If there were any doubts that baseball is our national sport, the events of last week should have dispelled them. A ruling by Federal Judge Henry F. Werker led to the first strike with a season in progress in the history of major league American sport. The judge ended his decision with the ironic, plaintive and paradoxical words, "PLAY BALL!!!" Then, by heaven, they played ball.
Oh yes they did. In San Diego they played Fantasy Baseball. The creation of Paul Palmer, vice-president and general manager of television station KFMB, Fantasy Baseball is a series of highlights from old tapes, in which the Padres win every game and storm into first place. In Houston the Astros were still playing. Well, sort of. Radio station KENR filled airtime with re-creations of past games, and The Houston Post reprinted its original stories on them. And on Ted Turner's nationwide cable-TV channel, Ronald Reagan was pitching his way to glory as Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.
This rare strain of Baseball Fever began to spread last Friday when the 650 major league players walked out for the third time in nine years. In 1972 the players had canceled the first 13 days of the regular season and in 1980, eight days of exhibitions. But those were merely passing storms. This year's impasse, the culmination of a bitter and confusing 18-month dispute, could dampen spirits indefinitely.
This is a struggle in which the workers fought to preserve the status quo and avoid a strike, while the bosses sought radical change and courted a walkout. The players and owners never met face-to-face, only their representatives did. Negotiations became non-negotiations. The commissioner of baseball all but told the world that his words were meaningless, his authority a joke. Judge Werker was quite right to use the words, "Play ball" when he ruled against the National Labor Relations Board's request for a strike-delaying injunction. Fair had become foul and foul fair.
The issue wasn't just high salaries; it was freedom. In 1975 arbitrator Peter Seitz had ruled that the option clause in the contracts of pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith bound them to their clubs for only one year. The effect of the ruling was to invalidate baseball's reserve clause, which had bound players to their clubs in perpetuity, and to make free agents of every player whose option year expired at the end of the 1976 season. But even the athletes realized that total freedom could result in chaotic bidding. Therefore, in 1976 they agreed to a four-year contract that limited the free-agent option to players with six years of major league experience. Clubs losing free agents would receive at most an amateur draft choice as compensation.
The result was an unprecedented increase in salaries. In 1976, according to Major League Players Association estimates, the average salary was approximately $52,300. By 1980 it had risen to $143,756, owing largely to the seven-figure, multi-year contracts many owners were willingly throwing at free agents, among them such questionable commodities as Pitcher John Curtis (San Diego) and Second Baseman Rennie Stennett (San Francisco). Why didn't the owners agree to limit their own spending? Because that would have been a violation of antitrust laws. Instead, they opened the 1980 contract talks by proposing what amounted to a "giveback" on free agency. A club losing a "ranking" or "quality" free agent, according to the owners' proposal, would be compensated with a major-leaguer from the signing team. To qualify as a ranking performer, a free agent would have to be among the top 50% in his league according to a formula based on playing time and be drafted by at least eight teams within a designated number of rounds (based on the number of players in the draft). The signing team could protect either 15 or 18 players from compensation, depending on whether the free agent's playing time qualified him for the top third or top half.
Cloaking their concern over salaries, the owners said their objective was to preserve baseball's "competitive balance." Actually, the balance of power had improved; and judging from record attendance and television contracts, the same was true of the teams' incomes. The fans, who are often described as "victimized" by high player salaries, were doing just fine, too. The average ticket price of $4.53 was the lowest in major sport.
The players protested that the owners' plan would reduce salaries, bargaining power and freedom of movement. They argued that if a club had to surrender a major-leaguer for signing a free agent, it would be much more selective about whom it sought and how much it offered. The owners stood firm. A strike was averted last May because of a plan proposed by Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association. Under Miller's plan, the compensation issue was tabled while a four-man player-executive committee studied the matter. If the committee couldn't arrive at an agreement, negotiations would resume. If they, too, failed, the owners could implement their proposal in 1981 and the players could set a strike date. To most people the 1980 settlement looked like a way to reach a compromise.
But not to the club owners. In a press release accompanying the 1980 accord, their chief negotiator, Ray Grebey, was quoted as saying, "...the Clubs' proposal for compensation becomes a part of the Basic Agreement and it cannot be removed without agreement of the two sides."
That position was reflected in the 1981 round of negotiations. Only twice did Grebey formally "modify" the 1980 proposal—once after the players went to the National Labor Relations Board charging an unfair labor practice, and again about 24 hours before last Friday's strike deadline. The first proposal suggested some performance criteria for ranking free agents, as the players had demanded, but kept intact the 15-18 and 50% formulas and added some technical modifications the players regarded as regressions. The second, in addition to dropping the percentage for ranking players from 50 to 40, said this: Any team signing a free agent would designate, from its 40-man roster, a 25-player pool from which a club losing a free agent could select compensation. The owners, in essence, were doing little more than rewording their 15-month-old proposal. The players said no. Meanwhile, the owners had implemented their proposal and the players had set a May 29 strike date.