In recent history, Major League Baseball has become the poster boy for labor disputes with its players. In 2018, MLB and the MLB Players Association are close to reaching a comprehensive CBA that will establish pay scale and revenue sharing terms across all 30 teams in North America.
The “mlb lockout 2021” is the latest labor stoppage in Major League Baseball. The first labor strike was in 1972, and it lasted for 17 days.
If you’re old enough, you remember when big league players and owners had a tense relationship that resulted in a strike or lockout every four or five years, culminating in the dismal cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Since then, there has been labor peace, but that is likely to change on Wednesday night at 11:59 p.m., when the current collective bargaining agreement ends and owners are anticipated to lock out players. That means no major-league deals, no free-agent signings, no major-league part of the winter meetings, and just the hope that everything gets sorted out before spring camp.
The latest CBA discussions occur at a critical juncture in the sport’s history. Due to COVID-19, total league income has been down over the previous two seasons, and commissioner Rob Manfred projected the sport would lose $3 billion in 2020. It did, however, surpass $10 billion in income in 2019, and a new seven-year national TV agreement that begins in 2022 would pay an average of $1.84 billion each season, up from $1.55 billion. Franchise valuations are continuing to rise, according to Forbes estimates. Steve Cohen paid $2.475 billion for the Mets in 2020, while John Sherman paid $1 billion for the Royals. Since 2012, just one additional franchise has been sold, indicating that few owners are looking to exit the baseball industry.
Meanwhile, the league wants to boost the entertainment value of the on-field product, while players perceive a shrinking share of league income and fewer clubs attempting to build competitive teams. To be honest, it’s difficult to feel sorry for anybody here. Aaron Loup, a 10-year veteran reliever with six career saves and no seasons with more than 60 innings worked since 2014, just inked a two-year, $17 million deal. Neither side is in any kind of pain.
As we prepare for the lockout and the upcoming winter of talks, it’s critical to understand how we got here (there have been eight prior lockouts or player strikes) and how that history will affect what happens this winter.
Strike of 1972
Pension plan funding is an issue. 86 games were missing.
What occurred was this: In his book, “A Whole Different Ballgame,” Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982 and the guy who helped construct one of the country’s most powerful unions, stated that the players weren’t actually asking for all that much. The union asked the owners to enhance pension financing so that retirement benefits would reflect the 17 percent increase in inflation over the preceding three years; essentially, a straightforward cost-of-living adjustment. “The owners had determined to put a stop to the Players Association’s growth either by inciting a strike, which they believed they could win, or by compelling the players to back down,” Miller wrote.
On April 1, the players went on strike. It was the “darkest day in sports history,” according to C.C. Johnson Spink, editor of The Sporting News and a major voice in the sport. “We need to shut down baseball forever!” said Angels owner Gene Autry. The start of the season was postponed, resulting in a week’s worth of activity until a four-year compromise on the pension problem was achieved. Despite the fact that the missing games were simply not played, the Tigers won the AL East with an 86-70 record, a half-game ahead of the Red Sox, who finished 85-70.
What it means for this winter: Under Miller’s leadership, the union had made significant progress over the years, including a better pension plan, a better grievance process, a raise in the minimum wage, and the first collective bargaining agreement in any professional sport, which was signed in 1968. Players were making inroads into the full control the owners had enjoyed for over a century, and the owners desired a “win.” As a result, they dug in.
Tony Clark, the current union president, seems to have a similar ambition to win. The owners were largely considered as having cleaned up on the union in the most recent CBA, which covered the 2017 through ’21 seasons. The union had concentrated on relatively minor matters such as extra off days during the regular season and earlier start times for “getaway” games. Most significantly, despite rising income across the board, the competitive balance tax hardly increased. In 2017, the average salary was $4.45 million, but by 2021, it had declined to $4.17 million (partially as a result of COVID, but it also fell in 2018 and 2019).
