April 1, 1972 baseball owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association played the cruelest April Fool's Day joke of all on fans. Only it wasn't a joke. They stopped the game. They shut it down. Never before in the 103-year history of professional baseball had the game, and it's fans, faced a work stoppage due to labor discord. It was the first baseball strike in history.
Fans had been reading about the troubles between owners and players for several years. There had been a near-strike in 1969 which was threatened but never came off and few thought they would actually go through with it. Why would they? Players should have considered themselves lucky to do what every red-blooded male in the country would have done for free--play baseball for a living. Owners appeared to be making money--everyone should have been happy with the sport that was indisputably the national pastime.
But as fans watched players pack their equipment and go home, and the scheduled Opening Days of April 5 came and went with empty ballparks still locked up, fans were left on their knees, pounding their fists in the sand, screaming, "You maniacs! You blew it up. Damn you. Damn you all to hell!"
It was an epic event that would change the game's finances forever. While researching Pudge, I had the opportunity to discuss the first strike with several former Red Sox players.
Gary Peters: "I was the player rep all those years [in the sixties with the White Sox and 1970-72 with the Red Sox] . Back then that didn't make you popular with management. We got to the point where they wouldn't even deal with us. [Red Sox owner] Tom Yawkey was great. If more owners had been like him we wouldn't have hired Marvin Miller in the first place. Think how the game would have been different. But three or four owners wouldn't even talk to us. that's why we had to hire Miller."
In 1972, the major league minimum salary was $13,500 and the average was $34,092. Carl Yastrzemski was the top dog, still working on his unprecedented 3-year/$500,000 deal (a cool $167,000 per). Most major league players worked winter jobs to help make ends meet. Even the stars relished the chance to get an endorsement deal to add extra cash. Players lived in small towns back home, in unassuming houses, in real neighborhoods. In short, they were just like everyone else.
Club owners were upset about losing ground in the past few bargaining agreements. The big issue for 1972 was an increase in pension funding and players' health benefits, but the real cause was player solidarity. As the deadline for signing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement approached, the owners vowed to hold the line and back the union into a corner. While they knew they would lose short-term cash if games were cancelled, they felt they would make it back in the long term if they could break the union.
Team meetings were held all over the league. It was not an easy decision. "The Red Sox had the best owner in baseball," says Peters. "They were the best treated. It was difficult for the Red Sox to strike. They wanted to get on the field for Mr. Yawkey. We had to convince them they weren't striking against Yawkey, but all the players in the league had to show solidarity."
The vote among major league players was reportedly 663-10 in favor of a strike if needed. Armed with that vote, players reps and their assistants all got together to make the fateful decision.
"I was the assistant player rep," says Red Sox pitcher Ray Culp. "In the middle of spring training we [all the team reps and assistant reps] got on a plane and flew to Dallas. We all met at a hotel at the airport and had the meeting to vote to strike." The vote was not close: 47 out of 48 voted for the strike. "Then we went back to Winter Haven. We had a meeting with our players at the Holiday Inn there and told them to go home or go to Boston. We didn't know how long this thing was going to last."
"We had a game in Lakeland, Florida against the Tigers," says Kennedy. "After the game [Red Sox general manager Dick] O'Connell came in and said, 'You guys are on strike, everybody has to leave.' The next day we put everything in garbage bags. We couldn't use any of the clubs' ball bags or trunks. We went to the airport carrying all our stuff in garbage bags."
Owners were betting that players would cave and crawl back; that players with such widely differing incomes would never stand together. They appeared to have seriously underestimated the players' resolve. "O'Connell didn't think the Red Sox players would stay out," says Peters. "It was a difficult time in the spring."
For players, the strike was scary. Most players wanted to play baseball and they didn't know how long their money would hold out. "We knew why we were doing it, but it was awfully hard," says Kennedy. "We weren't making a lot of money to begin with and we wouldn't be getting paid. It was difficult."
"The strike hurt everybody," says Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko, who was anxious for his players to get back on the field and worried about how they would stay in shape. "Everybody was in the process of getting ready for the season and then it stops. Some of them got together at Tufts University in Boston and worked out, but they couldn't use any of the Red Sox' facilities."
It was with great rejoicing almost two weeks later when a deal was finally signed. Players ended up being out from April 1 to April 13; a total of 86 major league games were cancelled. Buried at the end of the articles announcing the happy occasion was the fact that part of the agreement stipulated that none of the postponed games would be replayed and that players would not be paid for the missed games. It was a seemingly insignificant detail--but would turn out to have huge consequences for at least one divisional race.
Gary Peters, far left, stands behind Miller as they announce the end of the strike. To Peters' left is Wes Parker of the Dodgers and, sporting a pair of righteous sideburns, Joe Torre of the Cardinals. At far right is Miller's assistant Dick Moss.
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Fans showed their resentment by staying away. Average attendance dropped 10,000 a game for some teams throughout the season. The fans who did show up for games voiced their displeasure with boos for the players, particularly for the leaders of the strike. But, for the most part, the boos were limited to the first few games. Otherwise, once the games started, the strike was forgotten--until the last week of the season, when the missed games cost the Boston Red Sox the chance to win the pennant.
