1972: Labor Pains

The majors’ first player strike interrupts the start of the season, leaving a wretched taste in fans’ mouths. All is forgotten by October, however, thanks to a thrilling World Series between Oakland and Cincinnati.

Empty locker room during MLB players' strike, 1971

A clubhouse employee for the Baltimore Orioles appropriately plays solitaire as he sits alone in a locker room empty of ballplayers, striking over pension amounts. The work stoppage is the first in major league history and cancels 86 games. (Associated Press)

To the average American, the notion of a workers’ union was to provide an effective counterbalance against employers who otherwise might abuse their power upon employees—generally made up of average Americans. From coal miners to grocery clerks, workers from a variance of industries benefited from the level playing field for which unions gave them.

The idea of a union for major league baseball players seemed odd to the average American. That it would ever think to go on strike would be considered sacrilege.

In 1972, the fledgling Major League Baseball Players Association would take that risk and forever change the fans’ perception of the game—and its players.

Until this time, fans held the view that to play big league ball was a privilege, something that transcended the commonalities that other, less glorified lines of work offered. The players humbly agreed. Though they knew their bosses were just as unscrupulous as other employers—especially when it came time to discuss salaries—they were also coddled by the owners, father figure types who often threw them bones in the form of financial or legal assistance, if needed, to maintain a content and understanding relationship.

Several attempts to unionize had fizzled over the years, partly out of indifference, partly out of fear that the almighty owners would end the handouts and begin playing hardball against a perceived threat. Even after the players finally established the MLBPA in 1954, it was run for a number of years by an owners’ puppet, giving slim pieces of the baseball pie—but not the keys to the bakery.

By the mid-1960s, the players—more sophisticated, less naïve and increasingly restless over their small union gains, which had been nothing more than piecemeal pension increases—hired Marvin Miller as their new union boss. This sent shock waves through baseball’s ownership circle, and for good reason: Miller was a prominent union man, a crucial cog in the powerful steelworkers union during the 1950s, and a labor official in the JFK Administration. Still nervous of rocking the boat with owners, players were initially wary of Miller’s hardcore union background; his slicked-back hair, beady eyes and thin mustache didn’t help. Owners seized upon the players’ fears and warned against voting him in, but once the players got to know Miller—a laid-back, soft-spoken but very sharp man—they sensed fear within the owners themselves and gave Miller the job.

Building practically from scratch, Miller set the union on a slow and steady path, patiently focusing on smaller issues before tackling big fish, such as the owners’ hallowed reserve clause. But from the outset, the owners stiff-armed Miller at every opportunity, determined to run him out of town—and with him, the threat of a powerful union. The players, some of whom regularly flanked Miller at labor meetings, were quickly losing their longstanding docility for the owners.

Tense negotiations on a basic agreement nearly caused one strike in 1969; and now, in 1972, talks on a new labor contract were bringing out similar tensions.

All the players wanted was an increase in pension to match three years’ worth of inflation. The owners wouldn’t have it; they preferred to break the fledgling union, believing the players had no stomach to strike over such a small issue. Miller feared the same—and readied to fight another day.

To the amazement of both Miller and the owners, the solidarity of the players was as strong as stainless steel. The union voted to strike barely a week before Opening Day. The tally wasn’t even close; 47 of 48 player reps said yes to the walkout.

BTW: Los Angeles Dodgers union rep Wes Parker abstained—a politically correct way of saying “nay”—because he was worried over how he was going to pay for his new home.

In response, the owners felt that smashing the players’ resolve was a higher priority than playing baseball; and thus, on April 5, major league games were canceled for the first time ever by a nationwide player strike.

Many believed the union would quickly unravel, its players sitting idly by without either a paycheck or a strike fund. Instead, it would be the owners who blinked first and fast, realizing they were already losing more money than the small pension cash they would have ceded as the players asked. On April 11, a compromise was reached and the strike was over.