Lockout in 1973
Arbitration Games were not played: 0 (some spring training games canceled)
What happened: The owners locked out the players at the start of spring training due to a lack of a new CBA. Prior to free agency and salary arbitration, players had little negotiating power when it came to new contracts, with the most famous example being the dual holdout by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers before the 1966 season, when they demanded three-year contracts worth a total of $1 million ($167,000 per season). In the end, Koufax was awarded $125,000 for 1966, while Drysdale was awarded $110,000. Because the athletes lacked bargaining power, they pushed for pay arbitration to resolve contract issues.
After a few weeks of lockout, a new CBA was reached, which included wage arbitration for players with at least two years of big league experience. Compensation arbitration was a “significant influence in removing enormous inequalities in the salary structures from club to club (and occasionally within the same team),” according to Miller. The average income would rise from $29,303 in 1970 to $44,676 in 1975 thanks to arbitration.
What this implies for this winter: Salary arbitration has become a cornerstone of equal compensation for everyone. A young Rays player may expect to earn a salary comparable to that of a similar player on the Yankees. Players are currently eligible for arbitration after three years of service (22 percent are eligible with less than three years, known as Super Two players). The union would want to see younger players paid more quickly, particularly young studs like MVP runner-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who earned just $605,400 in his third season in the majors, barely over the minimum pay of $570,000.
This relates to what ESPN’s Jeff Passan referred to as the “fundamental economics” problem in the talks. Players are enraged at the current proportion of total money they earn. Superstars are compensated, but the middle class is often shut out of free agency, and young players are forced to wait too long for arbitration. It also relates to the problem of service time, in which players are kept in the minors for an additional season of club control before becoming free agents. Kris Bryant and the Cubs brought this to light in 2015, but the union failed to address it in the 2017 CBA.
Lockout in 1976
Issue: 0 games were missed due to free agency (some spring training games canceled)
What happened: In December 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz issued a groundbreaking judgment that allowed free agency to flourish. For years, owners assumed that a player’s reserve clause committed him to his club indefinitely. Even after a signed contract expired, the condition allowed a club to exercise a one-year option on a player’s services. What if a player doesn’t sign a contract? Miller quickly saw the flaw in the phrase.
Under the reserve clause, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally’s contracts were automatically extended by the Dodgers and Expos, respectively, in 1975. The MLBPA subsequently filed complaints, claiming that the one-year option no longer applied since the two players had not signed new contracts. Seitz was on their side and judged in their favor. McNally was hurt and retired, while Messersmith received a three-year, $1 million deal with the Braves after making $90,000 pitching for the Dodgers in 1975.
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The CBA ended on December 31, 1975, and the owners kept the players out of spring training for 17 days. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn finally authorized camps to begin on March 17 at the request of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, indicating that the lockout was unifying rather than dividing the players. In July, a new four-year CBA was agreed, which included free agency criteria. After six years of service, players would be entitled for free agency.
What that means for this winter: While the six-year statute has stood the test of time, a number of variables have resurrected free agency regulations. First, free agency raises senior players’ earnings at the detriment of younger players. That’s OK if the union wants to divide salary that way, but the aging curve has shifted since the end of the steroid era, and clubs are increasingly giving younger (and less expensive) players more playing time. Consider how many plate appearances position players get in their age-31 or older seasons:
64,941 in 2001; 57,592 in 2011. 46,029 in 2021
As previously stated, organizations often keep their greatest young players in the minors, controlling them for more than six seasons. Is it reasonable for teams to do so? Although front offices would claim that they are operating in the franchise’s long-term interests, the baseball media has dubbed this service-time manipulation. (Of course, they can’t say this in public.) Bryant did pursue a dispute about his service time, but an arbitrator eventually decided in the Cubs’ favor.) Finally, players are concerned about the league’s competitive balance: As more clubs undergo “rebuilding” stages, they turn to younger, less expensive players, which is one of the reasons why seasoned batters saw approximately 19,000 fewer plate appearances than they did 20 years ago. As a consequence, wage growth has come to a halt.
