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dan shaughnessy

MLB’s lockout reminds us the history of sports and labor disputes is rife with regrettable moments

Marvin Miller (second from right), executive director of the baseball players union, led their cause in the 1972 baseball strike.

Sports and labor are contradictory terms. None of us who grow up playing sports think of it as work. We loathe sports labor stories. Sports strikes and lockouts are particularly odious when front-page headlines are dominated by a two-year pandemic and a war unfolding in Europe.

America has no appetite to debate the “issues” of contention in MLB’s lockout.

In this spirit, I’m ignoring the “negotiations” in Florida while looking back at some labor squabbles that tainted other sports seasons.

▪ Let’s start with the myth of the 1972 Red Sox getting robbed because a labor dispute denied them a chance to win the American League East. If you look at ‘72′s final standings, this appears to be true. The Tigers finished 86-70, won the AL East, and went to the playoffs while the Sox finished 85-70, a half-game out, and went home (no wild card in those days).


A two-week strike at the start of that season lopped seven games off the Sox schedule (only six for the Tigers). It was decreed that things would start and that the remainder of the schedule would be played, even if it resulted in teams playing a different number of games.

The unfairness of this has been exaggerated through the years. At the end of the ‘72 season, the Red Sox went to Detroit for three final games. Boston went into the series leading the Tigers by a half-game. By any measure, it was a best-of-three, with the winner going to the playoffs.

The Sox lost the first two games (Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio famously falling down twice rounding third base), which meant Detroit clinched the division with one game left. The finale was rendered meaningless. The Sox won that game, 4-1, but neither team tried very hard. Triple A players were used.


Bottom line: when the pressure was on, the 1972 Red Sox lost two straight. They deserved to go home.

▪ The 1981 baseball strike started June 12 and lasted until July 31. A full 38 percent of the schedule was lost. I was in a Seattle hotel with the Orioles when the strike hit and was amazed that striking ballplayers expected the team’s traveling secretary to get them plane tickets back to Baltimore.

Reporters covered the long strike of ‘81 from the Doral Inn in New York City, and there were daily dustups between Players Association chief Marvin Miller and owners rep Ray Grebey. Donald Fehr was Miller’s assistant, and after futile talks on the fourth of July, he said, “We’ll all be old men before this ends.”

Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey address the media during a 1981 press conference.

President Reagan dispatched Labor Secretary Ray Donovan to the talks, and Donovan was famously chastised by the Chicago Sun-Times’s Jerome Holtzman when he refused to comment as reporters chased him in the hotel lobby. “Mr. Secretary, I think you’re horse [expletive],” said Holtzman.

Donovan later resigned from his position after being charged with grand larceny (he was ultimately acquitted).

Baseball resumed in August and a goofy playoff format was established. Division leaders before the strike were crowned “first-half champions” and there was a reset for the final two months for “second-half champs.”

This resulted in some quirky outcomes, as the Reds wound up with the best record in baseball but failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Ralph Houk Red Sox finished four games back in the first half and 1½ games back in the second half.


▪ A two-month strike helped the Ron Meyer Patriots make it to the playoffs with a 5-4 record in 1982. Alas, those Patriots were waxed by the Dolphins, 28-13 — the same Dolphins New England beat, 3-0, in December when a work-release prison inmate snowplowed a patch of turf allowing John Smith to kick a game-winning field goal in Foxborough. Don Shula never forgot it.

Five years later, using replacement players and scabs (including Doug Flutie), the Patriots went 2-1 in three farce games played while the NFL Players Association was on strike in October.

▪ Larry Bird came from a family of blue-collar laborers. He believed in unions and always bought American-made cars and clothes.

When NBA officials went on strike at the beginning of the 1983-84 season, Bird demonstrated solidarity with them before an early-season game at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. When the Celtics bus came upon a line of placard-wielding NBA refs outside the arena, Bird approached the bus driver and asked that he turn around and find an alternate route into the belly of the gym.

▪ The 1994 baseball strike — the one that resulted in no World Series — started Aug. 11 and carried into the spring of 1995 when owners tried using replacement players (the White Sox hired Oil Can Boyd).

The Butch Hobson Red Sox (54-61) were in the visitors clubhouse at Camden Yards when the strike hit. My only memory of that night is a confrontation with Sox outfielder Wes Chamberlain, who was one scary dude and not the least bit concerned about the work stoppage.


While his teammates scrambled to find flights back to Boston, Wes wanted to talk to me about a shot I’d taken regarding his defense. My wisecrack had been something like, “For this Chamberlain, every fly ball is like a free throw.”

Wes did not see the humor.

“Do I look like I’m 7 feet tall?” asked Wes.

A month later, Bud Selig canceled the 1994 World Series. Chamberlain played only 19 more games in his big league career.

Bud Selig presided over the game during the 1994 strike.Mike Groll

▪ The worst labor disagreement in sports history has to be the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. It’s the only time a whole season was lost in any of our major sports.

It also helped unlock hockey. When the league reset, we had four-on-four overtime (eventually three-on-three), the shootout, and removal of the center-ice red line.

One other thing: Bruins rookie Patrice Bergeron was the NHL’s youngest player when he appeared in 71 games in 2003-04. When the lockout hit, Bergeron went to the minors and played a full season (68 games) for Providence.

Imagine a major league baseball rookie having a good first season, then going back to Triple A for a year. Imagine an NBA rookie retreating to the G League to ride out an NBA strike.

Only in hockey.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.