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25 years ago today, MLB players went out on strike

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... and didn’t come back until the following spring.

Fans at Wrigley Field protest the potential players strike in August 1994
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On August 11, 1994, the Seattle Mariners defeated the Oakland Athletics 8-1 in a game that ended about 9:45 p.m. Pacific time.

No one knew at the time that it would be the last major-league baseball game played in 1994.

The next day, August 12, 25 years ago today, MLB players went on strike. It was the eighth such shutdown of the game over the preceding 25 years, three by lockout, five by strike. Over that time, games had been lost in 1972 and 1981, a third of a season in the latter case The dispute prompting the 1994 labor stoppage was a proposed salary cap by owners:

The dispute, centering on the owners’ demand to create cost control by putting a limit on player payrolls, was so severe that negotiators for the two sides didn’t even bother to meet and barely spoke to each other yesterday.

There were early reports, later denied, that some owners had made suggestions intended to generate movement on their side. Barring a change in the owners’ position, which has occurred in previous shutdowns, or a collapse of the players’ solidarity, which never has happened, the strike threatens to wipe out the last 52 days and 668 games of the regular season and, for the first time, the playoffs and the World Series.

The last sentence of that quote is exactly what happened. The two sides talked off and on for the next month, but on September 15, team owners voted 26-2 to cancel the rest of the season and the playoffs. It was the first time in 90 years there would be no baseball postseason.

For Cubs fans, it felt like something of a relief. The 1994 season had been one of the worst in team history, with the Cubs losing their first 14 home games and manager Tom Trebelhorn holding his famous “Firehouse Chat” after the ninth of those 14 losses. Ryne Sandberg had retired earlier that summer and Sammy Sosa wasn’t yet the powerhouse he’d become later, so Cubs “star power,” such as it was, resided in first baseman Mark Grace, who hit .298 that year, one of just four of his 13 Cubs seasons in which he failed to crack the .300 mark.

Fans across the rest of baseball, though, missed out on what could have been a memorable year. Tony Gwynn’s BA when the season was halted was .394 and he was hitting .475 (19-for-40) in August, seemingly primed to take a run at a .400 season. Ken Griffey Jr., a huge star already at age 24, had hit 40 home runs in 111 games, and had a shot at 60. So did the Giants’ Matt Williams, who had 43 homers when play stopped in 1994.

But the biggest hurt was put on the Montreal Expos. When the strike hit they had a 74-40 record, the best in baseball, on pace for 105 wins. With young stars Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Pedro Martinez, they had a very good chance of winning the World Series. Had they done so, or even made it there, the Expos likely would have had a huge revenue boost the following year through season-ticket sales, TV rights and corporate sponsorships and could have kept all those players and likely would have had this new stadium built a few years later, and would still probably be in Montreal now.

Instead, Expos management traded away all those players — at least one Hall of Famer among them — and new ownership came in and trashed the rest (they would go on to lose at least 94 games four times over the next 10 seasons), and the franchise wound up in Washington.

The strike dragged on into 1995. A “restricted free agent” system was implemented by owners, under which 38 players could negotiate with other teams, including Sammy Sosa:

Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa met with Boston General Manager Dan Duquette at Fenway Park last week, but his agent denied a published report that Sosa has agreed to terms with the Red Sox.

The Boston Globe reported that Sosa is one of three free agents-along with Montreal closer John Wetteland and Kansas City starter Kevin Appier-who have already agreed to terms with Boston and are awaiting the lifting of the Players Association signing freeze.

”We’ve had meaningful discussions with the Red Sox,” said Adam Katz, Sosa’s agent. “But by no means do we have a deal.”

Sosa is one of 38 restricted free agents under the new system implemented by the owners. If he signs a deal, the Cubs then have 10 days to match it or let him go. Sosa hit .300 in 1994 and led the Cubs with 25 homers and 70 RBIs.

Teams hired “replacement players,” who reported to spring camps and were going to take the field for ballclubs for the 1995 season. A few players crossed picket lines. Just before the season was to begin, a federal judge put an end to the dispute:

In her two and a half years on the bench, United States District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor has earned a reputation as a sharp, outspoken and fearless jurist, someone who does not let powerful interests bully, rush or cow her into a decision.

She lived up to that billing yesterday morning, when the fate of major league baseball was thrust upon her. After a two-hour hearing in which she grilled both sides on the fine points of labor law, she took only 15 minutes to issue an injunction that could break the deadlock in the baseball strike.

Ruling from the bench, Sotomayor chided baseball owners, saying they had no right to unilaterally eliminate the 20-year-old system of free agents and salary arbitration while bargaining continues. With those provisions reinstated, striking players have promised to play ball this season under the terms of the previous contract while the two sides try to hammer out a new deal.

Sotomayor, of course, is now a justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The 1995 season was shortened to 144 games and began the last week of April. Over the course of the next few years, these disputes continued to simmer, until there was a threatened strike again in August 2002. That one was averted just hours before the Cubs and Cardinals were to play at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon, August 30, 2002. The disagreements that time were over revenue sharing, primarily, and the subsequent agreement was the beginning of the “luxury tax” system — which is now causing disputes between players and owners and could be the source of a labor disruption after the 2021 season.

Here is an overview of the 1994-95 strike from the MLBPA point of view.

In general, after the acrimony of that strike that wiped out a third of a season and the 1994 World Series, players and owners realized that there was plenty of money to be made by both. Thus, an uneasy labor peace has settled over baseball for the last 25 years, with no stoppages of play, even while all the other major professional sports in North America have had disputes that lasted months. In the cases of the NBA and NHL, portions of seasons or entire seasons were lost. Baseball hasn’t lost a game to a work stoppage in 25 years.

Let’s hope players and owners continue to realize they’ve had it good for the last quarter-century and can come to an agreement before the current CBA expires that extends baseball’s era of labor peace.