It’s been said that there’s a nasty word in business and politics: compromise. It’s also been said that without compromise, many things would never get done. Both of those statements can be true at the same time, and they most certainly were in the spring of 1972 when Major League Baseball dealt with its first players’ strike in more than a century. The resulting compromise led to the strange circumstances that handed the division title to the Detroit Tigers by the barest of margins.
Appropriately, considering some of the foolhardy blustering that took place during negotiations, it was April Fool’s Day when the MLB Players’ Union went on strike in 1972, just two days before the regular season was set to begin. Their demands boiled down to wanting a cost of living increase in their pension fund payments from the 24 major league owners. The two sides haggled over the size of that increase throughout the spring, with the owners certain that the players would never strike. They were wrong. In the first major battle of many clashes with owners, Players’ Union leader Marvin Miller stared down his adversaries. As the days passed without baseball revenues coming in, many of the owners started to feel the pinch. Eventually, just after midnight on April 12, a deal was reached (essentially a meeting in the middle on a dollar figure), and the strike was ended.
The question now was – what to do about the lost games? Most teams would lose 7-10 games on their schedule. There was debate on whether to make up the games to ensure a full 162-game schedule, or whether to craft a new uniform schedule that resulted in each team playing 154 or 156 games. Some owners wanted the games made up, while the players demanded to be paid for the time they missed as well as be paid overtime for playing extra days to make up the lost games. Miller made a bizarre offer: the players would make up the lost games without pay, but fans should be let into the ballparks free to see the contests. Owners balked, players squawked, and fans just waited.
The commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn – an iron-faced former lawyer who was nothing more than a shill for the owners – did the predictable thing for an empty, he did nothing. He ruled that the games did not have to be made up, the season would start on April 15th, and a championship season would ensue. Whichever team won more games, would be awarded first place. Except that “decision” caused a problem. If each team ended up playing a different number of games, it was possible that someone could “win” their division through a technicality of the hacked-off schedule.
And that’s just what happened.
Three of baseball’s four divisions were not affected by the shorter schedule. Both the Pirates and Reds in the National League, and the Oakland A’s in the AL West, took charge of first place fairly early and led to the wire. But the AL East was a horse race all season long. After Mickey Lolich won the first game of a doubleheader against the Angels on June 6 at Tiger Stadium, Detroit led the division by a season-high four games. But for the remainder of the season, the Tigers jockeyed with the Red Sox for top position.
After losing to Nolan Ryan and the Halos on August 31, the Tigs were 1/2 game behind the Sox to start September. Three weeks later they entered a four-game series against the Sox at Fenway Park one game back. Lolich and Joe Coleman beat Boston, but the Sox won the other two games and Billy Martin’s veteran club left Beantown in the same position in which they had arrived – one game out. After splitting a two-game set with the Yankees, the Tigers were 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox with six games to go. The problem was that the Sox also had six games left, but they would end up playing 155 games to 156 for Detroit. The two clubs would play their final three games at The Corner.
The Tigers swept an overmatched Milwaukee club to set up the three-game showdown, now just 1/2 game behind the Sox. The winner of the series would win the division title. In the first game, Lolich struck out 15 Boston batters and went the distance in a 4-1 victory that vaulted the Bengals into first place. The next night, with Tiger Stadium rocking beneath the weight of more than 50,000 excited fans, Al Kaline delivered the go-ahead single in the 7th inning and a reliever named Chuck Seelbach tossed hitless relief over two innings to seal Detroit’s first division title. The Tigers were 1 1/2 games ahead with a game to go. The red Sox were SOL – having played one fewer game, they had no chance to tie the Tigers. In a meaningless game on Wednesday afternoon that took just two hours in front of 30,000 fewer fans, the red Sox won and finished 1/2 game back.
An uneven schedule – unfair in the worst way – had allowed the Tigers to capture the AL East title by a slim margin. They earned it – five straight wins to wrap it up, but the silliness of the MLB schedule that season also worked in their favor.