In 1966, the Major League Baseball Players Association hired as their executive director former steelworker’s union economist Marvin Miller. Miller succeeded in turning what had been an ineffective company union into arguably the most powerful labor organization in the world. Of course, a natural part of that process would be work stoppages, of which there have been a total of eight so far (three lockouts and five strikes), both during Miller’s tenure and after.
Two of those work stoppages were very short. There was an eight-day strike to open up the 1980 season over free agent compensation, a precursor to the much longer 1981 strike over the same issue. There was also a two-day strike in August of 1985 over salary arbitration. In both cases, all missed games were made up.
That leaves six other work stoppages. And interestingly enough, every single year that contained a work stoppage ended with the Reds in first place in their division.
The first strike in American sports history was in 1972, when the players struck over a dispute with ownership on the players’ pension benefit. 86 games were lost. The Reds went to the World Series that year, losing to the Oakland A’s in seven games.
The very next year, ownership locked the players out of spring training for a couple of weeks in an attempt to modify or end the salary arbitration process. No regular season games were lost, but the Reds again won their division in 1973, this time losing to the New York Mets in the NLCS.
In 1976, ownership again locked the players out of spring training for a time, this time as a temper tantrum over the players’ newly won free agency rights. Of course, 1976 was the year when the Big Red Machine was firing on all cylinders, winning the World Series for the second straight year.
Which brings us to 1981. The 50-day strike that ownership forced the players into by unilaterally implementing a free-agent compensation system wiped out half of June and all of July. Once the strike was resolved, MLB attempted to ratchet up the excitement of the rest of the season by setting up a split season format that would see the teams in first place in their divisions at the start of the strike play a playoff series against the teams in first place in their divisions for the remaining games in August and September. The Reds were in second place in both halves, but had the best overall record in baseball. But they were denied a chance at postseason play. The same fate befell the St. Louis Cardinals in their division. But it was another season with a work stoppage, and another season the Reds finished with the best record in their division.
In 1990, ownership again locked the players out of spring training, for over a month this time. No games were lost, but the start of the regular season was delayed a week. In that season, the Reds went wire to wire and upset Tony LaRussa and the Oakland A’s in a four game World Series sweep.
And then there was 1994, the most recent and most damaging work stoppage in MLB’s history. When the strike started in mid-August, the Reds were clinging to a half-game lead over the Houston Astros in the brand-new National League Central Division. Of course, there being no postseason that year, the Reds did not participate in post season baseball, nor did anyone else. But that event, combined with the 1981 debacle, gives the Reds the dubious distinction of being the only team in baseball history since the establishment of postseason play to end the regular season in first place and yet still be denied participation in the postseason on two separate occasions.
Can it possibly be merely a coincidence that every time a work stoppage of any significant length of time occurs, the Reds respond by winning their division? Yes, of course it is. There’s also the fact that the union made its most significant gains in the 1970’s, the decade when the Reds were most dominant. However, baseball has always been a sport of superstition. Maybe all the Reds need to catapult from their present position as NL Central doormats back to the top of the division is a nice long strike. The current collective bargaining agreement expires with this calendar year. Fingers crossed for some unreasonable demands from ownership. It’s as likely as anything else to work.