1994 MLB Labor Strike, the Expos, and Baseball’s Era of Labor Peace

The MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire after this season, and there are many issues to tackle. While there has been no threat to the labor peace experienced over the last 22 years, the behavior of players off the field coupled with rising salaries could provide sticking points. Dave McCullough revisits the 1994 MLB labor strike, 22 years after it occurred, and observes its effects on the landscape of the game.

The anniversary passed quietly, as no one is really interested in celebrating the start of baseball’s biggest work stoppage. The cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of an ongoing player strike, really began on August 12, 1994. A quirk of history brought this to mind, as the last “active” major leaguer – Alex Rodriguez – to debut before the strike that ruined the fall classic may have played his final game on August 12, 2016. An entire generation of baseball fans has now lived through an era of labor peace that is rather unbelievable to those of us who grew up baseball fans in the 1970s and 80s.

The 1994 strike was ostensibly about a salary cap, but like all labor-management disputes, it was really about power. Did baseball owners have the right to impose a salary cap on themselves (and the players), or were players entitled to the rights of all Americans, and the benefit of supply-and-demand price inflation upon wages? In the 1980s, baseball’s owners were caught price-fixing – or colluding – to make sure no one overpaid free agents. Rather than let the market determine player value, owners (illegally) conspired to make sure none of them “inflated” the market price. In 1990 the owners were harshly punished for their corrupt scheme, receiving a fine of $280 million dollars.

Hardly chastened by the previous collusion consequences, the owners set about doing the same thing in 1991, but were busted by their own hired man, Commissioner Fay Vincent. Despite a long tradition of “independent” commissioners, the owners effectively fired Vincent, reversed his rulings, and installed one of their own – Bud Selig, then-owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Together with his friend and number-one booster, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, the two owners pressed forward with their desire to impose a salary cap – and leave behind accusations of price-fixing and collusion once and for all.

Leading up to the strike, the Players Union – led by Donald Fehr – asserted their rights to a bigger portion of the revenue generated by clubs. Their argument – and it has always been a compelling one – is that fans pay higher ticket prices and spend money on merchandise because they are fans of the players, not the owners (nor their ability – or inability – to run a business). Having led the way in sports labor issues, the MLBPA was not about to give up hard-earned rights without a fight – the owners “capping” player salaries was, to them, unacceptable.

Former MLB pitcher Bill Lee was part of the Player’s Association (MLBPA) team in the 1970s. In a recent interview, Lee spoke about his history in the game, and the reasons behind baseball’s history of labor strife:

Bill Lee: I hurt the owners economically. I took money out of their pockets, that’s why I’m not in baseball.

Eno Sarris: When did you do that?

Lee: I did that in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, as being the player rep for the American League. That’s why I’m not in baseball. If you listen to Marvin Miller, you’ll hear that every player rep was traded, released or destroyed because they wanted to break up the relationship between the players and their teammates. They did not like the union. They hated us.

Sarris: Oh my goodness.

Lee: Yes. Look back at the 1994 strike. Look back at the 1981 season. Look back at everything. It’s always about money.

Twenty-two years on, we can look at a few recent news items to see the long-term effects of the 1994 strike. First, the recent medical “retirement” of Prince Fielder that has the club being reimbursed by insurance for a goodly portion of the burly veteran’s $24M annual salary. Oh, and that salary that was part of a nine-year, $214M contract, making him one of the highest paid players in MLB. But not the highest paid – for most of the last 22 years, that honor has gone to A-Rod. Player salaries have escalated in the years since the strike, with no more collusion among the owners to artificially depress salaries with a “cap.” Clubs have had years of record-setting operating profits – everyone in baseball has become rich under the system that the 1994 strike produced.

Further, the 1995 settlement set the stage for 22 years (and counting) of labor peace. The 1994 strike did cost us a World Series, and 948 games, but there hasn’t been a single missed game because of labor strife since. Contrast that with the period from 1972-1994, which featured the 1972 strike, the Flood Decision, the Messersmith/McNally case, the 1981 strike, the 1985 strike, the 1990 lockout, and finally the 1994-1995 strike, All of those events led to the animosity and entrenched antagonists exemplified by Selig on one side and Fehr on the other.

However, there were casualties in the 1994 strike. The club hurt the worst by the 1994 strike is unquestionably the Montreal Expos, who don’t even exist anymore – in no small part because of the strike. Baseball’s best team in 1994, the Expos were experiencing a renaissance under manager Felipe Alou and a cadre of young, blossoming superstars. They appeared to be the odds-on-favorites to become the 1994 World Series champions but never had their chance to compete. Starting in 1995 the Expos – baseball’s poorest franchise – were forced to begin selling off their young superstars like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Pedro Martinez. Before too long, the Expos had no fans coming to games, no superstars to build around, and no cash to pay players. Under the guidance of Commissioner Selig, they eventually transitioned from the biggest city in Quebec to Washington D.C., where they renamed themselves the Nationals.

The 1994 strike set baseball on the path to stability and labor peace, but also had its negative repercussions. With all of the era’s major figures now retired – or, in the case of Rodriguez, still drawing a paycheck for no longer playing – the 1994 strike fades even further from memory. The “what if” scenario of the Expos in 1994 still captivate a certain subset of fans – but most of this new generation just takes the existence of the Washington Nationals and the player salaries for granted. “Of course Mike Trout is worth $30M or more a season. Have you seen him play baseball?”


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David R. McCullough is founding editor of SoSH Baseball. He has a B.A. in journalism from Antioch College, where the lack of a football team is proudly proclaimed on shirts sold in the bookstore, and might someday finish his M.A. at Boston University. He lives in the Boston area with a toddler and a very understanding, patient wife.

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