Taking the Fifth: Baseball Has Been Down the Road of a Shortened Season Before


Professional baseball fell into limbo last week when the final two weeks of spring training were cancelled because of the outbreak of the coronavirus disease labeled “SARS-CoV-2”, prompting Major League Baseball to push back the start of its season to May 10 or later.

The original 162-game schedule isn't going to work. And common sense said the length of the season will be reduced, most likely picking up the original schedule on the day play resumes, and eliminating all the previously scheduled games. It's not the first time baseball has dealt with this issue, but it is the first time it has been for a reason other than a player strike.

This year marks the fourth time a regular season will be interrupted since the advent of the 162-game schedule in 1961 (for the American League) and 1962 (for the National League) when baseball expanded its membership for the first time. The first four were a result of player strikes in 1972, 1981, 1985, and 1994 -1995. The strike that extended from 1994 into 1995 also marked the first time since 1904 that the World Series was not played.

There were three other seasons in which the player strike began in spring training and was settled prior to the start of the regular season.

Instead of trying to extend the season into October, when the weather can be a major problem, MLB decided each time there was an in-season work stoppage to stay the course of what remained on the original schedule, resulting in seasons of 155 games in 1972, 110 games in 1981, four teams were unable to make up a combined two games in 1985, and the seasons were limited to 114 games in 1994 and 144 games in 1995.

A look at the four in-season stoppages of play prior to this year:

The Strike of 1994-95

Major League Baseball dealt with a strike for the seventh time since 1972 -- and so far the last.

It began on Aug. 12, 1994 and lasted what at the time was a professional sports record 232 days. The NHL broke the record in the 2004-05 season with a 310-day strike that wiped out that entire season.

The owners held out for a salary cap, elimination of arbitration and reducing big-league service time for a player to become a free agent from four years to six years with the condition they would retain a player if they matched his best offer after his fourth or fifth big-league season.

A strike that began in August of 1994, and ended late enough the following spring that Opening Day was pushed back to April 26. The Colorado Rockies debuted that night in the first regular-season game played at Coors Field, claiming an 11-9, 14-inning victory against the New York Mets thanks to Dante Bichette's three-run home run in the bottom of the 14th off Mike Remlinger. And that came after Remlinger gave-up a game-tying single to jim Tatum in the bottom of the 13th.

The Rockies, in their third year of existence, became the first team to advance to the post-season as a wild-card, finishing with a 77-67 record, one game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Atlanta, which in the first year of three divisions had moved from the NL West to the NL East, beat the Rockies 3-games-to-1 in the first round of the post-season.

Atlanta went on to knock off the Cleveland Indians in six games in the World Series, the only championship the Braves would claim in a stretch of 14 consecutive appearances in the World Series from 1991-2005. The 1994 World Series was canceled because of the strike. The Braves lost in the World Series four times -- 1991 in seven games to the Twins, 2002 in six games to the Blue Jays, and 1996 in six games and 1999 in four games to the Yankees both times. They were eliminated in the NL Division Series five times -- all in the final six years of their post-season run.

The argument can be made that the strike was the final blow for baseball in Montreal. The Expos had a six-game lead on Atlanta when the season ended, and in the following off-season, the Expos slashed their payroll, losing key players to free agency, including Larry Walker, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. Walker signed with the Rockies after not being tendered an offer by Montreal.

What kind of a season was it? Well, the Texas Rangers finished first in the AL West despite finishing 10 games below .500.

The strike of 1985

This was more a footnote than an event. The players went on a two-day strike Aug. 6-7 before the owners agreed to pay an additional $33 million into the player person for three years (1986-88) and $39 million in 1989. They also agreed to raise the minimum salary from $40,000 a year to $60,000. There were 25 games affected by the strike, and all but two of them were made up.

The strike of 1981

Ownership, attempting to gain concessions on free agency, fought for a compensation plan that would have allowed a team to select a player in return from the team that signed the the free agent. The signing team would be able to protect 12 of the players on its 40-man roster. A settlement was finally reached in which a team that lost a "premium" feee agent was allowed to selected a player from a pool of unprotected players for all teams.

The settlement, however, did not come before 713 games -- 38 percent of the schedule -- was lost. The players walked out on June 12, and a settlement was reached on July 13. Baseball returned to the field with the All-Star Game on Aug. 9 in Cleveland with the regular season resume on Aug. 10. Teams played anywhere from 102 games (the Cardinals and Pirates) to 111 games (the Giants).

Major League owners voted to create a split-season -- the teams with the best record before the All-Star Game and the team's with the best record after the All-Star Game. In hindsight, it was a fiasco. The teams with the best record before the break had nothing to play for, and combined to finished three games below .500 in the second half. What's more, St. Louis and Cincinnati, which had the two best full-season records in the NL, finished second in both sections of the season, and did not advance to the post-season. The Expos did claim the second-half in the NL East, and made it's only post-season appearance in 36 years. They lost to the Dodgers on a Rick Monday fly ball home run in the ninth of Game 5 at Exhibition Stadium.

The Strike of 1972

The first stoppage since the hiring of Marvin Miller as head of the Players Association, who actually recommended the players look for a settlement, but he had given them enough of feeling of strength they went on strike. The strike was settled quick enough that Houston and San Diego, with 153 games, had the smallest schedule, while Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, the New York Mets, St. Louis, Montreal and Philadelphia all played 156 games. The others teams were in between.

The players made their first major inroads. Not only did the owners agree to add $500,000 to the pension play, but the players were given the right to salary arbitration. They were not paid for the games their team missed.

Three of the four divisional races were pretty cut and dried. In the NL, the Pirates won the NL East by 11 games over the Cubs, and the Reds won the NL West by 10 1/2 games over the Astros and Dodgers. Oakland beat out the White Sox by 5 1/2 games in the AL West, but the Tigers won the AL East by just a half-game on Boston, which played one fewer game than Detroit.

A look at what was behind the stoppages prior to this season:

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Source: Sports Illustrated


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