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On This Date in Sports August 12, 1994: Strike Out

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All games are canceled as MLB Players’ Association goes on strike after being unable to work out a collective bargaining agreement with the owners. It is the eighth time there had been a work stoppage in baseball. This one would be the most damaging as the owners were dug in and ready for a long battle, which would result in the remainder of the season and playoffs being canceled.

The relationship between the Player’s Union and the Owners in Major League Baseball had been contentious for years. In 1966, things changed for the players when they hired Marvin Miller as their new representative. Miller had previously represented US Steelworkers. Previously stuck under the reserve clause players had no say in how much they were paid as teas held their rights in perpetuity. After Miller’s arrival, the players began to fight back, starting with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale holding out together for a bigger contract in 1966. In 1969 Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause after being traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood would lose his case, as it went before the Supreme Court, but the groundwork was laid for players to begin to fight for the right to be Free Agents.

In 1972, the Players went on strike for the first time, wiping out the first two weeks of the season. The strike ended when owners agreed to give veteran players arbitration when both sides could not work out a new deal. Other than teams playing an uneven amount of games, the strike had no effect on the season, though the Boston Red Sox got screwed as they finished a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers (86-70) at 85-70. The arbitration battled dragged into next season, as the Owners Locked Out the Players at the start of Spring Training, but it was quickly resolved when it was determined a neutral third party would hear the arbitration cases.

Over the next three years, Marvin Miller and the Players’ Association found a loophole in the reserve clause, allowing the era of Free Agency to begin. Again, the Owners locked out the Players, as they sought for rules governing free agency after Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first Free Agents after an arbitrator’s ruling. Again, the matter was settled quickly, as players had to wait six years into their first deal to become eligible for Free Agency. The owners had thought they won, but the waiting period only made Free Agents more valuable and began the rise of player salaries.

The rise in salaries and the increase in Free Agency did not sit well with the Owners who wanted punitive compensation rules to prevent teams from signing other players from other teams. Like 1972, the Players went on strike as Spring Training came to an end also seeking an increase in the pension fund, but the sides worked out a deal before Opening Day as no games were lost. The deal that was worked out left compensation aside as they expected to negotiate a settlement quickly. That would not be the case and the issue dragged into 1981 leading the Players to go on strike again. This time they would be on the picket lines for two months, disrupting the middle of the season. When the games resumed a split season was used, creating for one season an extra round of playoffs. This time it was the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals who got screwed as they had the best overall records in the National League but did not finish in first in either the first half of the second half of the split season.

The Players would go on strike again in 1985, again fighting for pension increases and owners sought a cap to arbitration. This strike would last a mere two days in August as Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had undercut the owners and agreed to the players’ demands. All games would be made up, but the seeds of the 1994 strike were planted.

In response to losing the 1985 labor battle, owners decide to suppress Free Agency and began a period of collusion. This collusion would foster great distrust among the two sides. When Ueberroth’s term as commissioner ended, he was not going to be reelected leading him to step aside after he ruled all players effected by collusion could become Free Agents again.

In 1990, the sides battled again when it came time for a new CBA, with the Owners Locking Out the Players in Spring Training. Revenue sharing was at the center of this battle as Owners were looking to get escalating salaries under control. With the start of the season in jeopardy, Fay Vincent in his first full year as commissioner undercut the Owners again. As the start of the season was pushed back one week.

After losing the 1990 lockout, the resolve of the owners grew. In 1992, they had a coup and removed Fay Vincent as commissioner, placing Bud Selig who owned the Milwaukee Brewers in charge of the sport. Selig and the rest of the hardliners were readying for a long battle as they began to dig their trenches. As the 1994 season began the sport did not have a national television deal, as the Owners so enraged at all the ground they had lost created a cooperative with NBC and ABC, called the Baseball Network to control profits without sharing it with the players.

When the 1994 season began there were signs of storm clouds on the horizon as the players had began talking about a strike as owners were seeking to create a salary cap. Negotiations between the Players, now led by Donald Fehr and Owners were few and far between. At the All-Star Break, the MLBPA had set a deadline of August 11th to get a deal. When that deadline went by without a deal, the players walked out.

Over the next month, there were only sporadic negotiations, as the Owners were unwilling to give up the fight and had no commissioner in the way to do a deal behind their backs like Ueberroth in 1985 and Vincent in 1990. Instead, they had a negotiator in Richard Ravitch who led their battle and was hired to go toe-to-toe with Fehr and the Players. The Players had summited a counterproposal for a tax system that would hit teams, whose salaries went over a certain threshold, with the money collected going to the struggling teams to create revenue sharing among the owners. On September 14th, one month after the players went on strike, Bud Selig announced the rest of the season including the playoffs and World Series would be canceled. It was the first time since 1904 that there would be no Fall Classic.

The cancelation of the season led to a nuclear winter. Both sides remained entrenched well into the winter, players were unsigned and there was appall felt over the game as fans acted with anger and apathy as the sport was in genuine danger. Things would begin to go off the rails for the Owners, as Richard Ravitch resigned at the end of December. Ravitch had begun to make leeway with Donald Fehr, but owners now wanted blood.

When Spring Training began, the Owners had implemented their own system and had replacement players on the field, anticipating the players would break ranks and agree to their deal and resume play as normal. Few active major leaguers crossed the picket line, as only career minor leaguers and players seeking one more shot took the field as most teams kept their top minor league players away at minor league camps not wanting to create conflict when the players returned. The Owners though began to break rank, as Peter Angelos owner who of the Baltimore Orioles refused to field a team, not wanting to put Cal Ripken’s streak in jeopardy and was willing to forfeit every game until a true settlement was reached. Angelos had also once worked as a Union Lawyer and did not support the Owners actions. George Steinbrenner also was a vocal critic of the handling of negotiations, having wanted to agree to the Players Counterproposal from the start.

The last salvo fired by the Owners ended up being a major miscalculation, as it allowed Donald Fehr and the Players’ Association a chance to take the battle to court. Arguing that the Owners had not negotiated in good faith, the Players went before the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB would agree with the players and went before a Federal Judge seeking an injunction, that would stop the use of replacement players and put the old CBA back in place. The case was heard by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a Federal Judge in the Southern District of New York. Sotomayor a professed Yankees fan ruled in the Players favor ending the strike just days before the 1995 season was, to begin with Replacement Players. A reduced 144-game season would begin three weeks later as players returned with a truncated Spring Training. The two sides would still harbor resentment as it took over a year to get a new CBA.

The collateral damage from the 1994 strike was great, with no team being hit harder than the Montreal Expos. When the season ended, the Expos were the best team in baseball at 74-40. When the games resumed, the Expos began selling off their top star players. With many of these players like Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou becoming key players in a championship teams. They also traded fan favorite Larry Walker, who was arguably one of the best players ever born in Canada to the Colorado Rockies where he won the National League MVP in 1997. Fans never forgave the Expos or baseball, as the team died a slow death over the next decade before becoming the Washington Nationals in 2005.

Some speculate that 1994 could have had a 1998 style home run chase for the record as Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants each had a shot at getting 61 home runs, as Griffey led the American League with 40 while Williams had 43 to lead the National League. The biggest loss, however, may have been Tony Gwynn, who was hitting .394 when the season ended. It was the highest average since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, as Gwynn had a legitimate chance to hit .400.