North American major league baseball fans are breathing a collective sigh of relief after the players' union and team owners averted a strike Friday.

Team owners and players settled on a new labor contract just hours before the strike deadline, after talking through the night. It was the first time in nine previous rounds of labor talks since 1972 that baseball was able to avert a work stoppage.

Both sides seemed relieved at a New York news conference. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says a strike was averted because both the players and owners were willing to compromise. "And, hopefully, that spirit and all the energy that has gone to this will be channeled in the right directions, and that baseball, the greatest game in the world, and all its fans, will be the beneficiary of this," he said.

Players union chief Donald Fehr says he is pleased because, for the first time in decades, baseball was able to agree on a collective bargaining agreement before, and not after, a work stoppage," said Donald Fehr. "And what we can now hope for is that it will be a very long time before a collective bargaining agreement is negotiated after a work stoppage. You know, all streaks come to an end, and this is one that was overdue to come to an end."

The key issue in the talks was agreement on how the richer baseball teams, like the New York Yankees, would share some of their profits with financially weaker teams, which find it increasingly difficult to keep their better players and stay competitive.

Team owners said that, without concessions on this point from the players' union, several weaker franchises were in danger of folding.

Players did win an increase in the minimum salary from $200,000 to $300,000. The average baseball salary is now approaching $2.5 million a year.

The last baseball strike came in 1994 and 1995, and resulted in cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.

This new labor agreement will be in place for four years, if, as expected, players and team owners ratify it within the next week.