It was April 1972, and Rich Gossage, a 20-ycar-old kid less than two years out of high school, stood alone on a Chicago street corner with $28 in his pocket and nowhere to go. Never before had he been in a city this big. He had made the White Sox after reporting to spring training as a nonroster player, and just when the season was about to begin, the players called the first strike in baseball history because of a dispute with the owners about the players' pension fund.
God, he thought, here I am on the club, and we're not playing. I'm being paid $12,500 to play this game. Hell, I'd pay them that much to play. I mean, if I had that much money. I don't understand this.
He walked the streets until darkness fell, and then, lacking the funds for a hotel room, he checked into a bar owned by Chicago Cub first baseman Joe Pepitone. Beer was his familiar companion—he always worked through many of them, quickly and easily, as if they were over-matched hitters—until the bartender told him the place was closing and it was time to leave. It was four in the morning. Only a couple of hours more, he thought, and then the sun will be up.
And then two figures, having taken notice of a strapping young man out by himself at such an hour, approached him in the darkness of the street. Like to have a good time with us? they wondered. Jeez, these are men, he thought, and hurried off. He was scared and convinced he could not spend another night like this. When morning came, he telephoned his sister, Lavonne, in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. Of course, she told him, she had room for him.
He spent a few days with Lavonne until they decided he should go home to Colorado. They drove from Des Plaines to Colorado Springs, but when they arrived there, a day later, he found out that the strike was over. So they got back in the car the next morning, turned around and drove to Kansas City in time for Opening Day, April 15, at old Municipal Stadium. He made his big league debut the next night, throwing one shutout inning against the Royals in relief of Stan Bahnsen.
Gossage is the last active player left from that 1972 strike, which was so long ago that people like Luis Aparicio, Al Kaline and Willie Mays were on strike with him. He has, until now, always emerged the better from baseball's shutdowns.
You know that fight over the pension in '72? Now he is scheduled to receive $11,221 a month starting at age 62. Remember the lockout of 76, when the owners futilely tried to hold back the arrival of free agency? Less than two years later he parlayed free agency into a six-year, $2.75 million contract with the New York Yankees. And what about the 1981 strike, in which the owners (in vain, again) tried to attach a prohibitive compensation system to free agency? Gossage cashed in as a free agent less than three years after that, signing with the San Diego Padres for $6.25 million for five years.
"The union is stronger than it's ever been," he says. "These players understand what we've gained. Take a Barry Bonds, a Ken Griffey Jr., they saw their fathers go through it. It's like Ken Griffey Sr. told Junior when the strike began: 'Congratulations. You finally graduated.'
"Back then, in 72, we weren't sure. It was, God, we hope we're right. Now we know what we're doing is right. From every crisis I think you gain strength. The players aren't going to fold. The waters are charted now.
"The owners have never been up front with us. Attendance is up, new stadiums are being built, they want to expand—and this is supposed to be a business in trouble? If there are franchises in trouble in any other business, you move it. I played in Pittsburgh. I don't want to see that team move. But should the players be the ones to bail it out? I just knew this strike was coming. The writing was on the wall."