It was the expiration day of their three-year pension agreement, and the owners had been stonewalling on what the players considered modest benefit increases. In preparation for the worst, about seven meetings into the Players Association's annual Spring Training tour, Executive Director Marvin Miller had begun holding strike authorization votes.
According to John Gaherin, management's lead negotiator at the time, the owners did not take the votes seriously and considered it "saber-rattling" from the ballplayers, who, after all, were not battle-tested union workers. Nonetheless, the players voted 663-10 to authorize their executive committee to call a strike.
It wasn't surprising that the owners disregarded the vote. Miller himself was unconvinced the players were prepared to go through with a strike.
"The last thing I expected in 1972 was a strike," Miller said in his book, A Whole Different Ballgame. "The owners had decided to bring the Players Association's progress to a halt either by provoking a strike, which they felt confident of winning, or by forcing the players to back down and accept their unreasonable position in the negotiations."
After the strike authorization vote, Miller proposed to the owners on March 29 that their differences be settled by an impartial arbitrator, but his suggestion was turned down. The players faced a difficult, even fateful, decision as they prepared to meet in Dallas on March 31 -- to strike or not to strike.
The evening before in Scottsdale, Ariz.,Miller and the union's longtime general counsel Dick Moss made phone calls to player reps and spoke among themselves. They weighed all of the factors and determined it was not the right moment to strike. The players had never experienced a work stoppage before, they had not been paid since the previous season and they had no strike fund.
That night, the union's executives were resigned to postponing their strike, determining that it was better to live to battle another day than incur the damage of having their union broken by being unable to sustain a strike. They wrote a resolution they intended to put to a vote of the Executive Board that articulated that, despite a calculated decision not to strike, the union was resolved to keep fighting the pension issue through 1972 and continue it in collective bargaining the following year.
The players, however, had other ideas, starting with Reggie Jackson and Chuck Dobson, who sat behind Miller and his wife, Terry, on the plane ride from Phoenix to Dallas for the meeting of players. The Oakland A's representatives told Miller they wanted no part of backing down.
While Miller and Moss explained their reasoning at the players' meeting later that day, Jackson took the lead among the players who opposed backing down.
"Goddammit, there are just times when you've got to stand up for your rights," Jackson shouted at the meeting, according to John Helyar's book, Lords of the Realm.
Numerous other players struck similar tones. Miller, a veteran of five strikes with the United Steelworkers, recounted in his book that he had become "devil's advocate," trying to explain to the players the hardships they would undertake if they were to strike. About four hours into the meeting, a chant of "Strike, strike, strike" filled the room.
The players were adamant, so the resolution Miller and Moss had written the previous night was replaced with one that read: "We will not permit the owners to breach our union. Accordingly, as of March 31, the Major League Baseball Players Association is on strike."
The resolution passed by a vote of 47-0 with one abstention.
Despite tremendous media pressure, the players stayed united in their insistence for pension improvements as games were scratched from the schedule. Players including Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente took leadership roles in keeping players together. Finally, on April 13, the owners and players settled on terms the players had proposed in late March -- that the pension improvements be made using the pension fund's $800,000 surplus.
In retrospect, the modest pension gains players achieved in that work stoppage didn't compare to the gains players realized in their understanding that there is power in a union.