Then a bigger baseball story takes over. The pension agreement between the owners and the Players Association is expiring. Players want cost-of-living increases attached to their fixed retirement benefits and more robust health care coverage. The owners, who expanded the pension in 1967 and 1969, feel they’ve contributed enough. Talks between the two parties open January 12, 1972, and quickly go nowhere. In the months that follow, the executive director of the Players Association, Marvin Miller travels to each spring training camp and speaks to each club. He asserts that the owners are negotiating in bad faith and seeks a strike authorization vote. The players agree. This isn’t about money, they say, but respect. Through February and March, the players vote, one club after another. The votes tally 663 in favor of a strike, 10 against and 2 abstentions.
On April 1 each team then dispatches 2 players (1 player representative, 1 assistant representative) for a final strike vote at a Ramada Inn near the Dallas airport. There is initially scant enthusiasm on the part of the players for a lengthy work stoppage until Reggie Jackson, the Oakland player representative, stands and speaks, “melting away all opposition,” according to The Sporting News. The representatives then vote 47-0 (with one abstention) in favor of an immediate strike. No major league ballplayer will attend the games on their schedule until their union’s demands are met. The owners still have five days to negotiate a settlement before Opening Day. They do not manage it.
For the first time, American sports fans experience the full meaning of “strike-shortened season.” The biggest baseball market after New York and Los Angeles is Detroit, and fans there, overwhelmingly pro-union, come out in support of the strike. Elsewhere, reports are different. Editorials accuse players of greed. Hank Aaron will earn $200,000 this season. Frank Robinson and Juan Marichel will each earn $140,000. How much more do these overpaid athletes need? Sports journalists focus on the poor fan. The more detail they learn about contracts, the longer negotiations drag on, the more it interferes with their enjoyment of the sport. Many fans can’t get past the figures, players demanding unimaginable sums, $800,000 more for this and $400,000 more for that. That’s over a million dollars!
The strike lasts thirteen days. Proposals by both President Nixon’s federal mediator and Bowie Kuhn, commissioner of baseball, help the two sides narrow their differences, but it is ultimately the urging of Oakland’s Charles Finley that convinces the owners to compromise. Raised in poverty, insatiable around money, Finley is wired to his wallet more closely than other baseball owners. The strike is losing him all kinds of income, and it’s killing him.
The strike ends in the afternoon of April 13th. It is agreed that the players will not be paid for the days they struck. No missed games would be made up. The season opens a week late. Some teams have missed 9 games. The Orioles have missed 8 games. The Yankees and Red Sox have missed 7 games. The Tigers, Indians, and Brewers have each missed 6 games. This difference will affect the final standing of the American League’s Eastern Division.
With the 1972 season at last begun, all the Oakland players report to work… except their star pitcher. Still Vida Blue remains unsigned. “It’s a shame,” says Reggie Jackson. “Vida could make $50,000 playing and another $50,000 in endorsements.” His continued absence is bad for the team, who need their star pitcher, and bad for the sport, who need his draw, but also bad for his pitching arm. His holdout means he has missed spring training. Now he is out of shape, insufficiently prepared to face major league batters, and about to start a job in toilet PR. He was last season’s most popular player. In 312 innings Blue walked only 88 batters in 1971, marking his pitches that year as some of the most controlled in major league history. Now the sport proceeds without him.
He visits with Blaxploitation originator Richard Roundtree to discuss a career in acting. The press take a picture of the two of them posed with an automatic weapon.
Afterwards it is confirmed that the pitcher will appear in the next Shaft film. In retrospect, this seems a perfect fit, because if Vida Blue of 1971 had been a movie, he would have been Shaft. The same soundtrack applied when he performed, you could hear the high-hat of a soul song swishing in the background, and, like the films, the pitcher’s popularity was associated most with the neighborhoods of the downtrodden. Starring in the pitcher’s life is an unreasonable power figure, a classic Blaxploitation element, a white man who shows him no respect. When Vida Blue was growing up in Louisiana, he took a job one summer picking cotton at a place they called “the plantation” in order to earn the money to buy a baseball glove of his own. Working for Finley, enduring his moods and cheapshots… it’s the plantation all over again.
Fortunately Vida never again has to pick cotton. He never has to work for Dura Steel, and he never makes a movie. Instead Finley increases his offer to $63,000. Blue signs. He shows up for the team May 3 and is pitching in games three weeks later. Just to be on the safe side, he grows a mustache. Finley pays him an additional $300. “When that man is giving money away,” the pitcher explains, “I want to be standing in line.” Despite the mustache, Blue gets no run support. Last year by this time he was 14-2. Now he has three losses and no victories. He shaves his mustache on Mustache Day just to be contrary and beats the Indians with a subpar fastball. It’s his first win of 1972. He resolves to keep his upper lip clean.