Lose-lose: Commissioner Bud Selig, along with the owners, had a difficult history with the MLBPA culminating in the season-ending 1994 strike. The losers in the end? Fans.
Why there was a strike? I thought labor relations in baseball are pretty good.
They are now, relatively speaking that is. They weren’t then. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) was formed in 1953, but it was pretty toothless until Marvin Miller became its executive director in 1966, leading to the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 1968. There was a short strike in April 1972. There was a much longer strike from June to August 1981, forcing a split season. There was a two-day strike in August 1985, but nobody remembers that one of because the missed games were rescheduled. There was a preseason lockout in 1990 that lasted 32 days and delayed the regular season by a week, but all games were played. So the 1994 strike was the fifth work stoppage in 22 years that affected the regular season schedule.
What was the bone of contention between the sides?
Money, of course. The 1972 strike was before free agency and it was settled when the owners agreed to salary arbitration and a $500,000 increase in pension fund contributions. The subsequent stoppages all occurred after the 1975 arbitration ruling eliminating baseball’s Reserve Clause, which bound players to the same team in perpetuity. In its aftermath, players became free agents after six seasons, and salaries rose rapidly.
The 1981 strike was over the owners’ demands for compensation for losing a free agent. They got compensation, but nowhere near as much as they wanted. The 1985 strike resulted in a $33 million increase in pension fund contributions and an increase in the minimum salary to $60,000.
The 1990 lockout occurred after the Basic Agreement between owners and players expired at the end of 1989 and the owners wanted to replace it with a revenue-sharing model that would pay players 48% of gate receipts and broadcast revenues. It ended when owners raised their pension fund contribution by $55 million, expanded arbitration eligibility, and raised the minimum salary to $100,000.
It sounds like the owners didn’t do well.
Well, they got some of the things they wanted, like limits on arbitration and free agent compensation, but in general, if you were to declare winners and losers, the players were on a winning streak. Then-commissioner Fay Vincent’s efforts to end the 1990 lockout were a reason the owners booted him in 1992 (OK, he lost a no-confidence vote). In addition, the players filed grievances against the owners, alleging that ownership colluded to avoid signing free agents from 1985-87, and an arbitrator ruled in the players’ favor, awarding them a total of $280 million. (There was a much smaller award, $12 million, in 2006, to settle allegations of collusion after ’02 and ’03 as well.) So the owners were looking to end their slump.
What were the issues in 1994?
After effectively losing four work stoppages and the collusion arbitration, the owners went for the equivalent of a six-run homer. They proposed:
- Revenue sharing tied to a salary cap, which would result in more even compensation across the clubs (the welfare of small-market clubs was a stated ownership concern)
- Elimination of salary arbitration
- Free agency after four years instead of six, with clubs holding a right of first of first refusal (ability to retain the player by meeting the best offer) for years five and six
The owners claimed their proposal would raise total compensation (salary and benefits) to $1 billion and raise average salaries from $1.2 million in 1994 to $2.6 million in 2001.
Why didn’t the players go along?
The MLBPA has always been adamantly opposed to a salary cap, feeling that it would ultimately limit player compensation. MLB is currently the only North American sports league without some sort of salary cap.
Why was there a strike in the middle of the season? Had the CBA expired?
No, the CBA was good through the end of the year. But in June, the owners withheld a $7.8 million payment owed to the players’ pension plan. That provoked a vote in July by the MLBPA executive board in authorize a strike starting August 12. The last games of the year were played on August 11.
Did anyone try to end the strike?
Sure. The sides negotiated through August, but at the end of the month, federal mediators assigned to the negotiations said there was no progress, and talks broke off. On September 8, the players made a counterproposal, calling for teams sharing 25% of gate receipts among all teams, and a 2% luxury tax on the payrolls of the 16 highest-payroll clubs, with the proceeds divided among the other 12 clubs, both aimed at helping smaller-market teams. The owners rejected it.
When was it apparent the season was in jeopardy?
At the end of August, acting commissioner Bud Selig said that September 9 was the deadline for canceling the rest of the season. He pulled the plug on September 14.
When was it settled?
It took a while. On December 23, with the CBA about to expire, the owners implemented a salary cap. In January, President Clinton ordered the two sides to the bargaining table. In early February, the owners withdrew the salary cap, following a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that it had been imposed illegally, but the two sides failed to meet Clinton’s February 6 deadline to resolve the strike. On that date, the owners’ Player Relations Committee notified all 28 clubs that they could not sign free agents nor enter into salary arbitration. The owners began hiring replacement players for spring training and, if necessary, the regular season.
Wait, there were replacement players? How did that work out?
Oh, it was a crapshow. Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, partly because he didn’t want a season with replacement players imperiling Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-games streak and partly because he was a union attorney, refused to field replacement players and canceled spring training. Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson refused to manage replacement players and was put on an involuntary leave of absence. The Toronto Blue Jays assigned manager Cito Gaston and his coaches to the team’s minor league complex so they wouldn’t have to manage replacement players. Under Ontario law, replacement workers were not permitted to be used during a work stoppage, so the Jays made plans to play their regular season home games at their Dunedin, Fla. spring training facility.
