McGuire: Did the 1981 strike save baseball? Author Katz says yes

From Justin McGuire at The Sporting News on May 12, 2015, with SABR member Jeff Katz:

Jeff Katz is the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y. and an author of baseball books. His latest, “Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball,” will be published May 19. We asked him some questions about that memorable season:

SPORTING NEWS: The 1981 players’ strike, which you chronicle in great detail, has been overshadowed in the popular imagination by the 1994-95 strike, I think. But you argue the ’81 strike “saved baseball.” Why was it so important?

JEFF KATZ: The 1981 strike was the first mid-season strike in sports history and, as such, deserves extra attention. After the players were granted free agency by an arbitrator’s decision in December of 1975, salaries skyrocketed. That wasn’t the players’ doing, it was management’s. Since the owners couldn’t control their own spending, they sought other ways to quash free agency. In seeking direct compensation, where a team signing a free agent would have to lose a quality player from their major league roster to the team that lost that free agent, the owners hoped to not only put a damper on salaries, but also on player movement. Major league ballplayers had finally gained the freedom in their jobs that all other workers in the United States had at theirs. They weren’t going to give that up without a huge fight.

Why do I think it saved baseball? Because what was happening in the late ‘70’s post-free agency — increased competitive balance, more player movement, higher attendance and popularity — was due to free agency. Owners wanted to kill it and go back to the “good old days.” Think a second about those “good old days,” like the late 1940’s through late 1950’s, the so-called Golden Era of baseball. If you lived anywhere outside of New York CIty (Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn), your team never had a prayer of competing or getting a top-of-the-line player to compete. How depressing.

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Originally published: May 12, 2015. Last Updated: May 12, 2015.