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The 1994 MLB Strike, 20 Years After

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Baseball nearly committed suicide with the 1994 strike that cancelled the World Series. Now, it's a stronger sport than ever. How did we get here?

The old Wrigley bleacher gate, locked up tight during the 1994 strike
The old Wrigley bleacher gate, locked up tight during the 1994 strike
Getty Images

20 years ago today, August 12, 1994, major-league baseball players walked out on a strike that would eventually end the season, as then-Chairman of the Executive Council Bud Selig (he wasn't officially Commissioner until 1998) cancelled the World Series September 14 when talks between players and owners failed.

For the Chicago Cubs and their fans, it was almost a relief. The 1994 season had been a disaster; the team lost its first 14 home games (though won some on the road in that period), during which manager Tom Trebelhorn had his famous firehouse chat. Overall they started 11-24 before going on a 37-34 run for a couple of months; before the strike it seemed as if they might be able to get back to .500. Losing eight of their last nine before the work stoppage ended that notion and they ended up 49-64, the third-worst record in the major leagues. The record gave them the fourth pick (I'm not quite sure, 20 years later, how that happened with the third-worst record), which they used to select Kerry Wood the next summer. That one, at least, worked out okay (for a while, anyway).

Though it appeared the Cubs didn't have many good players -- only Sammy Sosa had an OPS over .800 in 1994 -- they somehow managed to have a much better year in 1995, with Sosa having his first 30-homer season and the pitching staff improved with the addition of Jaime Navarro and a bounceback year from Frank Castillo. The team nearly made the abbreviated 144-game season's playoffs with a 73-71 record. They went into the last weekend in 1995 with a shot at winning the N.L. Central, and had the National League still been two divisions then, they would have won the old N.L. East, from whence they came. (Don't believe me? All the other pre-1994 N.L. East teams finished under .500 in 1995.)

Better play and the excitement of Sosa, though, didn't bring more people into Wrigley Field. Attendance was 1,918,265, an average of 26,643 per date, which ranked 10th among the 30 MLB teams. Compare that to the pre-strike per-game average of 32,363 for the 1993 Cubs, who, though they finished over. 500 (84-78), were never seriously in contention.

You know the reasons people started to come back. Cal Ripken's breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak in 1995 got fans to cautiously get excited about the game's history again. The home-run race in 1998 -- likely PED-fueled, we now know -- brought fans back to ballparks in huge numbers and got even non-baseball fans interested in the game. Sosa (along with a contending team)'s year was a huge factor in the Cubs increasing their per-game average attendance from 27,041 in 1997 to 31,990 in 1998.

You might not recall, or might not even know, that Sammy could have been pounding home runs over the Green Monster in Fenway Park if not for a National Labor Relations Board ruling following the labor stoppage:

While the players were on strike in December 1994, the owners implemented a system that made 38 players with four or five years' experience restricted free agents. If a player signed with a team, his old team would have 10 days to match the contract. The Red Sox had reached agreements with Sosa, Kevin Appier of the Royals and John Wetteland of the Expos.

But a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board overturned the free agent system implemented by the owners, so Sosa and 37 other players returned to their previous teams.

Sosa wound up signing a one-year contract extension with the Cubs.

This Forbes article claims those things weren't as big a factor as the following:

  • MLB's embrace of new technology through MLB Advanced Media
  • New ballparks built, which both attracted fans and made that technology usable by fans at games
  • Huge local TV rights deals from regional sports networks

All of those things, of course, are true and all of them have brought huge dollars into baseball, to the point where it's now a $9 billion a year business. However, I'd argue that none of those things would have been possible if not for baseball-related events such as the Ripken streak and the home-run chase. Those are things that got fans willing to come back to the ballpark, watch games on television, and embrace the new media that MLB was investing in.

We did, though, lose some things in the 1994 work stoppage that we'll never get back:

  • A possible World Series win from the Montreal Expos, who had the best record in the National League (by six games) when play stopped. Had the Expos won the Series that year -- and they had a fantastic team, led by Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland, with Vladimir Guerrero only a couple of years away -- they would have likely sold three million tickets in 1995 and gotten the new stadium they desperately needed, and would probably still be in Montreal.
  • A chase at .400 by Tony Gwynn, who wound up hitting .394 in 419 at-bats.
  • A real run at 61 home runs (and probably not PED-enhanced) by Ken Griffey Jr., who had 40 homers in 111 games (and who later had two 56-homer seasons), or Matt Williams, who had 43 in 112 games, his only 40-homer season, and...
  • The fun of seeing if a team could win a division with a losing record. The Texas Rangers were 52-62 and in first place in the A.L. West, one game ahead of the Oakland Athletics, when play stopped. They'd have had to go 28-18 the rest of the way to have a winning record, unlikely, since they'd had only one winning month (15-14) the entire season to date.

Baseball survived all that and is stronger than ever in 2014. There's a cautionary tale, though, in all this, for the owners (cough Jerry Reinsdorf cough) who want a hard-liner in the commissioner's office. We have now had 20 years of baseball labor peace which has led to unprecedented prosperity for everyone involved in the game. A labor stoppage when the current CBA expires at the end of the 2016 season would risk all that. There's plenty to go around for everyone, in my view, and hopefully both owners and players will realize this, and we'll never again have to see what we saw, labor-wise in baseball, in the late summer and early fall, two decades ago.