On August 11, 1994, the longest work stoppage in major league history begins. Because of the strike, the 1994 World Series was cancelled; it was the first time baseball did not crown a champion in 89 years.
During the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement, tensions between owners and players had arisen over the owners’ desire to institute a cap on player salaries. Claiming financial hardship, owners argued that player salaries, which had risen exponentially since the 1970s, had become unsustainable and, if not contained, would bankrupt the teams. The players, led by union head Donald Fehr, refused to agree to a cap; they pointed out that they had been underpaid for most of the sport’s history and called salary caps just the latest form of exploitation by owners.
Until 1975, players were subject to a reserve clause that tied each player to one team for their career, destroying any free market and keeping player salaries artificially low. After the reserve clause was abolished in arbitration, free agency drove salaries up, as owners were forced to bid against one another for players’ services. After the 1985 season, owners agreed in secret not to sign one another’s players, and all 28 major league teams sat idly by during the next three off-seasons. Upon discovering the conspiracy, the players’ union sued and won a $280 million judgment.
When the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association expired in 1994, bad blood remained and negotiations over a new deal soon turned sour. On August 12, the day after the players walked off the job, the owners locked the players out, and cancelled the rest of the 1994 season. Long-suffering fans in Montreal and Yankee fans in New York were especially disappointed, as their teams led the National League and American League, respectively, at the time of the lock-out.
In December 1994, President Clinton met with the lead negotiators of both sides, to no avail. Toward the end of March, on the eve of the new baseball season, 28 of 30 owners voted to field replacement teams, but on March 31, Judge Sonia Sontomayor stepped in, issuing an injunction against the owners. Finally, on April 2, 1995, the players returned to work.
Baseball’s fans were not forgiving. Attendance in 1995 was the lowest in years, dropping from an average 31,000 per game in 1993 to just 25,000. Fans picketed at opening day games, angry at players and owners alike. Thankfully for baseball, “The Iron Man” Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s streak for consecutive games played on September 6, 1995, which finally broke the ice. Ripken’s incredible work ethic and commitment to the game is said to have saved baseball’s place in the hearts of fans.
The collective bargaining agreement between players and owners was not renewed until 1996. When that agreement expired in 2002, owners and players, having learned the unforgiving nature of their fans in 1995, were quick to ratify a new deal.