The 1994–95 Major League Baseball strike was the eighth work stoppage in baseball history, as well as the fourth in-season work stoppage in 22 years. The 232-day strike, which lasted from August 94 to April 95, led to the cancellation of between 931 and 948 games overall, and the entire 1994 postseason and World Series. The cancellation of the World Series was the first since 1904; meanwhile, Major League Baseball became the first professional sport to lose its entire postseason due to a labor dispute. The strike has been considered one of the worst work stoppages in sports’ history.
Before the 1994 season, baseball’s owners made a daring change to the game, discarding the traditional pennant races in favor of an additional round of postseason playoffs. The 14 teams then in each league would be divided into three divisions. The division winners would each make the playoffs, along with a wild card – the second-place team with the best record in each league. For the first time in the game’s long history, it would be possible to win the World Series without finishing first.
Purists balked, but the owners’ gamble paid off. As the 1994 season passed the halfway point, attendance continued to shoot upward, propelled by the races in the new divisions.
After years of crisis and scandal, everything that baseball touched, it seemed, now turned to gold. The sport looked healthier than ever, raking in record revenues from gate receipts and national television contracts. Its success reflected a rapidly expanding American economy, one fueled by the dot-com boom and government deregulation that encouraged a new, often mysterious brand of go-go capitalism. If it was not always clear how so much money was to be made by new internet services or new financial instruments, it did not seem to matter, so long as investors continued to believe in them.
Baseball’s prosperity, it would turn out, contained its own mysteries. Underneath all the prosperity, all the success on the field, trouble was brewing. The real game, it developed, was off the field, in corporate boardrooms and hotel conference centers, where men in business suits, not baseball uniforms, would bring the sport’s revival to a jolting halt.
Ever since the players had formed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association back in the 1960s, there had been a strike or a lockout every time they had had to negotiate a new contract with the owners. In early 1993, the owners had turned aside an offer by the union to renew the game’s general agreement. For the next eighteen months, the players and owners remained at an impasse that was largely ignored by the fans, who saw it as more of the two sides’ seemingly endless jockeying for some advantage or another. This time, it was serious.
The problem, as always, was money – who would get what, and how it would affect the competitive balance of the game. In the 1990s, major-league teams still operated under what the columnist George Will labeled “a nineteenth-century economic model.” Unlike other professional sports, in baseball the individual clubs generated and kept most of their own revenue. This enabled teams in big markets to sign local cable television deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Some, such as the New York Yankees, were even looking to start cable networks of their own.
Teams in smaller cities had no such resources, and as their big-market rivals bid the average major-league salary up to $1.2 million a year, they were increasingly unable to compete for the game’s top stars.
For the owners, the answer for this disparity was the same as it always was, for any problem: lower player salaries. The teams prepared to go to war with the union once again, amassing a “strike fund” of nearly a billion dollars and ousting the independent-minded commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent. The owners replaced him with one of their own, Milwaukee Brewers’ president Allan H. “Bud” Selig. Then they made the players’ union an offer they knew it would refuse: The teams would share revenue with each other, but only if the union agreed to a payroll or “salary” cap, a limit on how much money each team could pay all of its players.
The Players’ Association and its leader, Don Fehr, had been rejecting the idea of a salary cap for fifteen years. When the owners refused to budge from this demand, the players predictably put down their balls and bats, and walked out. On August 12, 1994, baseball suffered its eighth work stoppage in the last 23 years.
At the time, 117 games into the season, Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 and Matt Williams had 43 home runs, just 18 away from Maris’s record. Nonetheless, both men supported the union’s stand.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get this close to .400,” admitted Gwynn. “But getting an agreement is more important than hitting .400.”
“I don’t want to do this. I’m losing $19,000 a day and it’s money I won’t get back,” declared 37-year-old outfielder Brett Butler of the Dodgers, aware that he was approaching the end of his career. “But for all the Catfish Hunters and Andy Messersmiths (pioneer free agents of the 1970s) who did it for me, it’s my responsibility to do it for the kids coming up.”
The owners remained just as adamant, and while lawyers and spokesmen for both sides traded charges before the television cameras, the season slowly trickled away.
Essentially, the players and owners were still fighting over the issue of free agency, just as they had been during previous strikes and lockouts – just as they had been more than a hundred years before, during the Players’ League revolt in 1890. Somehow, the issue had remained unresolved, and the owners’ collusion in the 1980s, an illegal, coordinated and conspiratorial attempt to try to contain salary levels by refusing to bid on other teams’ free agents, had eradicated any remaining good will that may have existed between the two sides.
The fans cared about few of the details. Instead, they looked on helplessly as the rest of the season was canceled. For the first time in 90 years, there would be no World Series. Neither Tony Gwynn nor Matt Williams would get their shot at immortality.
The Players’ Association and the owners were unmoved. Even when President Bill Clinton ordered both sides to the White House for a special bargaining session and pleaded with them to accept binding arbitration, the owners refused. Instead, they declared an impasse in negotiations and announced that they were implementing a salary cap unilaterally. In February, they began gathering up teams drawn from the ranks of minor leaguers, semi-pros, college players, and retired major leaguers looking for one last chance, and spoke seriously of starting the 1995 season with these “replacement players.”
The madness ended just two days before the start of the season, when the union appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, asking for an injunction against the owners. The case was heard before the first female justice of Puerto Rican descent ever named to the federal bench, a 40-year-old lifelong resident of the South Bronx who had been known to sneak away from the courtroom and take in an occasional afternoon game at Yankee Stadium. Judge Sonia Sotomayor lamented that “I personally would have liked more time to practice my swing” on the issues involved, but found the owners guilty of violating federal labor law by imposing their own rules.
Under Judge Sotomayor’s ruling, the owners were forced to reinstate the last collective bargaining agreement under which baseball had been operating before the strike. This was not necessarily the end of anything. Without a new deal, the players would have been within their rights to continue the strike. Instead, they leaped at the chance to play ball again under the old agreement.
After 234 days, the strike was finally over. The owners had lost $700 million without winning a single concession from the players. But the players had forfeited something more valuable: the respect of millions of fans who could not understand why they had walked out in the first place, since most of them were earning more in one week than the average American made in a year.
“I remember the fans I spoke to didn’t want to hear any of it,” recalled Tony Gwynn. “They just looked at us and the owners as millionaires fighting with billionaires. You couldn’t talk to them, but you couldn’t blame them, either. When we walked out, we lost them and it took a good five years to even think we could get them back.”
When the players finally came back in late April 1995, many of the fans did not. Attendance was down twenty percent, and those fans who did return frequently came out only to jeer their hometown heroes. At Shea Stadium, fans climbed onto the field and tossed dollar bills at the feet of Mets players. In Detroit, they hurled bottles and cans, baseballs and cigarette lighters, and even tossed a hubcap onto the field. Everywhere, the game’s biggest stars were greeted with boos. With cynicism and distrust threatening to engulf the game, the owners and the players both resolved never to risk alienating the public again.