In what Sports Illustrated called “the first strike with a season in progress in the history of major league American sport,” team owners were on the receiving end of much of the blame. Following an 18-month dispute, a judge ordered play to stop in June 1981 and negotiations to begin over owners’ rights with regard to free agency. Owners wanted to be compensated for the loss of free-agent players to other teams with the option to hire a player from the team a free agent chose to sign with. Players, trying to protect their bargaining ability, did not want the very point of their free agency to be undermined by such swaps. Play stopped for 50 days, or 712 games, and an estimated $146 million was lost in players’ salaries, ticket sales and broadcast and merchandise revenue.
Finally, on July 31, owners were given the right to bar players from free agency if they had been in the league for less than six years. But instead of being allowed to select a player from the free agent’s signing team, the owner of the team losing a free agent could choose from a group of players left unprotected in all of the baseball clubs rather than just the signing team. The summer strike ended, but the league added insult to injury and split the 1981 season in two, a decision that many deemed confusing and laughable.