“When a monopolist argues that he can’t control his market without a monopoly, are we supposed to accept that as legitimate?” - Marvin Miller
In 1984, newly appointed commissioner Peter Ueberroth called the owners “damned dumb” for being willing to lose millions of dollars to win a World Series. The next free agency, only four of the 35 free agents changed teams and the four were not wanted by their old team. The next free agency, it was much the same with 75% of the free agents signing one year contracts and the average MLB salary declined for the first time since free agency began. They were being stupidly obvious about it, so they changed for the third free agency to create “an information bank” which allowed owners to see what offers were being made.
This was not legal. The first Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed in 1968, agreed that “players shall not act in concert with other players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs.” The player aspect of this language is due to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale working a joint negotiation before the 1966 season, which resulted in the two largest contracts in baseball history at the time.
The owners efforts to control rising player salaries did not stop there. The owners proposed imposing a salary cap, granting players 48% of revenue from gate receipts and local and network broadcasting and a “pay-for-performance,” in which players with less than six years experience would be compensated based on a ranking against their peers. MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr feared a salary cap would nuke multi-year contracts and limit a player’s choices, so the owners locked out the players for pretty much the entire 1990 spring training. Fay Vincent reportedly made sure that the season would happen and made sure the two sides came to an agreement.
The owners were not happy about Vincent after this. Led by Bud Selig, they forced him out by 1992, voting for him to resign by a vote of 18-9. Selig became acting commissioner and well you can imagine how Fehr and the players felt about that. Vincent seemed interested in what was best for baseball and Selig seemed interested in what was best for owners. Prior to the 1994 season, the owners came to an agreement on a salary cap and revenue sharing system. Selig warned the owners to be prepared for a lockout if the players didn’t agree to a salary cap.
The ownership proposal was officially unveiled on June 14, 1994. The proposal would have eliminated salary arbitration, free agency would begin after four years instead of six, and owners would have the right to retain a player by matching their best offer. The proposal also guaranteed $1 billion in salary and benefits and that average player salary would rise to $2.6 million from $1.2 million in 2001. (I would take that with a grain of salt, but average salary in 2001 turned out to be $2.1 million). Fehr rejected the offer.
The players lost an important battle on June 23. Back in 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that the MLB was not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act, because they were not engaged in “interstate commerce.” It was apparently defensible at the time, but when the issue was brought up again by minor league Yankees pitcher George Toolson, who believed he was good enough for the majors, but was stuck in the minors and in the Yankees farm due to the reserve clause. Controversially, they upheld the earlier ruling and they upheld it again in Flood vs. Kuhn, saying essentially that they didn’t necessarily agree with it, but it was up to Congress to do something. A Senate Judiciary Committee failed to approve antitrust legislation on June 23, so they couldn’t proceed with that tactic.
On July 28, the MLBPA set August 12 as the strike date if they couldn’t reach an agreement. On August 1st, the owners withheld $7.8 million they were required to pay to the players’ pension fund, which incensed the players. “How do we sit down and seriously negotiate with people who treat us like this?” Mike Mussina said at the time. There were discussions to strike right then and there, but they decided to stick to their original date. Later that month, they release a study by Stanford professor Roger Noll, which said that baseball was financially healthy. In September, the MLBPA files a complaint about the $7.8 million they didn’t get with the National Labor Relations Board.
The rest of the season and postseason is officially cancelled on September 14. In something I find amusing, Selig asked Fehr for a joint statement announcing this, but Fehr refused. In late November, the owners say screw you to the players and say they’re doing a salary cap anyway and will use replacement players for the next season. In late December, the owners declared an impasse that they believed gave them the right to implement their plan. The players filed another complaint of unfair labor practices to the NLRB about this action. Remember that somehow the players are popularly seen as the bad guys at the time. Somehow.
Spring training began with replacement players and whatever his reputation now is, Peter Angelos refused to do this. All 32 Orioles spring training games were cancelled by Selig. The NLRB votes in favor of an injunction prohibiting the owners from using replacement players, and on March 27, they file in federal court. The players voted to end the strike if the injuction was upheld. The owners voted to use replacement players to open the season the next day. But alas, future Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayor upheld the injunction, returning the players to their pre-strike system until a new agreement could be reached. Which... happened in November 1996. Yeah two seasons later, they finally reached an agreement. In the meantime, Sotomayor’s ruling was affirmed by the US Appeals Court late in the 1995 season.
That’s the basics. I probably glossed over some things or perhaps made things too simplistic, but I think I got the essence of what happened. The strike that (temporarily) killed baseball. 25-years-ago today, it officially continued a bitter battle between owners and players. For colluding against players and instigating a strike, Bud Selig got into the Hall of Fame. Marvin Miller? Still not in the Hall of Fame. What a disgrace.