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Baseball strikes out in 1981

It's always about the money. The big business of professional sports has meant frequent battles between players and owners for a piece of the multimillion-dollar pie. The 2004 hockey lockout was the first in a decade, but over the years sports labour disputes have plagued professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey — resulting in shortened seasons and furious fans.

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It's a major league headache for Montreal and Toronto. A dispute over free agency in professional baseball has turned into the longest strike in American sports history, and both Canadian cities are losing millions. Many players slipped quietly out of town, but a few are still in Canada. CBC Television finds Expos catcher Gary Carter teaching youngsters how to hit, and Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb throwing fastballs in a city park. Neither intended to spend his summer this way.
• For almost a century, baseball players were essentially owned by team owners. A system known as the "reserve clause" gave owners exclusive rights to re-sign their players to contracts on a "take it or leave it" basis, with little room for negotiation. A players union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, simply administered a small pension fund.

• In 1966 the union hired veteran United Steelworkers organizer Marvin Miller to improve the lot of the players and seek a piece of growing television revenues for their pension fund. At that time, the minimum player salary was about $6,000 US a year (about $36,000 in 2004 dollars), and had risen little in two decades.

• The Miller era was characterized by constant clashes and labour disputes, but he ultimately got his way. The reserve system was struck down and the era of free agency began.

• "Free agency" is the ability of players to sell their services on an open market. After their contracts with a team expire, free agents have the freedom to sign on with the highest bidder.

• Since free agency was introduced, the salaries of the league's highest-paid players increased a hundredfold. Salaries and free agency have been at the root of every Major League Baseball labour dispute. Not until 2002 would a collective bargaining agreement be renegotiated without a work stoppage.

• The first Major League Baseball strike came in 1972, with players walking out for 14 days (86 games lost). In the end, the players won the right to salary arbitration (renegotiating terms of an expiring contract with their current team.)

• In 1973, a 12-day lockout caused spring training to open late. Owners raised minimum salaries and increased their pension contributions.

• In 1976 a lockout over free agency ended after a judge declared pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could become free agents, creating a free market for players that drove salaries sky high.

• The final eight days of spring training in 1980 were also lost to a strike, again over free agency.

• The 1981 strike was the fifth baseball work stoppage in nine years. It lasted for 50 days, and more than 700 games were cancelled - a third of the season.

• In the end, the owners gave up the right to be compensated when a player leaves to free agency, but won the right to be compensated with other players and draftees. They also earned the right to sign players for up to six years.

• Fan attendance for the season's remaining games dropped by about 10 per cent. To finish the 1981 season, baseball owners split the season into two halves. The playoffs were held between the divisional winners in each half season. It was the first time such a system had been used since 1892, when the American Association was folded into National League and playoffs were held within the single league.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: July 22, 1981
Guest(s): Gary Carter, Charles Chousky, Paul Godfrey, Garth Iorg, Dave Stieb
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Don MacPherson, Michael Vaughan
Duration: 4:09

Last updated: July 23, 2014

Page consulted on July 23, 2014

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