The Sox were a team with a lot of talent, but they started slow. Carl Yastrzemski injured his leg and spent much of May on crutches and then slumped when he returned. Other stars Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli also had their struggles. The pitching staff was hit by injuries as well with Ray Culp, one of their steadiest pitchers (who averaged 16 wins a season for four years), tearing his rotator cuff in July, which essentially ended his career.
The Red Sox were carried through the first half by the unexpected Rookie of the Year season from their catcher, Carlton Fisk. The strike had cost Fisk the chance to compete for the starting job and he began the season as the Sox' third catcher. When starter Duane Josephson went down with a severely pulled muscle in the first week and backup Bob Montgomery gave up four stolen bases to the Indians two games later, Fisk was installed as the starter and never looked back--leading the team with a .293 average and 26 home runs.
More importantly was Fisk's attitude. In early August, he made some statements at an appearance in Springfield, Massachusetts to the effect that he didn't think the team's veterans, particularly Smith and Yaz, were providing much leadership or hustle and, as high-paid stars, they should have been doing more. While the statements bought headlines in Boston for a week and caused hurt feelings (especially from Smith), the team caught fire soon after and won nearly two out of three the rest of the way and climbed into contention, battling the Tigers of fiery second year manager Billy Martin.
The other important factor in the revival of the Red Sox was the reemergence of pitcher Luis Tiant. The indeterminately-aged Tiant had smoked the American League like one of his thick Cuban cigars in 1968, winning 21 games for the lowly Indians while compiling a 1.60 ERA. An arm injury the next year had gotten him traded to the Twins, who cut him at the end of the 1971 spring training. Every other major league team gave up on him. He was given a short trial by Atlanta's AAA team, Richmond, only as a favor to pitching coach Stan Williams, a friend of Tiant's. He was soon released by Richmond, but the astute eyes of (Red Sox AAA) Louisville manager Darrell Johnson had noticed something when Tiant pitched against his team. Johnson called his bosses in Boston and convinced them to snap up Tiant.
Once in Louisville, Tiant pitched great and was soon called up to Boston. The 1971 season did not go well for Tiant, however, (1-7 with a 4.85 ERA) and he began the 1972 season as the last man on the staff, pitching mostly in mop up roles the first half of the season. When given his chance to start after injuries to other, he rose to the occasion and was installed as a regular. He proceeded to reel off an 11-2 record with 11 complete games, 6 shutouts and an ERA barely above 1.00 in 13 starts in August and September of 1972.
As the final week of the 1972 season approached, it was noticed by observers that there could be no tie. Due to the fact that some teams had more games cancelled than others, the Tigers would play 156 games, the Sox 155. As luck would have it, the Red Sox pulled into Detroit for the final series with the standings looking like this:
The Red Sox had to win two of the three games to win the East Division title.
Monday, October 1, 1972, the Red Sox faced twenty-game winner Mickey Lolich in front of more than 50,000 fans. The Sox trailed 1-0 in the third when they threatened to break the game open and run Lolich out. With one out and runners on first and third, Yaz hit a rocket to center. Nearing first, he saw the ball bounce off the top of the fence and roll back toward the infield. He kicked into high gear, thinking triple or inside-the-parker. As he streaked toward third, however, he was surprised to find Luis Aparicio, the runner from first, crawling back to the bag.
The fleet Aparicio, one of the best baserunners in history, had misstepped and hit the third base bag in the middle instead of the inside edge, slipped and fell in the wet grass. Yaz pushed Aparacio toward home, feeling he could still make it, but Aparicio stumbled and was trapped by the throw. He returned to third where Yaz, with no place to go, was tagged out. Instead of being up by a run with one out and a man on third, the Sox had merely tied it with two outs. Reggie Smith followed by striking out and the Sox were done for the day. Lolich proceeded to throw a complete game, striking out 15, while giving up 6 hits, 5 walks and 2 hit batters and won the game 4-1.
The next day the Tigers scraped across a run against Tiant and added two off of reliever Bill Lee and won 3-1. The Sox won the last meaningless game. The final results were:
Detroit 86-70, .551
Boston 85-70, .548
Among the cancelled games had been five head-to-head contests between the Tigers and Red Sox, three of which were in Boston.
The Red Sox, and their fans, will never know what would have happened. Sox manager Eddie Kasko is still sore after all these years: "Why the hell didn't they straighten this out when the strike was on. You've got to say that this might happen when you look at the schedule. But I guess whoever was running things was just happy to get back on the field and didn't bother to look ahead. It hurts to get that close and not have a chance."
Although Commissioner Bowie Kuhn publicly stated that there were no winners in the strike, it was obvious that the players were the big victors. While the missed games cost a player making around $20,000 a year about $1,100 and guys higher on the pay scale close to $10,000, the loss had been worth it. With the agreement to conclude the strike, the owners agreed to add $500,000 to the players' pension fund and, more importantly, agreed to add salary arbitration to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Arbitration was a huge victory for the players. Now there was a process, in front of an independent judge, which would allow players to resolve contract disputes with owners. This unprecedented move would prove fateful for owners, and their beloved reserve clause, within four years.
More important that any gain made in the agreement was the fact that the players had shown the resolve to bargain collectively, to stick together. As stated by UPI writer Fred Down at the time, it was starkly evident that a "new and fundamental relationship now exists between the players and the club owners." Baseball, and salaries, would never be the same.