BTW: Some owners reportedly “didn’t know” that the pension fund had a $800,000 surplus that would have all but made up for the requested increase by the union.

As a tie goes to the runner on a close play at first base, this tie went to the union—the infant coming of age against the 800-pound ownership gorilla that had ruled the players with an iron fist for over a century. Baseball’s first work stoppage cost 86 games that would never be made up—though player salaries would be prorated as they would not be paid for the canceled games.

BTW: The owners’ original plan to make up the missed games was nixed when players demanded they be paid for them.

Take My Box Seat and Shove It

When major leaguers returned to the field after wiping out the season’s first week, angry fans voiced their opinions in absentia, as shown in a comparison of Opening Day attendance between 1971 and 1972. For the entire 1972 season, average attendance fell off 8% from 1971.

MLB Opening Dat Attendance Comparison, 1971-72

Having stood up to the owners, the players now had to face the music from the fans. When play resumed, it was hard to find a crowd over 20,000—and easy to find one under 10,000. Those that did show up were in a foul mood, and they let the players know it—saving their loudest rebukes for player reps who publicly towed Marvin Miller’s line that money was not the issue.

The average American felt that the big leaguers had abused their privilege, craving for a bigger piece of the pie when it was perceived they already had enough to eat. Fans would never look at the players quite the same way again, even if the players were still at an enormous disadvantage to the fat cats who ran the game. For they now saw ballplayer greed in the context of their own lives, working jobs without glory and often with less pay. And like a slap in the face, they had endured the insulting inconvenience of having the National Pastime stolen from them for a week.

It was an inconvenience the average American would have to get used to.

The shortened, unbalanced schedule as forged by the strike would prove to have a major impact on one of the four divisional races. The Detroit Tigers, led for the second year by Billy Martin as a unit of tough, aggressive, fighting veterans, eked out an American League East title by a half-game over the Boston Red Sox—which equaled the Tigers in losses with 70, but not in wins, because it played one less game overall. Adding to Detroit’s luck was the avoidance of an early three-game series at Boston, wiped out by the strike. The Red Sox still had their chances, taking a half-game lead into Tiger Stadium for the season’s final three games—and losing two of them to hand Detroit first place.

BTW: The three-time defending AL champion Baltimore Orioles—sans Frank Robinson, traded to Los Angeles—hit a paltry .229 and sank to third in the AL East.

The other three divisional races were a cakewalk for the leaders. Defending world champion Pittsburgh quietly took its third straight National League East title by a full 11 games. The Oakland A’s not so quietly repeated in the AL West, enduring the usual Charles Finley sideshows—which in 1972 included a celebrated holdout by pitcher Vida Blue, and a $300 offer to any A’s player who grew a mustache, after Reggie Jackson became the first major leaguer to sport one since Wally Schang, 60 years earlier. Almost everyone on the team took Finley up on his offer.

BTW: After his sensational 1971 season, Blue asked for $115,000, was offered $50,000, and ultimately signed for $63,000. He finished the year with a miserable 6-10 mark.

Finally there were the Cincinnati Reds, returning to top form after badly tripping up in 1971. The Reds reclaimed the NL West thanks to a pre-season blockbuster trade that yielded from Houston pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielder Cesar Geronimo—and second baseman Joe Morgan. For nearly a decade with the Astros, Morgan had been an underachieving presence, showing great potential but never quite capitalizing on it. The story would be much different in Cincinnati, where the short (5’7”) but well-built 28-year old came alive, batting .292 with 58 stolen bases and NL highs in runs (122), on-base percentage (.419) and fielding percentage at second base (.980) to spark the Reds.

For a change, both league championship series were dominated not by one team but by competitive matchups clad in suspense and controversy.

After taking two of the first three games in the NLCS, the Pirates couldn’t close out the Reds. Blown out 7-1 in Game Four, the Bucs recovered in Game Five and took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Pirates first gave away the lead with a leadoff homer by Johnny Bench, then gave away the series with two outs and runners at the corners as reliever Bob Moose uncorked a wild pitch that brought home the winning run.

