Marvin Miller Stepped Up To The Plate During 1981 MLB Strike

By Harry Dole


NHLPA Don Fehr


Having been elected to office the previous year, President Ronald Reagan made huge headlines in the summer of 1981 by terminating striking air traffic controllers and busting up their union.  There would be another major labor disruption that summer:  the one between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.  Although there had been a short strike twelve day strike in 1972, this was the first major team sports strike which would severely impact and permanently transform the game.

A few weeks prior to the strike, a friend had picked up some $2.00 general admission tickets to a Friday night New York Mets game at Shea Stadium.  Although the Mets were sinking into yet another lifeless season, it was something to do on a warm June night.  Since the inept team was not drawing well, the two buck seats were not bad at all for GA.

As luck would have it, the game we were planning to attend was one of the first on the schedule to be cancelled.  The strike had become reality and had hit home plate hard.  Up until this time, baseball fans were spoiled by full seasons being played every summer without disruption.  Such an extended work stoppage was virtually unheard of in hardball.

The owners forced the players into calling the strike on June 12 which would force the cancellation of 713 games.  Battle lines had been drawn on the baseball diamond, with MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn representing the owners on one side and Marvin Miller, the head of the MLB Players Association, on the other.  Both sides had barricaded themselves into their dugouts and became entrenched for a battle which would have no quick resolution.

Since there were no other major team sports for the media to cover during the 1981 MLB strike, a significant amount of publicity would be generated by the strike.  The union head, Marvin Miller, would be in the news quite often and had become as much of a household baseball name as Bowie Kuhn, who had his share of popularity issues with the public at the time.

The current NHL Players Association Chief Don Fehr was also part of Miller’s team during the strike.  It is no secret that Miller has been Fehr’s mentor in the labor relations industry.  During that long hot summer of 1981, Miller and Fehr would team up to make a rather formidable opponent for the owners.

One can look back at the Collective Bargaining Agreement which would be agreed to on July 31, 1981 as one of the most transformative in sports labor relations.  The agreement would eventually lead to players salaries skyrocketing, which at the time were in the five and six figure range.  In a very short time, the players had come a very long way from the pioneering days of Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenging the reserve clause.

The late Marvin Miller has left a legacy on the game which has many calling for his entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  Of course, his legacy has been very positive for current and future players, but others would argue it has been at the expense of many fans, who have been priced out of professional sporting events.

Increased player salaries and uncontrolled team spending have brought about unprecedented hikes in ticket and concession prices.  Free agency and higher wages has also given rise to the high priced busts in the game:  players who have signed big contracts and have failed to perform to a high level due to pressure, complacency, diminished skills, injury or whatever other reason.

For better or for worse, Marvin Miller leaves a long and lasting impression on a game which would reach the boiling point during that steamy summer of discontent in 1981.  Having suffered a sad death after the landmark strike, the $2.00 general admission ticket continues to be sorely missed by many.

Too bad fans have never had the luxury of someone like Miller representing their best interests.

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