This Pandemic Lockdown is Unique for MLB, but not Unprecedented

John Hickey

Baseball hasn’t had its season begin this late on the calendar since the upstart American League came into being in 1901 to give competition to the established National League.

If it seems extremely strange to be heading into May with no idea of just when pitchers and catchers will face off against each other, it is, in fact, strange.

However, baseball has been through shutdowns before. Before the rise of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there were at least 10 times when baseball has seen itself shut down. Most of those have been self-inflicted, player strikes or owner lockouts.

Seasons were impacted by World War I (but not World War II), the 9-11 attacks and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Players went on strike in 1972, 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1994-95. Owner-imposed lockouts took place in 1973, 1976 and 1990.

Here’s a quick look at pre-COVID-19 baseball shutdowns.

1918-19. Americans went to war in Europe in the early days of 1918, but it didn’t impact baseball right away. However, so many players were being sent overseas as the summer progressed that the season shut down in early September with teams having played fewer than 140 of a scheduled 154 games. MLB did manage to get in a World Series, the Red Sox beating the Cubs in six games, the last of which was on Sept. 11, 1918. The Armistice settled in in November of 1918, but it took a while for soldiers to get back to their previous lives, so the 1919 season started about 10 days late and was limited to about 140 games.

(Curiously enough given our current situation, baseball didn’t shut down for the 1918 flu epidemic that killed more than 500,000 Americans. That’s in part because the deadliest wave of the flu took place in October and November, and there was no baseball being played).

1972. The first players’ strike in baseball history took place when the players ignored the advice of their leader, Marvin Miller, and went on strike for 13 days over what the players saw as insufficient funding of the players’ pension.

1973. The first owners’ lockout took place in at the start spring training and was a pushback against the players’ desire for salary arbitration. By the end of February, the owners and players had agreed on a three-year deal that included salary arbitration.

1976. The second lockout, like the first, didn’t result in the loss of any regular season games. After an independent arbitrator ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free agents. Owners then orchestrated a two-week lockout of spring training that basically fizzled.

1980. The players’ second strike took place in late spring training, effectively cancelling the final week-plus of spring training. They were pushing for a better version of free agency, and promised to strike again later in the season if no deal was forthcoming. Agreements were made on everything except free agent compensation. Baseball played on. For a bit.

1981. The issue left over from the previous season, free agent compensation, wouldn’t go away and neither side would budge. The owners went to far as to impose rules saying that any team that signed a free agent relinquished a roster player and a draft pick. Players went on strike on June 11, and games would not be played again until Aug 10.

1985. The third players’ strike was a battle over arbitration salary caps and how much money was owed to the players’ pension fun. The strike lasted just two days, and the games were made up at the end of the season. Players got the salary cap dropped and their pension plan funded. Owners were so put off by the settlement that they colluded to keep wages down, and the union won that battle in court to the tune of $10.5 million per team in 1988. That would lead to expansion a couple of years later, the owners using the fees paid by the Rockies and the Rays to help pay the debt.

1989. This only impacted two teams. The A’s and Giants were about ready to start Game 3 of the World Series in Candlestick Park on Oct. 17 when Northern California was struck at 5:04 p.m. by what went on to be called the Loma Prieta Earthquake. There was huge damage done across the Bay Area by the 6.9 magnitude quake, including at Candlestick Park. The two teams would, after a couple of days, fly to Arizona to get in some training. The series picked up 10 days later on Oct. 27 and was over in an A’s sweep on Oct. 28.

1990. Once again the owners went the lockout route over disputes about free agency and salary arbitration with revenue sharing concerns kicked in. Spring training was shut down for 32 days, but the season itself played out to a full 162-game schedule after opening day was pushed back by a week.

1994-95. For the first time in pro sports history in North America, an entire postseason was canceled over a labor dispute. The players union wouldn’t give in to owners’ demands over revenue sharing tied to a salary cap. The strike began on Aug 12 – the A’s Ernie Young was the last batter of the year, striking out to end an 8-1 loss to the Mariners’ Randy Johnson in the Coliseum on Aug. 11. Teams played about 115 games in 1994 and the 162-game schedule in 1995 was cut to 144 games before cooler heads prevailed.

2001. On the morning of Sept, 11, 2001, hijacked airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, a third plan hit the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. and a fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, PA. Almost all American life came to a halt after the attacks, which claimed almost 3,000 lives. Baseball was put on hold for a week, but the games were made up at the season’s end.

2020. On March 12, baseball was shut down with the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic expanding. Opening day, March 26, was put on hold, and no date to resume has been established.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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