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Retro Baltimore

Retro Baltimore: Baseball player strikes, owner lockouts have happened before. Here’s how they impacted the Orioles.

Baseball marks a 50-year milestone next month, but it’s not one that fans will hail. Who wants to toast the first players’ strike in big league history? On April 1, 1972, the Orioles and 23 other teams walked out in a 13-day dispute with club owners over player pensions.

Since then, there have been eight other strikes or lockouts, including the one this year that appears to have ended with the owners and players reaching a tentative agreement Thursday on a new collective bargaining agreement.

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Historically, how have the shutdowns affected Baltimore? That 1972 strike seemed to curse the Orioles’ season. The three-time defending American League champs hoped to be the first club ever to win 100 or more games for four straight years; instead, with their first eight contests canceled, the Orioles went 80-74 and finished five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League East.

Playing those eight games — all scheduled against weaker teams — could have helped manager Earl Weaver’s club win the pennant.

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The strike cost the Orioles $225,000 in lost revenue and embittered fans, some of whom, in the eventual home opener, booed their star, Brooks Robinson — “not much, mind you, but then there weren’t many Bird watchers here,” The Washington Post reported of the underwhelming inaugural crowd of 13,153. “Sacrilegious as it sounded, a scattering of them chose the occasion of Robinson’s first turn at bat ... to protest his role as Orioles’ [team] representative in the players’ strike.”

Did fans hold a grudge? Attendance at Memorial Stadium fell by nearly 125,000 that season for the same number of home games as in 1971, when it had topped 1 million. The Orioles wouldn’t draw a million again until 1975.

The next three labor disputes (owners’ lockouts in 1973 and 1976, and a players’ strike in 1980) delayed or canceled parts of spring training, but nothing more.

In 1981, however, a 50-day union strike in midsummer resulted in the season being split in two. The result? The baseball gods decided that the division champs of each half-season would advance to the playoffs, regardless of their overall records. That eliminated the Orioles who, despite finishing with the second best overall mark in the AL East (59-46), failed to make the postseason. The Orioles, it seemed, were a team built to wear rivals down in the long haul.

“We’re not a sprint-club personality; we’re a grind-it-out club. That’s the way this club is designed,” pitching coach Ray Miller opined.

The strike had sabotaged them.

In 1985, baseball suffered a two-day union strike in August; the Orioles were all but out of the race by then.

In 1990, an owners’ lockout during spring training delayed Opening Day by a week.

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Four years later, however, a lengthy (232-day) players’ strike that spilled over from 1994 to 1995 canceled a World Series for the first time and sent ripples through major league cities with economic abandon.

Baltimore was no exception; 68 scheduled Orioles games fell off the grid. Hotels, restaurants, bars and rapid transit felt the pinch. At Camden Yards, more than 1,200 hourly workers lost jobs. Four soup kitchens, recipients of leftovers from Orioles’ games, went without. So did charities like that at Otterbein Methodist Church, near the stadium, which lost $12,000 it would have made selling $1 bags of peanuts to fans.

Overall, the strike (mid-August 1994 through March 1995) cost the city and state $114 million in lost revenue, said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. Fans favored neither side in the dispute after learning that high-salaried players like the Orioles’ Cal Ripken Jr. earned (and was losing) more than $26,000 a game — nearly the annual income of the average American.

Yet when the longest strike ever in pro sports ended, it was Ripken who received credit salving those wounds. Then nearing baseball’s all-time mark for most consecutive games played, the Iron Man packed them in. On April 3, when the Orioles ticket office finally opened, fans stood in line for up to two hours to grab seats.

Forget that, in 1995, the Orioles played mediocre ball; in a year in which 25 of the game’s 28 teams saw attendance plummet from pre-strike levels, Baltimore drew nearly 3.1 million fans — an average of 43,034 — tops in the American League and third best in franchise history.

And on Sept. 6, in a 4-2 victory over the California Angels, a home crowd of 46,272 rose for 22 minutes to salute Ripken’s appearance in a record-setting 2,131st straight game.

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The nation cheered; its anger waned.


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