Academic journal article Nine

1972: The Year That Changed Everything

Academic journal article Nine

1972: The Year That Changed Everything

Article excerpt

In the ever-revolving kaleidoscope of baseball history, a few individual seasons have been noted as pivotal milestones. The year 1901, when the American League assumed Major League status, is often identified as the birth year of the modern Major Leagues. The year 1920, when Babe Ruth and the "live ball" rambunctiously emerged to rescue the sport from the scandal-plagued 1910s, marks another obvious turning point. And, of course, 1947, the first year of baseball's successful racial integration, may certainly be considered the beginning of the truly modern era.

There was another particular season in which dramatic trends, events, and personalities combined to profoundly alter baseball's structure: 1972. Let's take a close look at that extraordinarily colorful and eventful year.

STRIKE ONE

Baseball's first player strike of the twentieth century occurred in the spring of 1972. It may be impossible to overstate the significance of this event, which utterly changed the players' understanding of their own power and directly set in motion the chain of events that led to the establishment of free agency in 1976.

The issue at stake in the 1972 labor action was not free agency, nor even anything having to do with salaries. Free agency wasn't on the agenda, basically because the Major League Baseball Player's Association (MLBPA) didn't have nearly the strength--or, at least, didn't believe it had nearly the strength--to pursue such a significant objective. Entering 1972 the MLBPA had achieved practically nothing in its quest to overcome the Reserve Clause. (1) The players' union at that point had been able to negotiate only issues that may seem trivial from today's vantage point: such items as safety padding on outfield walls, standards of hotel accommodation, and meal money. And, beginning way back in 1946, they had gotten ownership to establish an old-age pension plan for players meeting a Major League service time minimum.

The pension was what the 1972 strike was about: the MLBPA and the owners were at odds over ownership's rate of annual contributions to the fund. The pension plan in effect in 1972, it must be noted, had not advanced very far beyond its humble origins. In the spring of 1972 it called for an annual amount of $2,092 to be paid to a player who started drawing the pension at age forty-five, and $7,416 a year if he waited until age sixty-five to start drawing. (2) The players' request was to increase the owners' annual contribution to the plan to keep pace with inflation. The total difference between the players' proposal and the owners' counteroffer was $400,000 per year in pension fund contributions.

Even in 1972 dollars these sums weren't large. In purely economic terms the disputed pension funding wasn't a very big deal to the players, nor did it represent a significant expense to the owners. But it quickly became clear that, for both sides, the economic particulars weren't really the issue. What was at stake, for both sides, was the principle of the matter. In spring 1972 relations between players and owners had reached a state in which "backing down" was, for both sides, an entirely unacceptable option.

The executive director of the MLBPA was Marvin Miller. Miller, a New York lawyer, was an experienced, savvy labor negotiator who had been employed by the players' union since 1966. Slender, dapper, with a calm demeanor that belied an intensely competitive drive, Miller nevertheless had been unable to accomplish many tangible gains for the MLBPA in his tenure. But he had brought an erudite professionalism, and a sense of focus and clarity, to the union that it had never known before. Prior to Miller's arrival ownership had regarded the MLBPA in a slightly bemused, condescending, paternalistic manner. Miller refused to be patronized, and while he had achieved little of substance for the players, his mature, persistent presence was a key factor in fostering a palpable change in the temper of the players, who became far less compliant and satisfied with their status than before. …

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