed a season or shortened the season.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.