The National Pastime
Unable to resolve differences, owners and players cause
the death of the 1994-95 Baseball Season.
In 1904, John McGraw's National League New York
Giants baseball team boycotted the second World Series ever.
McGraw, formerly manager of the Baltimore Orioles in
the then-newly-formed American League (started in 1901), had
a serious beef with the AL president and founder Ban Johnson.
McGraw claimed Johnson did not support him adequately in
battles with the umpires.
So, he backed his team out of the potential Series with the
Boston Red Sox, making for an interesting, and previously
unrepeated, part of baseball lore.
It took 90 years, but the annual season-ending meeting between
the two league champions was canceled in 1994, for very different reasons than the first time.
Baseball players elected to
walk out on the 1994 season on August 12. It took little more than a
month for owners to issue a statement
that effectively killed the remainder of
the year, including the post-season. As
was well publicized, it was the eighth
work stoppage that major league baseball has suffered in the last 23 years.
What was behind this strike
and others? Only a natural escalation
of differences between players and
owners that has been brewing since
players began to fight for basic American workers' rights in the
The collective bargaining agreement between the players
and owners hammered out via lockout in 1990 was for a period
of four years. During the hostile negotiations in 1990, the owners
made a number of proposals for a new agreement which players
found highly offensive. Among these was the Pay-For-Perfor-
mance idea, designed to control escalating player salaries by
regulating them according to statistics.
Looking ahead to the off-season negotiations at the end
of 1994, players decided to strike while they supposedly had the
upper hand, in mid-season. However, the warring factions were
not surprisingly unable to resolve their differences enough to
finish the 1994 schedule.
This action led to one of the most heard complaints bv
fans and media during the strike, aimed at players' perceived
greed. The opinion was that mediocre players were being over
paid anyway, that even the best players were making far too
much, sometimes in excess of five million dollars a year. These
charges were difficult to deny.
However, little was written about the greed of the
Since baseball's inception, team owners, sometimes
known as the "lords of baseball," have been protected by a
Supreme Court decision handed down in 1922. In the ruling,
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that baseball games
"would not be called trade or commerce in the commonly
accepted use of those
are regularly bought and
sold for amounts exceeding $200 million and baseball television contracts (including the most recent
signed with ESPN) total in
the billions, that phrase is
obviously no longer valid.
The ruling's precedent has
affected the rights of baseball players nonetheless.
Any rights baseball
players have earned have
come in the form off collective bargaining agreements, or Basic Agreements, between the Major League Players
Association (the players' union ) and the owners, the first of
which was achieved in 1968. Many rights, such as that of free
agency, have since been established, but the sport of major
league baseball is exempt from federal labor laws, meaning the
United States court system has no role in any labor dispute.
The same is not true of the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey
League, which govern the three other major American sports
played professionally. The NBA recently solved a dispute in
last-minute negotiations. The NHL is currently suffering a
lockout of its own.
Baseball is not alone in suffering labor problems,
therefore. The only difference between it and the other professional sports is in how its problems are handled.
In the past, the players' union has hired a labor
negotiator (currently Donald Fehr) to compete with a negotia
tor of the owners' choice
(Richard Ravitch). Fehr
and Ravitch bristled during negotiations in August of 1994. Without a
mediator, talks between
the two camps stalled.
Other work stoppages in baseball have involved its commissioner,
a position created by the
owners in 1920 to preside
over both leagues. However, baseball's last commissioner, Fay Vincent,
was forced out by his employers in 1992. Since
that time, baseball has
been governed by a three-
man council of owners.
So, the owners
have run the game, with
no one in a position of
authority to keep things
fairs. Congress, led by
Metzenbaum, has threatened to revoke baseball's
antitrust exemption, citing the lack of player rights
as being unfair, but no action has been taken.
In regards to the complaints of overpaid players, that
problem has arisen only recently. Until 1975, every player's
contract, both major and minor-league, contained a "reserve
clause," a clause which indisputably bound the player's services
to one club and one club only. If players had a contract dispute,
their only option was to hold out or retire.
Under that clause, the player, or worker, was not
allowed to chose the place he wanted to work, a basic American
right. In 1969, outfielder Curt Flood became the first player to
challenge this system when he sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn
after he was traded against his will. Flood believed he should
be able to take contract offers from other teams. The Supreme
Court, maintaining its hands-off policy, ruled against Flood in
In 1975, two players, pitchers Andy Messersmith and
Dave McNally, Further challenged the reserve clause in binding
arbitration by refusing to sign contracts that year. They won
the case, establishing free agency.
They also established a free market economy, where a
player's services are up for sale. This has naturally led to
escalating salaries, as competing owners have entered bidding
wars for star players. The free-agent "bust," or player who is
paid well but doesn't deliver, has always been a problem.
The Basic Agreement of 1976 gave players the right to
declare free agency after the equivalent of six years in the
majors. That policy has stuck. However, most players are
required to spend at least a year, often many more, in the minor
leagues, causing their free agent years to arrive in their 30s,
when they are often past
As a result, in the mid-
'80s, the owners, tired of
both busts and bidding
wars, conspired to stop
signing each other's free
agents. The unofficial
agreement, called collusion, took place following
the 1985 and 1986 seasons. During that time,
with very few exceptions,
no owner made a contract
offer to a free agent unless
the player's original team
did not want to re-sign him.
Though this act helped
control escalating salaries,
it violated the Basic Agreement of 1985. Grievances
were filed by the players'
union following both the
1985 and 1986 seasons,
with an independent arbitrator ruling in favor of the
players in each case.
The owners then
changed up their strategy,
using a phone information
bank to keep track of contract offers made to free agents. Under
the new collusion rules, a team could only attempt to sign a free
agent if its offer was lower than that of the player's original team.
Another grievance was filed and ruled on in favor of the players
in response to this action.
All three grievances were eventually settled for $280
million in December of 1990. Also, several of the 1985-1986 free
agents were granted "new look" free agency after 1990 to compensate them for their losses during collusion.
After the end of the 1989 season, players moved freely
from one team to another. Collusion has not reared its ugly head
again since that time, making for a negatively-viewed increase in
player salaries which has hurt many smaller-market teams.
These problems are what the owners and players must
face over the off-season. Speculation has been that the gap
between the two groups on certain issues, particularly revenue
sharing and the implementation of a salary cap, is so large that
baseball may not resume until 1996.
In any case, the strike wiped out a fine season- for
hitters, anyway. Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Albert Belle
of the Indians were threatening to win a Triple Crown in the
American League for the first time since Carl Yastrzemski did it in
1967. The Giants' Matt Williams, the Mariners' Ken Griffey, Jr.,
Houston's own Jeff Bagwell, along with Thomas and Belle, were
all challenging Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61
set in 1961. Tony Gwynn of the Padres had a shot at a .400 batting
average with his .394 mark.
LEFT: The Astros winningseason came loan end all too early for the fans. RKJHT:
Jeff Bagwell, 1994 National League MVP, spent his early vacation time signing
autographs while players fought against salary caps. Photo by Arthur Hermiz