If history truly is written by the victors, then with all due respect to Bud Selig’s recent memoir ‘For The Good of The Game,’ then when it comes to any discussion about the 25th anniversary of the Aug. 12, 1994 Major League Baseball players’ strike, that pen is still wielded by Donald Fehr.
This will of course bring zero comfort to the Montreal Expos diaspora, or any other group that still holds as gospel the idea that the ’94 strike helped expedite the death of the Expos. Or the family of the late Tony Gwynn, who was hitting .394 when the baseball stopped and seemed poised to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. Or perhaps Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants, who had 43 home runs and was on pace to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 set in 1961, four years earlier than Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
The Expos had the best record in the Majors when players walked out – they were 74-40 when the curtain fell after a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 11. And while it was a decade-long road from Rondell White grounding into the game’s final out in ’94 and Jeffrey Loria greasing the skids for the team’s eventual departure, it’s still easy to find people who think the Expos would have gone to the World Series, used that momentum to build a new stadium and they never would have left.
It’s an overly-simplistic notion built on unfounded optimism, but, my goodness: what is baseball all about if not dreams and optimism?
Baseball lost a great deal in the 1994 strike. It lost an estimated $1 billion (U.S.) in revenue. It lost 948 games and broke faith with sponsors, broadcasters and most importantly, fans. The owners were eventually steamrolled in the legal arena and forced to give in, but not before five bills had been introduced in Congress – Congress, for Pete’s sake! – attempting to end the strike, and not before President Bill Clinton had invited the sides to negotiate in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 7, 1995, just eight days before the owners were scheduled to open spring training with scab or “replacement” players. Vice-president Al Gore was there; labour secretary Robert Reich was there. Even George Stephanopoulos dropped in. But ownership wouldn’t agree to submit to binding arbitration or a plan that would allow the players to return to work under terms of the previous CBA while a presidential commission investigated the next step.
It left Clinton, who could send people off to war, expressing frustration at his role in having to play “umpire.”
The 1994 strike was the eighth labour stoppage in baseball history, beginning with a 12-day strike in 1972 over pension issues. The fact that there hasn’t been one since is no accident.
“We wasted more time in 1994 going back and forth over whom had said what publicly, and we just avoided all that in the negotiations that occurred over the next period of time,” says Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball who served as ownership’s outside legal counsel in 1994 and eventually became then-commissioner Selig’s point-man on labour matters.
“I mean, there were multiple opportunities where an agreement could have been reached. There always are,” Manfred says. “Some of those opportunities were missed because of the publicity issues. You get this little window of time where everybody gets in the right frame of mind … and then all of a sudden you get distracted.”
Paul Beeston, the former Toronto Blue Jays president who became president and chief executive officer of Major League Baseball for a five-year period beginning in 1997, puts it more bluntly: “The reality was that it was a war waiting to happen. The union called the owners’ bluff by striking. The owners called the union’s bluff by cancelling the World Series. And, at that point in time, we were all in a kind of no-man’s land.
“It was as ugly a time as there has been in the game.”
Each dispute had its own set of issues, but however it was couched, the background in all of the disputes seemed the same for Fehr, the current executive director of the NHL Players’ Association who was executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from 1985-2009.
“The owners position in all these disputes was that free agency was the end of baseball, if not the world,” said Fehr. Another lesson he learned going back to the late ‘70s when he was hired to be the association’s general counsel by Marvin Miller? “The purpose of collective bargaining (for ownership) was not to reach agreement. The purpose was to pay the players as little as you can and maintain as much control as you can maintain,” he says.
“And that’s very hard to bite into.”
In 1994 negotiations were being conducted against a history of bitterness and distrust. The owners had colluded to suppress salaries and free-agent movement – independent arbitrators had ruled for the players in all three collusion hearings, with MLB owners paying out $393 million in damages and penalties. In 1992, Fay Vincent had been fired as commissioner and replaced—then on an ‘interim’ basis–by Selig, then the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Fay’s deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg, son of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and a labour ‘dove,’ had also resigned.
The owners had announced they would be opening the collective bargaining agreement that had been signed in 1990 a full two years before it was set to expire, but then waited another 18 months to make a formal proposal, one that included a salary cap. They withheld a $7.5 million scheduled payment into the players’ pension plan. They took out strike insurance.
And if you ask Fehr today what the ’94 strike was all about, you won’t even get to finish your question before he responds with two simple words: salary cap.
“It became apparent to me that all of it was about a salary cap – the vehicle of choice adopted by other leagues staring the owners in the face,” says Fehr. “So, we get to 1994 and basically the situation is the owners are saying: ‘We are going to beat you into the ground. You’re all just baseball players… you make too much money and so we are going to get to the end of the season and we are going to impose our terms and conditions.’
“That was something we could not allow to happen.”
