A lockout is not a strike.  You probably already knew that, but in all of my in-person conversations with casual to moderate baseball fans since the lockout began, none of them knew the difference.

A lockout is a work stoppage initiated by ownership.  MLB teams locked out the players back in December, and that’s why we aren’t seeing pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training today.  If players were to show up at the stadiums, they’d literally find themselves locked out.

A strike is when employees cease going to work as a group.  Since Marvin Miller created the Major League Baseball Players Association 56 years ago, the players have gone on strike five times.  Let’s take a look at why they elected to do so.

1972 strike – 86 games lost

The union itself was only six years old.  The issue at stake is what Miller called a “modest request” of increases in the players’ pensions and health care contribution to keep up with inflation, part of which meant using an existing surplus in the pension fund.  In spring of 1972, Miller felt that an agreement was within reach.  Then, ownership surprised the players by taking a position of no increase on the pension, and a reduction on health care.  Miller saw this as an “unmistakable signal” that “management was baiting us into a strike.”

Two days prior to the expiration of the pension agreement, Miller proposed solving the dispute by using an independent arbitrator, in an attempt to avoid a strike.  The owners declined.  Miller was concerned the “still young Association” wouldn’t be able to sustain a strike, and advised the players to postpone it and negotiate during the season.  Miller found his players to be “positively militant” about going out on strike, however, so that’s what they did.  After 13 days of lost revenue, the owners folded and the first strike in professional sports was over.


1980 strike – 92 exhibition games lost

At this point, free agent compensation was the issue at stake.  Free agency had only been around for four years, and the owners felt they needed to add restrictions to it.  Specifically, owners felt that signing a free agent should require giving up a Major League player as compensation.  Faced with this issue, the players voted to cancel the final week of spring training, return to play Opening Day, and possibly strike on Memorial Day weekend in 1980.

Instead, Miller and MLB negotiator Ray Grebey settled all the other issues, including dropping the salary arbitration requirement from three years to two (something MLB considers a non-starter in these 2022 negotiations).  The two sides were able to avoid a regular season strike by kicking the can down the road on free agent compensation, forming a study committee.  As part of announcing the 1980 agreement, Grebey “poisoned the bargaining well” (in the words of John Helyar in Lords of the Realm) by telling the press the owners’ compensation plan would go into effect in 1981, which was untrue.

While the cancellation of a week of spring training makes this technically count as a strike, no regular season games were missed, and it was more of a prelude to the 1981 strike.  Helyar called it “a lull until the next battle.”


1981 strike – 712 games lost

This was the first major strike in baseball history.  The aforementioned free agent compensation study committee produced nothing of value.  Miller described ownership’s proposal thusly: “A club signing a free agent could very well lose an established player more valuable than the free agent, or lose a prospect with All-Star potential.  The scheme was designed to end free agency and would certainly had succeeded if it had gone into effect.”  After the committee issued a report with “two diametrically opposed opinions,” the two sides had 30 days to hammer out an agreement in early 1981.  That didn’t happen, allowing owners to unilaterally adopt their free agent compensation proposal.  The players were only offering a draft pick as compensation, and over this gap, they went on strike.

Miller called the 1981 strike “the most principled I’ve ever been associated with” and “the Association’s finest hour.”  He notes that the union was not making demands; it was ownership seeking what he considered excessive free agent compensation.  As the strike dragged on, federal mediator Ken Moffett “never got past first base” with his proposals, as Miller put it.  Instead, the MLBPA proposed a system where each team could protect 25 players, and all other players would become part of a pool from which teams losing certain free agents could choose.  With the owners’ strike insurance running out, this “pool” free agent compensation plan led to a settlement after 50 days.  Four years later in 1985 the owners were already asking for the pool compensation plan’s removal.


1985 strike – no games lost

This two-day strike is similar to 1980 in that it technically counts, but no regular season games were lost.  By 1985, Marvin Miller was retired “but remained a power in the union,” according to Helyar.  Still, Don Fehr was in charge of negotiations for the MLBPA.  With the union under new leadership and solidarity of the players waning, the players’ union agreed to “give-backs” for the first time, as arbitration was rolled back to three years instead of two and the pension formula was changed to the players’ detriment.  As Miller put it, “For the first time in its almost twenty years of existence, the Players Association took backward steps.”  He added, “Either you push forward or you’re going to get pushed back.”  Miller felt that Fehr’s error was “in not instilling in the players the determination to fight the good fight.”


1994 strike – 938 regular season games lost, plus cancellation of the playoffs

In 1994, as Helyar put it, “The players rejected a salary cap as repugnant at any price.”  Nonetheless, owner of the small market Brewers and acting commissioner Bud Selig was convinced a salary cap was necessary and convinced the other owners to fight for it.  Helyar explains, “The players had to go on the offensive, if only for defensive purposes. If no contract was reached by collective bargaining, the Lords could eventually shove the salary cap down their throats. Federal labor law allowed employers to declare a bargaining impasse, after a decent interval for negotiations, and impose employment terms.  The players had to try forcing a deal when they still had some leverage – during the season, when lost games meant lost money for the Lords.”

So, the players went on strike on August 12, 1994.  Ultimately the rest of the season, including the playoffs, were canceled.  Fehr and Selig wound up in court, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted an injunction blocking Selig’s intended use of replacement players to start the ’95 season.  The status quo was returned and the strike ended.