When Baseball Entered Sudden Death in 1994

When Baseball Entered Sudden Death in 1994

Why you should care

From financial conglomerates to drug cartels to professional sports, when millionaires take on billionaires, everybody loses.

The 1994 Major League Baseball season should have been one for the record books. Through early August, outfielder Tony Gwynn was flirting with becoming the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. San Francisco Giants slugger Matt Williams and Seattle’s boy wonder, Ken Griffey Jr., were both eyeing Roger Maris’s single-season record of 61. The insurgent first-place Montreal Expos, with a boatload of young talent and the second-lowest payroll in the league, were threatening to depose the Atlanta Braves’ National League dynasty.

Attendance was also booming, and revenue was skyrocketing thanks to new cable television contracts. The game was flourishing and the pie was getting bigger than ever before. Except that sometimes the pie still isn’t big enough.

We picked a bad year to have a good year.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Twenty years ago today, major league players walked off the field, beginning what would be a 234-day labor stoppage that would result in the first canceled World Series since 1904 and would leave an indelible scar on the game. The 1994 season would indeed become one for the record books — a forever unfinished “what if” of a season marked by an asterisk. As Griffey lamented, “We picked a bad year to have a good year.”

Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Source Getty

The tectonic plates underlying the economics of professional baseball had been shifting for decades, and the surface success of the sport in the early 1990s belied a gigantic rupture stirring beneath the forces of labor and capital. Until legendary labor lawyer Marvin Miller took over as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, most players were dramatically underpaid and either did not know the true value of their talents or did not care to rock the boat to find out.

A successful combination of negotiation victories and work stoppages under Miller, not to mention arbitrators finding the owners guilty of collusion, during the succeeding three decades had steadily weakened the owners’ hand. And by 1994, the players enjoyed free agency, salary arbitration and other benefits, and the average player’s annual salary was $1.2 million.

The strike had cost the players millions of dollars they could never earn again, and owners had lost upward of $1 billion.

But there was still rampant distrust between the owners and players, and with baseball’s latest collective bargaining agreement having expired at the end of 1993, the owners were keen to regain some lost ground and put an end to the players association’s decades-long winning streak. So, as part of renegotiating their own revenue-sharing agreement between the small- and big-market clubs in early 1994, the owners approved a provision they knew would never fly with the players: a salary cap on how much each franchise could pay its players.

The players walked on Aug. 12 and both sides dug in for a fight that each thought it was certain to win. And there began, as ESPN put it, “a 7½-month marathon of acrimony that wandered through hotel meeting rooms, the federal courts and even the White House.” Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, an owner himself (of the Milwaukee Brewers), announced on Sept. 14 that the post-season and World Series would be canceled. In December, the owners unilaterally implemented the salary cap, the players association announced that all players were free agents as a result, and the owners began lining up “replacement players” to populate the teams for the 1995 season.

Michael Jordan in baseball uniform swinging bat

Michael Jordan playing for the Chicago White Sox.

Source Corbis

The dispute finally ended on March 31, 1995, when future Supreme Court justice and longtime New York Yankees fan Sonia Sotomayor, a U.S. District Court judge, issued an injunction against the owners for alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act, and the players returned to work for the 1995 season under the old collective-bargaining agreement.Meanwhile, Gwynn’s .394 average, Williams’s 43 home runs, Griffey’s 40 home runs and the pennant dreams of the Montreal Expos were all put on ice. Another casualty was the baseball aspirations of basketball star Jordan, who had retired from the NBA and spent the 1993 season in the Chicago White Sox minor league system. Vowing not to become a replacement player, Jordan hung up his spikes and returned to basketball with a two-word press release in March 1995 (“I’m back.”).

The strike had cost the players millions of dollars they could never earn again, and owners had lost upward of $1 billion. More importantly, both parties had lost the respect of millions of fans, who greeted them with boos, threw cash at their feet and held up signs like “Field of Dreams Greed.” Attendance sank 20 percent in 1995, and revenues would take several years to rebound.

“I remember the fans I spoke to didn’t want to hear any of it,” the late Hall of Famer Gwynn once said. “They just looked at us and the owners as millionaires fighting with billionaires.”

Baseball would regain some of its lost luster thanks to Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played in 1995 and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s 1998 steroid-fueled home-run rampage. But, in a sport so steeped in its own history, the year 1994 remains a gaping hole in the game’s annals — a hole that will continue for decades to prompt young, wide-eyed fans to query their parents: “What happened in 1994?”

Cover Image: Jon Eckert

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