And they didn’t.
Asked whether the term “salary cap” was ever uttered again in subsequent MLB CBA negotiations he was a part of, Fehr shrugged. “No. Not once in any discussions during the rest of my tenure.”
On Sept. 14, Selig officially announced that the rest of the 1994 season, including the playoffs and World Series, would not be played.
Players prevail with help from the courts
The strike ended on March 31, 1995, one day after future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then with the U.S. Court for the Southern District of New York, granted a preliminary injunction against the owners, thereby preventing them from unilaterally imposing a salary cap and using replacement players. A new, official CBA between the two sides would not be signed until March 14, 1997.
When that deal was struck, in place of a salary cap, it featured a luxury tax and revenue-sharing model among the teams that sure looked like the spirit of a proposal that had been made by the players themselves.
It sure looked like the players had won this “war,” hands-down.
“Labour disputes never pay off for either party,” contends Manfred. “The money lost was way more valuable than the issues that were on the table at the time. I mean, the industry took a step back in terms of revenue for the first time in decades and that cost everybody a tremendous amount with long-term ramifications that were more significant than what we were fighting over at the bargaining table.
“Another way to look at it: the union won that dispute. We were ordered to go back to work. But the fact is the agreement we ultimately reached put in revenue sharing and a (luxury tax) for the first time in the history of baseball. The idea that you’re going to go out and I’m going to strike you in order to get the agreement you want? It never works out that way.”
Baseball has not seen another labour stoppage since, but a confrontation seemed imminent toward the end of 2001 before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After that, the matters were deferred. The sides reached agreement on a new four-year CBA on Aug. 30, 2002, just hours before a scheduled strike.
Fehr and Manfred cite similar lessons learned from the ‘94 strike, although they differ about whether a stoppage was inevitable.
“I may be naïve in this regard,” Manfred says. “But I never believed that failure was an inevitable part of any round of collective bargaining. A strike is a failure. A lockout is a failure. They are failures of the process and I have never been of a view that failure is inevitable. Even in 94.”
“I don’t know if I’m one of those people who believes history repeats … but I think it was Mark Twain who said it rhymes,” says Fehr. “The strike was a culmination of a series of disputes, and what was negotiated basically laid the predicate for the peace that has existed from then until now.
“Everybody understood the other guy was ready to call their bluff in a way that had not been starkly apparent before. The importance of 1994 was that we created the pieces both structurally and psychologically which militated against renewed open conflict,” Fehr continued. “The compromises that came out of 1994, with some changes, formed the essence of the agreements in 2002 and 2006 – the last two I was involved in.”
Manfred agrees, and says it continued when Fehr was succeeded by Michael Weiner, who passed away from brain cancer in 2013.
“Look at the process in 2001, 2006 and 2011,” says Manfred. “There just was not that kind of public back and forth. Or 2016 (the first CBA negotiated by Weiner’s successor Tony Clark) … you never saw either party talk about a lockout or strike. It’s not a stylistic thing – it’s a substantive thing,” Manfred says. “We both understood that creating an atmosphere where you could focus on genuine negotiations designed to come up with creative solutions was really important. I mean, this is a process driven by human behaviour. It’s not ‘let’s plug in a computer and spit out an answer.’ You’ve got to get people in a frame of mind where they’re looking to make a deal, and when one side or both is out there saying things that annoy or threaten the other, it’s hard to get into that frame of mind.”
For any sports labour leader, there is always a balance to be struck between the present and future. The mood at the beginning of a dispute isn’t always the same as the one at the end.
“In 1994, it was 70-30 (per cent) getting the players on the field versus setting the stage for subsequent agreements,” Fehr says. “You’re always dealing with the current issues, getting the game started, getting the players back to work, having the cheques start coming to the guys again and so on. Most players are actually interested in what happens five or 10 years from now … but not nearly as interested as in what happens tomorrow.
“We didn’t say: ‘We’re going to set this up to have labour peace, but I did think some of these things would take the edge off the owners’ complaints. Turned out to be right about that.”
Labour ‘doves’ Blue Jays had plenty to lose in ’94
When Paul Beeston was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, Donald Fehr made the trip up to the ceremony in St. Marys, Ont. Indeed, it was Beeston’s ability to have a foot in both camps – the union and ownership – that made him a widely-heralded addition to the commissioner’s office after 1997. Today he remains an unabashed admirer of the now 71-year-old Fehr.
“He has an unbelievably organized and focussed mind,” says Beeston. “Plus, the angrier he gets, the more articulate he gets. You can’t say that about many people.”
The Blue Jays occupied an odd space during the labour strife of 1994. While the Expos and their president Claude Brochu were chastened for being cowed by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf – the man considered to be the driving force behind the decision to end the season – the Blue Jays were considered to be among the most “dovish” teams. Much of that was due to Beeston, who had a hearty friendship not just with Fehr but with his right-hand man Gene Orza. Beeston was also well-regarded by the game’s biggest agents – the Hendricks brothers and Tom Reich among others – because the Blue Jays had developed a reputation of doing right by their players.