So how did the strike end?
On March 27, the National Labor Relations Board filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the owners, alleging that the owners had illegally eliminated both free agency and salary arbitration while negotiations were ongoing. The following day, the players voted to return to work if a judge upheld the NLRB ruling. The owners responded by voting 26-2 in favor of using replacement players. On March 31, district judge Sonia Sotomayor — yes, the same Sonia Sotomayor who’s now on the Supreme Court — issued a preliminary injunction against the owners, and her judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. With free agency and arbitration in place, the players voted to return to work. The strike ended on April 2, the day before the season was going to start with replacement players. The regular season started three weeks late, limiting the schedule to just 144 games.
Was a new CBA part of the settlement?
Nope. Sotomayor’s injunction bound both sides to the terms of the expired CBA. Nothing changed until the two sides agreed on a new CBA in December 1996.
How did things work out financially?
Estimates are that the 1994 strike cost the owners $580 million and the players $230 million, but those should be taken with a shaker of salt, since it’s impossible to put a precise estimate on foregone revenues and rosters.
In 1994, ABC, NBC, and MLB formed a joint venture called The Baseball Network to air nationally televised games. The strike cost The Baseball Network an estimated $595 million in ad revenues. The joint venture, which was supposed to have run through 1999, ended after the 1995 season when both networks, stung by their losses, opted out. NBC vowed never to do business with MLB again, a vow which stuck for, well, several days — it struck a deal to split All-Star Game and postseason coverage with Fox and ESPN starting in 1996.
The strike was a public relations horror show. Early 1995 game accounts were full of stories of fans booing players, throwing objects onto the field (including a hubcap in Detroit — “Hey, guys, I got an idea, let’s bring a hubcap to the game”), and wearing shirts and holding up signs with various permutations on dollar signs and the word greed. Per-game attendance fell 20%, from 31,256 in 1994 to 25,021 to 1995. Attendance at major league games has exceeded 1994’s record per-game total only thrice since, in 2006 (31,306,) 2007 (32,696) and 2008 (32,382), though that was in large part due to new ballparks being built with less seating capacity. If one follows the trajectory of television contracts and MLB Advanced Media, it’s pretty hard to make a case that the game’s struggles in the immediate aftermath of the strike have persisted.
Oh, and the owners’ claim that under their salary cap proposal, average player compensation would rise to $2.6 million in 2001? Whether one believes that or not, the average opening day salary in 2001 was $2.26 million, according to the Associated Press.
Any less-known impacts of the strike?
A darker impact of the strike is performance-enhancing drugs. Nobody can ever prove this, of course, but there’s a school of thought that the owners, desperate to win back the fans lost in the strike, turned a blind eye to the growing use of PEDs in the majors, enticed by the draw of more homers and scoring. Prior to 1994, the last players to hit 50 homers in a season were George Foster with 52 in 1977, and Cecil Fielder, with 51 in 1990. In the eight years after the strike, there were 18 player-seasons of 50 or more homers.
Who were the big losers?
Actually, everybody lost. As mentioned above, this was a nightmare financially for everyone — the media, the owners, and the players. This was especially a PR nightmare for the ownership, and caused economic hardship for many players who hadn’t established themselves financially. Of course, people dependent upon baseball also were hurt, such as umpires and concession workers, and a variety of other baseball-related jobs were lost.
Going back to players, how about Tony Gwynn, who would’ve had a chance to hit .400 (he was hitting .394 at the time of the strike). How about players like Frank Thomas, who were having monster seasons?
As much as the players, owners and media enterprises were damaged with the strike, the fans were the big losers. Fans were actually attending games in Montreal, and the team actually would’ve come close to 2 million in attendance in 1994 — the first time that had happened since 1983. The Expos finished 46-18 in its final 64 games and enjoyed the best record in baseball at 74-40 — they featured Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and a dominant bullpen led by John Wetteland and Mel Rojas. Many players left via free agency or trades in subsequent years, and thanks in part due to diminished attendance the next few years, the Expos later became the Washington Nationals. Aside from Montreal, fans all over missed great pennant races in both leagues, including the heated AL Central race involving the White Sox. It took a long time for baseball to earn the fans’ trust, and in some cases, it still hasn’t.
Hey, how about we not end this on such a downer?
OK, how about some trivia?
Who are the four MLB players with 16 straight seasons playing 140 or more games? The two players everyone gets wrong are Lou Gehrig (not really close; ALS forced him out of the game at age 36 after 13 straight 140-game seasons) and Cal Ripken, Jr. (the Orioles played only 112 games in 1994 due to the strike). The answer: Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose and Johnny Damon.
How about the only two players in baseball history who endured all eight work stoppages? (Clue: both pitched for the White Sox.)
Answer: Rich Gossage and Charlie Hough.