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Volume 23 No. 13
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Closing Shot: Baseball’s Boiling Point

Twenty-five years ago, a contentious relationship between Major League Baseball players and owners led to a strike that ended the 1994 season early and scratched the postseason.
Fans at Wrigley Field vented their frustration on Aug. 10, 1994, two days before Major League Baseball players would go on strike.
Photo: getty images
Fans at Wrigley Field vented their frustration on Aug. 10, 1994, two days before Major League Baseball players would go on strike.
Photo: getty images
Fans at Wrigley Field vented their frustration on Aug. 10, 1994, two days before Major League Baseball players would go on strike.
Photo: getty images

Gene Orza enjoyed 30 years as a prominent figure in the Major League Baseball Players Association. The 1994-95 player strike still vividly sticks out among his many memories. 

“The fight against the salary cap was the high-water mark,” Orza said recently. “I was never prouder of the players than on that.” 

Relations between baseball owners and the MLBPA had long been prickly. Eight work stoppages between 1972 and 1994 were clear evidence of the mistrust and animosity that existed between the two sides. Orza, who was then-MLBPA head Donald Fehr’s No. 2 man, said it was clear after the two groups reached a deal in 1990 that the owners “were going to make the next one a big fight.” 

That they did, beginning in 1993. 

The conflict boiled down to the owners’ desire for a salary cap to offset proposed revenue sharing, something to which the players’ union fiercely opposed. Neither side budged for a year and by August 1994, the players’ next move was clear: walk off the field. A handful of stars left potentially history-making campaigns behind while the postseason and World Series were canceled, the latter for the first time since 1904.

After 232 days, a National Labor Relations Board grievance led to an injunction against the owners, which restored the previous collective-bargaining agreement. Baseball resumed in April 1995 with a 144-game schedule.

Of course, there are lessons to take from the longest work stoppage in American pro sports. Orza cites the power of solidarity, and the danger of becoming wed to an idea even when it leads down an unnecessary path.  

Still, he views these conflicts as natural, pointing out that employers have never had the same interests as employees. That’s becoming clear again in baseball today. The current CBA expires in 2021, and players’ grumbles over MLB clubs not spending enough money on salaries are getting louder.

Even as contentious as the negotiations between the two parties were 25 years ago, Orza takes pride in how the conflict battled out in an American way. Both sides attempted to exercise their leverage as much as possible within a regulatory system that is as much an expression of democracy as stepping into a voting booth. 

“The exercise of that leverage really is the test of truth,” Orza said.