SI Vault
Jim Kaplan
August 10, 1981
And so the rancorous big league baseball strike came to an end, and players began preparing for the "second" season
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 10, 1981

Let The Games Begin

And so the rancorous big league baseball strike came to an end, and players began preparing for the "second" season

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Peace at last. Across the land baseball players came charging—in some cases huffing and puffing—onto sunlit fields to ready body and mind for something they hadn't done in 50 days—play ball. Yes, Virginia, there is an All-Star Game, and it will be played on Sunday in Cleveland. And there will be more games, and a World Series. The specter of a nation without a pastime had been exorcised just in time.

It came down to a 2 p.m. meeting last Thursday at New York's Doral Inn. Or so it seemed. The baseball stoppage had been the longest in the game's history, and mayors, businessmen, a federal mediator, the National Labor Relations Board, the Secretary of Labor and public opinion had failed to halt it THIS IS IT screamed the headlines; settle the strike or forfeit the season. No one held out very much hope. Indeed, only mediator Ken Moffett, an unflappable, good-humored and, above all, enduring marathon runner, thought the meeting in Room 1706 was even worth scheduling.

Well, 2 p.m. passed, and no negotiators for the players or owners arrived. Had everyone finally picked up his ball and bat and gone home? Not at all. The key negotiators had been huddling for an hour at the offices of National League president Chub Feeney. The negotiating teams had been pared to the bare minimums, which, itself, is often a sign of serious bargaining. Representing the owners were chief negotiator Ray Grebey and American League President Lee MacPhail; on hand for the athletes were Marvin Miller, executive director of the players' association, and his counsel, Don Fehr. They had elected, at Grebey's suggestion, to meet in secret away from the Doral. "When 2:15 came and nobody showed up at the Doral," said mediation service lawyer Nancy Broff, "we knew. It was 'Let's Make a Deal' time."

None of the principals remembers a single dramatic moment in which it became apparent that the strike was ending. Instead, they recall an atmosphere conducive to a settlement. Unlike the sterile meeting room in the Doral, Feeney's office is a harmonious place in which to conduct business. It has wood paneling, a view of the Rockefeller Center skating rink and a nostalgic photograph of a packed house at a Polo Grounds night game. With no table to separate them, the negotiators sat together, Miller on a couch, the others in chairs. The prospects of a settlement were further enhanced by the nature of the conversation. The player representatives, said MacPhail, were "businesslike." The owners' people, said Miller, "weren't playing word games."

These were 1981 baseball talks? Talks in which each side had accused the other of negotiating in bad faith, of lying or distorting the facts, and other high crimes and misdemeanors? Students of ancient history will recall that the discussions—rancorous and futile up to now—had started 20 months ago, when the owners proposed a controversial plan that would require a team signing a free agent to surrender a quality player from its own roster. Attachment Nine, it came to be called. A strike was averted in May of 1980 when the compensation issue was tabled. But on Feb. 19, 1981 the owners implemented their proposal, as was provided for in the 1980 agreement, and on Feb. 25 the players exercised their contractual right to set a strike date. After an initial postponement, they finally went out on June 12, and by last Thursday the two sides had never seemed more bitterly antagonistic.

After some 2� hours of highly promising conversation, the negotiators adjourned to caucus. Miller and Fehr headed for the players' association offices on Sixth Avenue, where they huddled with associate counsel Peter Rose and player representatives Mark Belanger of Baltimore, Phil Garner of Pittsburgh and Steve Rogers of Montreal. The owners went to the National League's legal offices at the Citicorp Center to confer with Feeney, lawyers Barry Rona, Louis Hoynes and James Garner and the six front-office members of the Player Relations Committee's executive board.

The four principals met again in Feeney's office at around 6 p.m. They adjourned at 9 p.m.—MacPhail and Grebey to eat dinner with their attorneys and Miller and Fehr to return to the association office, where Bob Boone of Philadelphia and Doug DeCinces of Baltimore had joined the others. Around midnight everyone reconvened in the National League attorneys' offices. Shortly thereafter they reached an agreement in principle and at 5:30 a.m. a tentative agreement was signed. (Formal ratification by the players and owners was considered certain.) In a concession to the players, the owners accepted a compensation proposal that wouldn't unduly punish teams signing free agents and appeared to allow players to bargain freely. In deference to the owners, the players guaranteed three more years of peace by extending the Basic Agreement a year, until Dec. 31,1984. They also agreed to file for a dismissal of their NLRB suit which seeks to open the owners' books.

While contract language and other details were being worked out in the hours before the 5:30 signing, players and owners began to spread news of the settlement. Oakland President Roy Eisenhardt got a call from Minnesota Vice-President Clark Griffith at 11:28 p.m. Pacific Coast time. "I didn't even ask about compensation," Eisenhardt said afterward. "When you have a baby, you don't ask if it's a boy or girl, you're so happy." A few minutes later San Diego Shortstop Ozzie Smith heard from the players' side. "They told me, 'Everything is squared away,' " said Smith. "I was relieved and excited. This thing really got boring." By the time Miller and Grebey reported to the Doral's Crystal Ballroom at approximately 6 a.m. to announce the settlement, it was old news. So old that Grebey could be photographed holding aloft a late edition of the New York Daily News. The front-page headline read PLAY BALL!

Why did the players and owners settle? Because they had to. Even after collecting a reported $44 million worth of strike insurance, the owners have lost an estimated $72 million in tickets, concessions and broadcast revenues forfeited for 713 canceled games. For their part, the players dropped $28 million in salaries during the seven-week strike. "There was great worry that we might not only lose the 1981 season but jeopardize 1982 as well," said Belanger, the American League pension rep.

Only by settling immediately could baseball salvage a respectable season of as many as 111 games. There were other pressures as well. The 22 U.S. cities with major league teams had lost about $10 million in tax income and hundreds of millions more indirectly. And—Lord have mercy—the professional football exhibition season was starting with Saturday's Hall of Fame game. It's one thing to have hostile fans who follow baseball, another to have apathetic fans who don't give a damn. "No one seems to care about baseball," said a patron at a bar near Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium. "The football pools are in, and that's what everyone's talking about."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4