So, we’re back to unrestricted free agency. Over the summer, the owners revealed a plan that proposed free agency at the age of 29.5. For the players, that’s a no-go, but the MLBPA may respond with a proposal for free agency at six years of service time or 29.5 years of age, whichever comes first, which would benefit players who reach the majors later in life. Whatever the case may be, this is one of the major points that the two sides will be debating.
Strike of 1980
Compensation for free agents is an issue. 0 games were missed (some spring training games canceled)
What happened: Following the CBA ended after the 1979 season, the players went on strike for the final eight days of spring training, threatening to strike again if no new agreement was reached by May 23. The main area of contention was that owners said free agency was destroying baseball. From about $51,000 in 1976 to more than $113,000 in 1979, the average pay had more than doubled. According to the owners, some clubs were losing up to $1 million every year. “We will never live until we locate oil beneath second base,” Kuhn said. Better compensation for clubs losing free players, which would potentially lower the free-agent market, is the owners’ solution.
To avert another strike, the parties struck a new deal in the early morning hours of May 23 that resolved all problems except free-agent remuneration. That would be deferred until next year.
What this signifies for the next winter season: This will need taking into account the….
Strike of 1981
713 games were missed due to free-agent compensation.
What happened: When the owners couldn’t agree on free agent pay, they devised a strategy that forced any club that signed a free agent to lose a rostered player as well as a draft selection. On June 12, the players went on strike. With a $50 million strike insurance coverage, the owners were not in a hurry to settle.
On July 31, the two parties struck an agreement, and the season will resume on August 9. Miller claims that the owners’ insurance coverage ended on August 8th, which is not a coincidence. Thus began the controversial split season, with the winners of each division’s first and second halves meeting in the first-ever division series. The Reds had the best overall record in baseball, but they failed to win either half of the NL West, and therefore missed out on the playoffs. The Cardinals, who had the best overall record in the NL East, were in the same boat.
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What that means for this winter: The 1981 agreement’s compensation provisions were intricate, but the fundamental idea was that clubs losing a ranked free agent (players were categorized as Type A or Type B free agents) would get a professional player and an amateur draft selection (teams could protect 24 to 26 players). Any business might be the source of the expert. In 1983, the Mariners lost free agent Floyd Bannister to the White Sox, but selected minor leaguer Danny Tartabull from the Reds.
Some business owners were dissatisfied. The Rangers’ Eddie Chiles said, “Is this why we struck for 50 days? Is this the prize? Is it still possible for me to lose a player without adding one to my roster?” The owners’ negotiator, Ray Grebey, called it a “million-dollar strike over a 10-cent issue,” but Miller argued in his book that because the owners hadn’t won any significant new free agency restraints, salaries continued to rise — in fact, the average pre-strike salary doubled from $186,000 in 1981 to $371,000 by 1985. Despite this, the owners were able to preserve some type of compensation for losing a free agent, which has remained in place throughout the years. The Angels, for example, picked Mike Trout using a selection earned as a result of the Yankees signing free agent Mark Teixeira.
Only those issued a qualifying offer (there were 14 this offseason) are attached to draft selections, so free-agent compensation is more restricted than ever, but this may place a little restraint on deal offers. Several players have accepted the qualifying offer rather than go free agency throughout the years, fearing that their market worth would be lowered as a consequence of the draft-pick penalty. Compensation was long thought to be a method to prevent small-market clubs from having to pay for free agents, but many of those players are now transferred before they reach free agency, as Francisco Lindor did last offseason when he went from Cleveland to the Mets.
Strike of 1985
Arbitration of salaries, pension plan 25 games were missing (rescheduled)
What happened: On August 6, the players went on strike for the second time this season. Before the two parties reached an agreement on a new five-year CBA, two days of games were canceled (and later made up). The main stumbling block was once again salary arbitration, which the owners want to do away with. In the end, arbitration eligibility was raised from two to three seasons of service, and the union agreed to a generous pension plan rise (but less than the one-third percentage it had previously been receiving from national TV and radio contracts). The players had “accepted defeat,” Miller wrote, and the union’s growth had been halted for the first time.
What it implies for this winter: As previously said. The players have never returned to the previous two-year minimum for arbitration privileges. Keeping payments for young players low will continue to be a major battleground for the owners.
