The major-league baseball players’ strike of 1985 will not warrant more than a footnote in the sport’s exhaustive record books—a 48-hour postponement of 25 games. In the labor history of the troubled game, it will be remembered as the second strike in a four-year period, a major victory for the players’ union and a minor triumph for the league’s commissioner. But the millions of North Americans whose entertainment dollars sustain the game will more likely remember the two days last week as a needless interruption in one of their favorite summer pursuits.
The main issues in the strike were salary limits and the pension fund of 700 players whose average annual incomes exceed $360,000 (U.S.). At the same time, the 26 team owners—individual millionaires and corporations—said they are paying their employees so much that they are losing money. For the fans, a spectator’s banner hung at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium on the eve of the strike seemed to express a widely shared sentiment. It read: “ Go ahead, strike... Make my day.”
It was a strike that both the players’ union and the owners said they did not want. But no significant talks took place until the union set the Aug. 6 strike date at a meeting before last month’s AllStar game. And it was not until after that deadline, with the two Canadian and 24 American ball parks silent, that baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth stepped in. The 46-year-old mastermind of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles invited the two sides to meet informally Tuesday morning.They talked for 11 hours. Ueberroth, who rapidly settled last year’s umpires’ strike, convened another meeting Wednesday. One hour later the strike was over.
The players made concessions on the owners’ contribution to their pension fund and length of service required for salary arbitration. The owners dropped their proposals for league-wide salary ceilings and a limit to arbitration awards. In the end, Ueberroth emerged as the peacemaker, the players as the victors—and the fans and owners as the losers. Said Ueberroth: “I played no role. There was integrity on both sides and that is why .we have an agreement.” Declared the owners’ principal representative, Lee MacPhail: “I am sorry that we weren’t able to do a little better job, perhaps, for [the owners].”
The last major interruption in the flow of the game occurred in 1981. The players staged .a 50-day midseason
strike which eliminated 712 games from the regular season schedule. Then, the central issue was clearly defined and understandable: the players were defending their right to fulfil their contracts,become free agents and sign with the highest bidder. But this year the issues were less evident. The owners’ claim that they collectively lost more than $40 million in 1984 was reduced to $27 million by their own accountants. The players’ union economist converted that figure to a $9-million profit. As well, the players refused to entertain the owners’ proposal for a limit to team salaries. And union consultant Marvin Miller termed the proposal that arbitration awards be limited to a doubling of the player’s salary “cockamamie.”
But the players staked claim to onethird of the owners’ annual television revenue for the players’ pension fund. That contribution had never been defined in any agreement, but traditionally amounted to roughly one-third of TV revenue. A new $1.1-billion, six-year TV contract covering 1984 to 1989 would raise the one-third to $60 million from $15.5 million.
The players’ concession on the pension issue—from a demand for $60 million to $33 million—amounted to a $17million annual increase over the 1981 contract. But their pension program already ranked with the best in any industry. Their major victory was in defeating the owners’ proposals on limiting salaries. In 1970 the average major league salary was $29,000. Now it is
$363,000—with at least two dozen players making more than $1 million.
The players also won a $20,000 increase in the minimum wage, to $60,000. Salaries rose enormously after the players earned the right in 1976 to play out their contracts and become free agents.
The bidding wars that resulted among owners for the services of exceptional players escalated salaries into the multimillion-dollar range. And salary arbitration accelerated that process. Under the last agreement players could file for salary arbitration after two years in the major leagues. The player would submit one figure, the owner another, and an arbitrator would chose between the two. To evaluate the submissions, arbitrators compared the players’ performance and salaries with those of free agents.
Indeed, in recent years arbitrators accepted the players’ proposed salaries in two notable cases—pitcher Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers and outfielder Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos. Each player now earns $1 million or more annually. The Dodgers’ and Expos’ offers of $750,000 and $1 million were rejected. And while the owners managed to convince the union that players must now have three years of service to be eligible for arbitration, that clause will not go into effect until 1987. That will be too late for the New York Mets. Their 20-year-old pitcher, Dwight Gooden, will make approximately $330,000 this year, his second. He is eligible for arbitration after this sea-
son. When play stopped last week, Gooden led the major leagues in strikeouts (179), had won 17 games and lost only three, hadpitched 188 % innings and had a remarkable earned run average of 1.57 per nine innings. Mets catcher Gary Carter earns roughly-ljUJ} million a season. Next season Gooden may earn more than that.
As the nine months of desultory negotiations ground toward the strike deadline, it became clear that the only losers would be the people buying tickets. For his part, Michael Eddins, a devout Kansas City Royals supporter from Prairie Village, Kan., formed the Major League Fans Association, with 100 initial members, and initiated a $100-million lawsuit against major-league baseball and the players’ association, claiming that both parties breached ticket contracts by failing to negotiate with each other in good faith. Said Eddins: “Fans are the ones being mistreated. I’m just so irate about this strike.”
In Washington, D.C., Jonathan Sawyer and Eric Yaverbaum, both 24, formed Strike Back, a grassroots fan alliance. The partners in a public relations firm asked baseball fans to demonstrate their disapproval by boycotting as many games as were interrupted by a
strike. Of the first 60,000 letters of support and promises to boycott games, Strike Back received more than 15,000 from Toronto, home of the American League East-leading Blue Jays. Said Yaverbaum, a Cincinnati Reds fan: “The strongest support came from Toronto. The fans there were concerned that a strike might reduce the number of games this season. If the Jays then won the pennant—the first non-American team to win a pennant—it would go into the record books with an asterisk. They were fighting the asterisk.”
But Toronto concern about an asterisk—the baseball record book’s way of denoting aberrations —subsided as quickly as play resumed. When the Blue Jays took the field last week in Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, more than 40,000 welcomed them back. With that, the Jays went on to defeat the Baltimore Orioles in both games of a doubleheader to increase their American League East lead to nine games over the New York Yankees. For the second time in four years the players proved that majorleague baseball is a business, not a game. And after a 48-hour interlude it was business as usual.
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