The 1981 baseball strike was the fifth work stoppage in Major League Baseball history. The strike began on June 12 and forced the cancellation of 713 games (or 38 percent of the Major League schedule) in the middle of the regular season.
An estimated $146 million was lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenues, and concession revenues. The players lost $4 million a week in salaries while the owners suffered a total loss of $72 million.
The Strike Deadline
The Executive Board of the Players' Association voted unanimously to strike on May 29 due to the unresolved issue of free agent compensation. The deadline was extended briefly, however, after the Players' Association's unfair labor complaint was heard by the National Labor Relations Board.
Reasons for the Strike
The strike was called in response to the owners desperately wanting to win back the prerogatives over the players. The owners had already lost at the bargaining table and in the courts on the issue of the free agency draft. At issue during the seven week long negotiations was the owners demanding compensation for losing a free agent player to another team. The compensation in question was a player who was selected from the signing team's roster (not including 12 "protected" players). The players maintained that any form of compensation would undermine the value of free agency.
Although the strike was called by the players, many sportswriters and even fans placed most of the blame on the owners. Sports Illustrated reflected this particular opinion loud and clear with the cover headline that read "Strike! The Walkout the Owners Provoked." One of the reasons the owners doled out such hefty contracts from 1978-1981 (43 players each negotiated contracts worth over $1 million during this period) was because they were afraid of losing disgrunted stars in the free agency reentry draft. So the owners paid their players the so-called new going rate in order to keep them from going elsewhere.
The Strike Ends
On July 31, 1981, a compromise was reached. In the settlement, teams that lost a "premium" free agent could be compensated by drawing from a pool of players left unprotected from all of the clubs rather than just the signing club. The settlement gave the owners a limited victory on the compensation issue.
Reportedly, the negotiations were so bitter that when a settlement was finally reached, Major League Baseball Players Association representative Marvin Miller and the owners' negotiator, Ray Grebey, refused to pose with each other for the traditional "peace ceremony" photograph.
The All-Star Game
Major League Baseball resumed on August 9 with the All-Star Game in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The All-Star Game, which was originally scheduled to be held on July 14, now served as a prelude to play resuming on August 10.
When play resumed, attendance dropped in 17 of 26 cities and television ratings slumped sharply. Ironically, despite the disgruntled fans, the All-Star Game surprisingly had the largest crowd ever in attendance (72,086).
The Split-Season Format
- Main article: 1981 American League Division Series
- Main article: 1981 National League Division Series
Due to the two-month strike, the owners tried to create an equitable solution. So on August 6, the owners decided to split the 1981 season into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division (or a wild card team if the same club won both halves) meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series. The four survivors would then move on to the two best-of-five League Championship Series. It was the first time that Major League Baseball used a split-season format since 1892.
The split-season idea (although garnering the league more playoff revenue) wasn't without its flaws and criticism. A proviso was added that if a team won its division in both halves of the season, it would still face a playoff round against the second-place club in the second half. All of the first-half winners lacked incentive (as opposed to the minor leagues where if the same team did win both halves it was given a bye into the next round) to repeat and ultimately dawdled through the second-half of the season with a composite record of only three games above .500. To make matters worse, the Cincinnati Reds (National League West) and St. Louis Cardinals (National League East) each failed to make the playoffs. This was despite the fact that they had the two best full-season records in the National League that season. In contrast to the Reds' and Cardinals' bad luck, the Kansas City Royals made the postseason despite owning the fourth-best full-season record in their division and posting a losing record over all (50-53).
Major League Baseball Final Standings
First Half of Season
Second Half of Season