Lockout of 1990
Revenue sharing, salary caps, and pay-for-performance are all issues that need to be addressed. 78 games were missing (rescheduled)
What happened: At the outset of spring training, the owners claimed they had locked out the players because the CBA had expired. It lasted 32 days until a new four-year deal was agreed on March 18, delaying the season’s start by one week (although all games were made up and a full 162-game season played).
When it was eventually discovered that commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the 26 teams colluded to restrict free agency bidding after the 1985, ’86, and ’87 seasons, distrust between owners and players reached unprecedented heights. In November 1990, the owners settled the collusion charges for a total of $280 million, allowing them to recover their losses by sanctioning expansion teams in Florida and Colorado for the 1993 season.
Salary arbitration was once again at the center of this conflict. The owners presented a revenue-sharing proposal in which the players would get 48 percent of gate and broadcast money, but with a maximum and minimum wage ceiling and arbitration replaced with a “pay-for-performance” criteria to decide compensation. The players won somewhat greater arbitration rights, with 17 percent of those with more than two but less than three years of service time being eligible — and the different revenue-sharing ideas were promptly denied, despite the players’ long-held opinion that a wage limit reduced pay.
What this implies for this winter: Keep the dates from the lockout in mind while planning your schedule. If the lockout continues into mid-March, the season will be postponed and less than 162 regular-season games will be played, unless the World Series is pushed back to mid-November. ( ) “Hello, my name is Joe Buck… Thank you for tuning in to Game 7 of the World Series. Today in Detroit, it’s 28 degrees and snowing, but they’re going to attempt to play through it. So far, just a few of inches of snow have fallen “(
The owners did finally reach an agreement with the “competitive balance” tax on a salary ceiling (first began in 1997 with a levy on the five highest payrolls). This remains a key foundation of the owners’ revenue-sharing scheme — or, as some could argue, an effective grip on the highest-revenue clubs’ payrolls. The owners’ secret plan last summer featured a $180 million tax threshold and a $100 million compensation floor (none currently exists). That seemed to be another nonstarter, given the $210 million tax threshold in 2021 — which essentially operated as a hard barrier, since only the Dodgers, according to Spotrac, surpassed the restriction. (It’s worth noting that six teams had a budget of $180 million to $210 million, while 11 had a budget of less than $100 million.)
Strike of 1994-1995
An oral history of the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, which almost ended the sport. Tim Kurkjian is a writer who lives in New York City.
What this implies for the next season: In 1994, the major league average attendance was a then-record 31,256 people per game. When the sport resumed in 1995, supporters showed up in significantly less numbers, with average attendance falling to 25,021 per game. It wasn’t until 2004 that attendance topped 30,000 each game once again. In-game attendance was already on the decline when COVID barred fans in 2020, resulting in lower numbers in 2021. The average for 2019 was 28,203, the lowest since 2003. An protracted lockout that extends into the regular season, like the 1994-95 strike did, will definitely drive away more fans from the sport.
MLB executives are concerned about enhancing the on-field product, with the goal of speeding up the tempo of play (games averaged 3 hours, 10 minutes in 2021) while increasing the amount of activity. Clark told reporters during the summer that the players “are open to speak about improvements” in the game, but there’s a sense that certain in-game concerns are being used as a negotiation technique to get a larger bargaining chip on economic topics.
In some ways, this complicates the CBA negotiations even more than they were two or three decades ago. It will be all about the money, as it usually is, with affluent players pitted against wealthy owners. According to J.P Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group, the MLBPA declared in a 36-page lockout advisory distributed to players and agents, “A wide examination of our business demonstrates that player worth and player remuneration are not advancing in the correct way.” “We have serious worries about the system’s present state of integrity.”
That suggests that we may all have to prepare for a winter of idleness. The first spring training games are set to begin on February 26. Don’t make plans to visit Arizona or Florida just yet.
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Baseball’s history is filled with labor stoppages. The 1994 world series was the first time that a major league game was canceled because of a strike.
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