Twenty years ago, Major League Baseball suffered the longest work stoppage in its history.
The 1994 players’ strike was brought about because of a long-standing acrimony between players and owners, as well as a revenue system that had been broken since the day it was built.
The roots of salary inequity in professional baseball is as old as professional baseball itself. One of the first stars of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, shortstop George Wright, was paid $1,400 for the 1869 season, seven times the yearly income of the fans who came to watch those same Red Stockings play.
But the 1994 strike wasn’t about George Wright, of course.
It was a battle of the billionaire owners against the millionaire players. It was an ugly reminder of what George Wright’s brother, Harry Wright, had recognized 125 years prior: Baseball is a business.
In brief, the roots of the 1994 work stoppage went back to the 1985, 1986, and 1987 off-seasons, when MLB owners colluded against signing several marquee free-agents, including Andre Dawson and Kirk Gibson, among others. In doing so, the owners hoped to suppress players’ salaries.
It didn’t work, as owners were ruled to be in violation of their contract with the MLBPA. Owners were forced to pay $280 million in damages to the Players’ Union and its affected members.
This three-year collusion, which was brought on in part by at-the-time commissioner Peter Ueberroth, did significant damage to the trust between ownership and the players. As such, when push came to shove in 1994 over how to fix the broken financial system of MLB, it was no surprise that the spirit of cooperation was noticeably absent.
After months of negotiations, the players union and owners were at a bitter impasse, and after the final out on August 11, 1994, play was halted.
When Sonia Sotomayor, at the time a U.S. District Court judge in New York, ordered an injunction against the owners on March 31, the 232-day work stoppage finally ended. The 1995 season was shortened to 144 games and Major League Baseball resumed on April 25 as the Florida Marlins hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The strike that was borne out of player-management acrimony ended up creating a very bitter fan base and attendance for games in 1995 dropped 20% from the previous year. Many fans gave up on the game, while others voiced their displeasure by booing players, and causing other disruptions at games.
All told, the 1994 strike cost much more than money. One can make the argument that the strike cost the Montreal Expos a chance for October glory, and, a decade later, their very existence. At the time of the stoppage, the team was 74-40, six games up on the Atlanta Braves in the brand-new Wild Card Era.
Alas, the strike cost the team its best shot at a championship, and the Expos were forced to bid farewell to their stars, trading outfielder Marquis Grissom, starting pitcher Ken Hill and relief ace John Wetteland, while outfielder Larry Walker left as a free agent. Other stars, such as outfielder Moises Alou, and starting pitcher Pedro Martinez, were gone just a couple of years later, while the team itself was relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2005 and is currently enjoying prosperity as the rechristened Nationals.
Oddly enough, the current manager of the Nationals, Matt Williams, is one of the players most affected by the strike. Williams, then a third-baseman for the San Francisco Giants, had 43 home runs in 112 games played (115 team games), putting him on pace for 60.5 homers, which would put him in line to tie or break Roger Maris’ then-record of 61 round-trippers set in 1961.
Would Williams have broken the record? It’s entirely possible that Williams might have hit No. 61, but others were close to the mark as well, as Ken Griffey, Jr. was stopped with 40 homers, while Jeff Bagwell had 39, Frank Thomas had 38, and Barry Bonds had 37.
Of course, Bagwell won the National League MVP that year*, leading the senior circuit with a .750 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.201. He drove in 116 runs and won his first Gold Glove Award while batting .368, finishing second in the league to Tony Gwynn.
*(Thomas won the AL MVP that year, marking the first and only time that both league MVPs shared the exact same birthdate — May 27, 1968. One of the coolest bit of trivia ever.)
Gwynn, of course, lost out on a chance to become the first player to hit .400 or better in a season since Ted Williams clipped .406 in 1941. Gwynn ended up at .394 (165-419), just six points shy of the magic mark.
Could he have done it? Most likely. Gwynn ended the season on an absolute tear, hitting .475 (19-40) over San Diego’s final 10 games, including seven multi-hit efforts. Given that he was in a low-key city in terms of media coverage, and Gwynn was chasing a mark established by San Diego’s other favorite son (not to mention one of his idols), it would be a great story to follow to its end.
The strike took away a few other things, like Fred McGriff’s chances at 500 home runs (and probably a spot in Cooperstown); Chuck Knoblauch’s aim at Earl Webb’s 1931 record of 67 doubles in a season. Knoblauch, then manning second base for the Minnesota Twins, had 45 two-baggers and was on pace for 64.5 of them. Of course, Houston’s Craig Biggio and the aforementioned Walker of Montreal had 44 apiece, so this one would’ve been a great contest in and of itself.
Could any of those three have done it? Absolutely. Knoblauch was just entering his prime at 25 years old; while Biggio was 28 years old, and would go on to lead the league in doubles twice more (51 in 1998 and 56 in 1999) before retiring fifth on the all-time list with 668 doubles. Walker, also 27 in 1994, had three more seasons with 40-plus doubles in his career and ended up with 471 of them. For what it’s worth, I’d put money on Biggio back then…if I’d been old enough to gamble … and if I’d had a job.
The strike also cost Cleveland slugger Albert Belle, but more in 1995 than the previous year. In 95, Belle’s Indians were the most dominant team in the game, rolling to a 100-44 season* and all the way to the World Series (where they lost to Atlanta in six games).
*(Food for thought: Cleveland was on pace to win 113 games in a regular 162-game season. Is it conceivable that the Indians could have challenged the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the all-time win mark of 116?)
Belle was an offensive force among offensive forces that year, leading the A.L. in runs scored (121), doubles (52), home runs (50), RBIs (126), and slugging percentage (.690). He was easily the most dominant batter in the sport. However, Belle lost the MVP that year to Boston’s Mo Vaughn, who had a good year (.300/.388/.575 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs), but really took home the trophy because he was nicer than Belle.
Anyway, could Belle have won the Triple Crown in 95 if he’d had those added 18 games that the late start to 1995 wiped out? Possibly. As it stood at the end of the year, Belle hit .357, just behind Paul O’Neill of the New York Yankees at .359. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility that, given those extra 18 games, Belle could’ve become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. That probably gives Belle the MVP and perhaps a spot in Cooperstown.
Indeed, these are all great ‘what-if’ casualties of the 1994 MLB strike.
In the 20 years that have passed, baseball has rebounded, thanks to Cal Ripken, Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak; Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattering Maris’ record; the dynastic efforts of the New York Yankees; postseason wild-card success stories; and countless other amazing feats.
Perhaps the strike was terrible for baseball. Perhaps it was the worst thing to ever happen for many fans. But perhaps it needed to be that way, so we could reap the benefits of the past 20 years, a wonderful, post-crisis baseball world that reminds us time and again why this game is so damn great.