The ALCS featured a more contentious battle, highlighted in Game Two when Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow threw at the legs of Oakland infielder Bert Campaneris—who responded by heaving his bat at LaGrow, ducking decapitation. The incident fired up Billy Martin’s Tigers, who forced a rubber match at Detroit after losing the first two games. No stranger to controversy, the A’s would scratch and claw their way to a 2-1 victory in the finale, with Reggie Jackson scoring one run on a sacrifice fly—tearing up his hamstring in the process—and notching the game-winner on a single by catcher Gene Tenace, his only hit in 17 ALCS at-bats.

BTW: Part of the animosity between the Tigers and A’s was likely derived from a long-standing dispute between Martin and Charlie Finley, in which one claimed the other backed out of a deal for Martin to manage the A’s a few years earlier.

Bert Campaneris throws his bat at Detroit's Lerrin LaGrow in the 1972 ALCS

After being knocked to the ground, a furious Bert Campaneris gets up and flings his bat at Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow, who is forced to duck during the ALCS at Oakland. The A’s would go on to win the tense series, three games to two. Campaneris would be suspended for the rest of the ALCS and the first seven games of the 1973 season—but not the World Series. (Associated Press)

The bad news for the A’s as they moved on to the World Series was that Jackson was done for the season. Little did anyone realize that Tenace was about to provide the good news.

Tenace was one of the more unassuming characters within Oakland’s wild bunch, and that applied to his bat as well—struggling with a .225 batting average and five home runs in 82 games. But in a tight, nail-biting seven-game World Series, Tenace would erupt and become the difference between an easy Cincinnati triumph and a hard-fought, razor-thin one for Oakland. In Games One, Four and Seven—all victories for the A’s by 3-2 scores—Tenace would be a major force. He homered in his first two at-bats in Game One—the first player ever to do so in a World Series—belted a solo homer while scoring the game-winner in a two-run, ninth-inning rally in Game Four, and knocked in two runs, including the ultimate winning tally on a sixth-inning double, in Game Seven to deliver the A’s their first championship since 1931.

Tenace the Menace

Gene Tenace entered the 1972 World Series as just another common backup catcher, but his breakout slugging against the Reds signaled the beginning of an elevated level of play in the years to come.

Gene Tenace, Before and During the 1972 World Series

With a Series record-tying four home runs overall, Tenace would not be Oakland’s lone primary asset in a Series where all but one game was decided by a single run, the exception being the Reds’ 8-1 Game Six rout over Vida Blue. Catfish Hunter won two games on the mound, including a critical, extended relief appearance in Game Seven. Closer Rollie Fingers received credit for a win and two saves. And sharp Oakland defense was highlighted by a spectacular catch in Game Two by outfielder Joe Rudi, leaping smack against the left-field wall to silence a ninth-inning Cincinnati rally.

Winning with Gene Tenace was impressive enough, but so was winning without Reggie Jackson. The flamboyant slugger who helped ignite the moustache movement in the A’s clubhouse chomped at the bit to play in the Fall Classic, but his torn-up hamstring would force him to wait for another October.

Which, for Reggie, there would be many.

Forward to 1973: Take My Division, Please Six mediocre teams stumble and bumble with one another in a memorable National League East race.

1971 Baseball HistoryBack to 1971: Dynasty on the Rise After years of constant losing, the colorful Charles Finley finally has a winner with the A’s in Oakland.

Leaders and Honors1972 Leaders & Honors Our list of baseball’s top 10 hitters and pitchers in both the American League and National League for the 1972 baseball season, as well as the awards and honors given to the game’s top achievers of the year.

The 1970s: Power to the Player Curt Flood’s sacrificial stand to win free agency opens the door for the biggest challenge yet to the reserve clause, which is eventually shattered—but not without fans suffering from numerous player strikes and holdouts.