That notion gained further ground when the Blue Jays treated the recruitment of replacement players with something less than great urgency. It was understandable given they’d already been told that provincial anti-scab legislation would prevent replacement players from ever taking the field in Ontario. It was also understandable because, well, the current system was working just fine for the Blue Jays, the two-time defending World Series champions and owners of the game’s highest payroll in 1993.
Even though the prospect of a three-peat seemed unlikely when the strike began – the Blue Jays were 55-60 when the games stopped – they had every reason to be optimistic about the franchise’s future.
“At that point we had everything going for us,” says Beeston. “We were the envy of every team. We had corporate ownership (Labatt’s), we had money in the bank and if it was going to take a two-week strike or lockout to end this nonsense, we could handle it no problem.
“You say we were doves? Nah, we were realists! We were coming off what was a helluva run. So, for us it was: ‘Let’s keep this thing going!’ But we had to have this confrontation. You are partners with the other owners and you are obligated to help them be more competitive.’”
And so, the Blue Jays stayed in formation under the leadership of Selig, whom Beeston says enjoyed his finest hour during the strike by maintaining a sense of unity not often seen among MLB owners. This was a battle very much about the discrepancy between big and small-revenue teams, with the smaller markets agitating for a piece of the bigger markets’ revenues while suggesting the salary cap as a means to control player costs.
The players believed that the owners would be afraid to compromise a new television deal that had been signed following the 1993 World Series. It would see NBC and ABC share the broadcast rights, with Major League Baseball producing the games itself.
But the players were wrong.
The new TV deal was to run for six seasons and see the two networks alternate the World Series and all-star games. But as a result of the strike, MLB and local NBC and ABC affiliates lost some $595 million in advertising revenue, leading the two networks to exercise an opt-out after 1995.
This is particularly notable today, at a time when many believe the MLBPA under Clark was snookered in the last CBA, with Clark being accused of overlooking core economic issues in favour of “lifestyle” issues such as clubhouse dues. Indeed, there are those around the game who believe the time is ripe for another labour battle over a salary cap, such is the curious state of the top priorities for current MLBPA members.
Whatever the case, 2019 sure ain’t 1994 when some pretty deep labour wounds remained fresh among the union’s membership.
“We still had a lot of recent players who had gone through the wars and personally experienced the dramatic changes in their conditions beginning in the mid-70s,” Fehr says. “And then we had some younger players whose parents had gone through it and could see the differences. Barry Bonds was there and he was at the height of his career; Junior (Ken Griffey, Jr.) was there.
“They understood to their core that what we have depends on what we do and that if we stick together, we think that we will get the best possible deal. I mean, the experience of collusion was so real that everybody was in a position to say: ‘There but for the grace of God.’ So, Barry and Bobby Bo (Bonilla) could look around and say: ‘If I’d been at the stage of (Andre) Dawson’s career that he was at in 1986, that could be me.’ They got it. There was a sort of collective consciousness born of prior experience.’”
Beeston shakes his head as he remembers the show of player unity that was commonplace during the strike.
“The hold the union had on the players was incredible, and a lot of it had to do with the fact it was the stars who were doing the talking,” says Beeston. “Tommy Glavine and David (Cone) were always there … and then somebody like Paul Molitor would show up. I mean, there were times where you almost felt like saying: ‘Geezus, let’s get a baseball and get everybody here to sign it. Can I have your autograph?’ It was impressive.”
Anybody who was around replacement spring training in 1995 – managers, media and especially fans – remembers that the games didn’t feel or sound like Major League Baseball. It was a reminder about what separated sports labour negotiations from other labour negotiations.
“In a fishbowl, we are dealing with players who have very short careers and that is the essence of pressure,” Fehr says. “At the same time, we are dealing with owners who in the main don’t generate their living from the enterprise and what that translates to is they can shut down the enterprise. They may not want to do it and it might cost some money … but they can shut it down.
“For example, let’s say I represent employees at GM and we want to go on strike – assuming we can. We shut it down. What my guys lose is income. What management loses is income and particularly, market share. People won’t stop buying cars because we’ve shut down GM. They’ll just buy Fords. But in sports, owners don’t lose market share because they haven’t got any competitors. The flipside? If you put the next best 800 baseball players or next best 720 hockey players out there … well, it’s just not the same.”
Nevertheless, the striking players took the idea of replacement players seriously. Cone was a member of the players’ association executive committee and he remembers the union being not just unified, but schooled on some hard-ball tactics. The union was ready when replacement players were foisted on the game: some were offered $5,000 to show up for spring training and $20,000 for making the roster with promises of a $115,000 salary during the regular-season.
