'Flashback' Lecture Notes: How a Baseball Strike Saved Basketball

SourceGetty, composite by Ned Colin

'Flashback' Lecture Notes: How a Baseball Strike Saved Basketball

By Sean Braswell


Because being the greatest of all time has some profound ripple effects.

By Sean Braswell

In episode four of Flashback, a new podcast from OZY, we learn how one sport’s loss was another’s destiny-making gain. 

A quarter century ago, Major League Baseball endured a labor dispute that ended its season … and also sent one of its most mediocre players, Michael Jordan, back to professional basketball, where he won another three championships with the Chicago Bulls and kick-started a new era for the NBA.

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan(R) fights for a

Michael Jordan (R) fights for a rebound with Portland Trail Blazers guard Isaiah Rider. (Vincent Lafort/AFP via Getty Images)

This week on Flashback: a tale of how the paths of two professional sports leagues once diverged in history and how a single individual made all the difference. You can listen here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.


The 1994 Major League Baseball season should have been one for the record books. Through early August, San Diego Padres 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’ single-season record of 61 home runs. 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. The dispute between the owners and players about a salary cap and other issues would result in a 234-day labor stoppage, the first canceled World Series since 1904 and an indelible scar on the game — 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.” Read more on OZY.


The primary argument that the Major League Baseball owners made to justify a salary cap was that the players’ salaries were rising too quickly, making it even easier than it was already for big market teams to dominate small market ones. But, as Ryan Eckert, author of A Game of Failure: The 1994-95 Major League Baseball Strike, explains, the owners’ claims were somewhat undercut by the evidence.


As the burgeoning baseball labor dispute unfolded behind the scenes in the spring of 1994, one of the game’s newest players was getting acclimated to the sport in Sarasota, Florida. The Chicago White Sox recently released a full-length interview with Michael Jordan just after his first retirement from basketball and arrival at White Sox training camp. Watch as the 31-year-old Jordan, behind some cool 1990s sunglasses, talks about his childhood dream of playing baseball and the challenges of picking up a game he last played more than a decade earlier.


The Chicago Bulls might have been paying Jordan’s salary, but every team in the NBA was benefiting financially from his being on the court. In their 1997 Journal of Labor Economics article, “Superstars in the National Basketball Association: Economic Value and Policy,” Jerry Hausman and Gregory Leonard explored the positive impact that Jordan had not just on his own team’s financial fortunes but on the entire league. For example, during the 1991-92 season alone, Jordan bolstered league attendance levels by 20 percent — and when you added in TV ratings and other revenue sources, Jordan alone was responsible for the league making an additional $53 million (around $100 million in today’s dollars) in revenue.


Major League Baseball’s first players’ strike started in 1912 when the ornery Hall of Famer Ty Cobb climbed into the stands at New York’s Polo Grounds to assault a fan who had been heckling him and earned an indefinite suspension. To protest the suspension, his Detroit Tigers teammates refused to play in their next game, which a team of hastily assembled replacement players lost, 24-2, to the Philadelphia Athletics. Cobb’s suspension was subsequently reduced to 10 games and the striking players returned to the field.