Did the 1981 strike save baseball? Author of new book says 'yes'

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? MORE: Book chronicles 1976 baseball seasonJEFF 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.SN: Why do you think the owners so consistently underestimated the resolve of the players?JK: It’s hard to know. There’s a real lack of institutional memory with the owners. The players had already shown incredible cohesion in the strike of 1972. Tom Seaver has my favorite quote on that. He told reporters “The owners are taking a very destructive position; it’s very disturbing. If they are trying to alienate the players, they are doing a good job. But,” he warned, “they are working with competitive individuals.” Owners, from their lofty position, always “knew” that players would never pass up a paycheck, regardless of how much they were making. They’d been proved wrong before, and since.SN: Other than the strike, rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela was the biggest baseball story of 1981. For people too young to remember, how would you explain Fernandomania?JK: I knew of Valenzuela from the one game Dodgers-Astros playoff in 1980. During the early part of the ’81 season, I was a freshman in college in Buffalo. I couldn’t have been further from Los Angeles and Fernandomania, but it was so far reaching, and spread so quickly, that we were all affected. What made Valenzuela so special was his youth (he was only 20 but rumor was he was older), his chunky build (except for Rick Reuschel, everyone at that time seemed tall and sleek), his unique style (once you saw him look towards the sky during his delivery you never forgot it) and, he was pitching shutout after shutout (5 in his first 7 starts). It was unbelievable.SN: Tim Raines' excellent rookie season in '81 was overshadowed by Valenzuela. There is a rather active debate over whether Raines should be elected to the Hall of Fame. What are your thoughts on his candidacy?JK:  I’m a big Raines fan. I think a few things have worked against his candidacy: he was overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, a very similar player in style, almost his entire peak, his involvement in the cocaine troubles in baseball in the first half of the '80’s, his playing in Canada. When he hit the big markets — Chicago (I had Sox season tickets his first year there in 1991) and New York (playing on the 1996 Yankee World Series champs), he was a very good player, but not the Raines of old.Voters are supposed to look past all that noise and get to the core of the player and, by every standard, Tim Raines should be in the Hall of Fame. I’d like to see it happen.SN: Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball in 1981, comes off poorly in the book. Union leader Marvin Miller, on the other hand, is a rather sympathetic figure. Yet Kuhn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 while Miller has been rejected more than once. Why do you think that is?JK: I can’t imagine that any former player voting in the various committees that have weighed in on Miller’s candidacy could possibly vote against him. My assumption is it’s the management voters. Grudges last long and hard in the baseball business. However, as I note in the book, Ray Grebey, the owners’ lead negotiator in 1981, wrote a letter to the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame in December of 2009 (and copied me on it), advocating for the induction of Marvin Miller. “Surely animosity and prejudice may still linger with some,” Grebey wrote. “This should not prevail in electing Marvin Miller to the Hall of Fame.” For Grebey, who suffered mightily under Miller’s tenacious negotiating and fairly consistent criticism and insults, it was a noble gesture and very meaningful.SN: The split-season format ended up being a bit of disaster, with the Reds and Cardinals missing the playoffs despite having the best records in the NL. Do you think the failure of the format is the reason did not implement an extra round of playoffs for more than a decade after the 1981 season?JK:  The split season plan created by the owners was a colossal failure and deprived fans of real and true pennant races. It was created to make quick, false races in the two months left in the season, but pennant races take time to build and having terrible teams like the Mets in contention, or the Royals, with an overall record below .500, make the first round, was ludicrous.The TV contracts then in existence with NBC and ABC gave the owners the right to create a third tier of playoffs, but the first round produced TV ratings so weak that NBC expressed disappointment and did not advocate for a repeat.SN: What are the best changes has made since 1981? The worst?JK: At its core, the game is the game. It’s as great now as it was in 1981 and before. I’m not sure itself has done much to better the game on the field. They’ve certainly done a lot to make it a $9 billion enterprise.Still, I enjoy the extra round of playoffs, love that, through the expansion of cable TV, there are more games to watch. Though I don’t subscribe to .TV, that’s a great thing.Though not a real change, the explosion of understanding the game through sabermetrics has been a great boon.The worst thing is the one-game, sudden-death play-in (wild-card game). While we can all understand a best-of-5 or best-of-7 series to whittle down the contenders, a one-game playoff after a 162-game season is absurd. I don’t like it at all.Dave Winfield (AP Photo)SN: What player from 1981 do you think is least appreciated by fans today?JK: Time tends to make all players less appreciated. I think fans who didn’t experience watching Mike Schmidt or Andre Dawson in their prime can’t possibly believe how great they were and no one wants to be told by some old guy, “Now you shoulda seen —. Now there was a ballplayer.”But I will give you an answer — Dave Winfield. Obviously he’s not an obscure player, and every Hall of Famer is appreciated, but when Winfield came to New York and I got to see his incredible athleticism and ability in person, it was a revelation. At the plate, in the field, his swing, his arm, man, he was something. I think he’s underappreciated these days.SN: The 1981 season was in some ways "peak Steinbrenner." All the worst aspects of George Steinbrenner — battling with his players, firing his manager unnecessarily, creating controversies, generally acting like a crazy person — were on full display. You talk about how Steinbrenner's reputation has been sugar-coated a bit since his death. Why do think the '81 version of Steinbrenner has been forgotten?JK:  If you grew up when I did, Steinbrenner was an insane sadist. If you grew up from the mid-1990’s on, he was a somewhat stable owner of championship teams and a funny character on "Seinfeld." Winning and age did a lot to soften his public persona. Reliving the 1981 George, when he was at his most “Steinbrennery,” was fun and revealing. He was really a horror.SN: Was there anything you found in your research that surprised you?JK:  Finding out through personal papers (Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s, Brewers GM Harry Dalton’s) real proof that the owners were lying and engaging in unfair labor practices was actual

ly quite shocking to me. I’ve always believed the players statements on how the owners behaved. After all, owners are owners. But finding notes from owner meetings that relayed actual quotes was a big surprise.

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