“There was a system of communication set up and there was also a strike fund in place, so we were well-prepared financially where players could start drawing on the strike fund,” says Cone, now a broadcaster with the New York Yankees YES Network, prior to a game earlier this season at the Rogers Centre. “We held back on licensing revenue and were prepared very well. So, when mortgage payments were due and paycheques were missed one after the other there was some relief for a lot of those guys.
“And we had a lot of stuff scripted out. I mean, once the replacement players thing started to kick in, we started to make calls. We were very proactive. When the World Series was cancelled, we got together and said: ‘OK, where are our problem areas and let’s call them.’ If there was a superstar player on a particular team that might be a problem and cross the picket line, we were all over it.
“Were there guys we felt the owners would target? Absolutely. There were certain superstars on certain teams that you’d say: “Maybe we better make sure we talk to this guy.’”
Cone was one of the players invited to the White House meeting organized by President Clinton.
“It was incredibly surprising,” he says. “We all scrambled to get there. I mean, some guys just showed up in jeans and street clothes. I had a suit, luckily.
“We were all around a table in the Roosevelt Room: Bud at one end, Donald at the other. Honestly? I was impressed with the effort. The President and his people took a really good swing to get both sides to agree to binding arbitration that night and I thought it was going to work. I mean, we were there for six hours … shuffling in and out of meetings. Don Fehr was clear right off the bat: let’s go to binding arbitration on the whole set of issues. But Bud and the
owners wouldn’t do that.”
In the end: Was it all worth it?
It’s March 29, the day after the 2019 regular season has opened for the Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers. Detroit hitting coach Lloyd McClendon is in the batting cage at the Rogers Centre, waiting for Miguel Cabrera to finish fooling around with his son.
McClendon is a baseball lifer having played 570 major league games over eight seasons before going on to manage 1,106 more between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Seattle Mariners. Just don’t ask him what he’s done with the ball he caught to record the final out of the final game played by the 1994 Montreal Expos. He didn’t know it at the time, but Aug. 11, 1994 would also be the final time McClendon would take a major league field as a player.
When the strike ended, the then 35-year-old McClendon could only find employment on a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians. He would soon retire following a 37-game stint at triple-A Buffalo.
“Like a lot of guys, it was an eerie feeling for me because – like a lot of guys – I was wondering whether it would be my last game that I’d ever play in the Majors,” recalls McClendon. “I mean, it was just a bad time in baseball. For everybody.”
And like most of the Expos players who boarded the team’s chartered flight back to Montreal, McClendon said he and his Pirates teammates “all hung around, hoping it would be resolved quickly.
“I couldn’t fathom that the season would be over and the World Series would be cancelled,” McClendon says. “I don’t know when we all kind of realized it, but I remember one day a few days later and a bunch of us were out hitting golf balls and we were kind of asking each other: ‘When are we coming back? Are we coming back? Eventually … oh, I’d say about two or three weeks later … we knew it wasn’t going to happen.”
Says Cone: “I was on the front lines so I knew with some of the meetings the owners were just adamant on controlling the cost of labour. They wouldn’t talk about anything else. I remember one particular meeting in New York and Jerry Reinsdorf stood up and said: ‘Are you willing to talk about the cost of labour?’ Meaning a hard cap. Don Fehr almost didn’t respond to him. Reinsdorf said: ‘Then we’ve got nothing to talk about,’ and he got up and they followed him out. This is about six weeks into it. In September I think. It’s when I knew: ‘Wow, nothing’s going to give, here.’
“Look,” Cone continues, “we knew that our only leverage was to try to use post-season revenue against the owners. They had a lot of money tied up in post-season money and broadcast rights and that was our best chance. We thought it would force them to the bargaining table… but they had other ideas. We didn’t foresee the cancelling of the World Series. We thought there was a chance we could get something done before the end of the season.”
Once the games resumed, McClendon attended a try-out camp in Homestead, Fla. that had been established by the union for free agents who hadn’t been able to negotiate new deals and who refused to cross picket lines and become replacement players.
Cone’s spring training 1995 was a much different experience than McClendon’s.
“I didn’t pick up a ball all winter,” he says. “And then when the injunction was issued, I showed up at Royals camp, threw a bullpen session – and was traded to the Blue Jays the next day.”
When asked whether he believes his role in the negotiations contributed to the trade, Cone smiles.
“Ahh .. I’m sure of that. I know my salary had something to do with it, too, but I got a lot of funny looks the first day I showed up with the Royals. Bob Boone was the new manager … they had a new ownership group, led by David Glass.
“Yeah, that was a different spring,” Cone said. “But there was still a sense of rejuvenation about it, you know? We had won the battle, and for a lot of us it made it all worth it.”