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How the 1994-95 strike can inform the 2021 MLB Lockout



© Kyle Terada | 2020 Sep 26

Mike Krukow was just hoping his calls went unanswered. Or better yet, got sent straight to voicemail. 

It was the summer of 1994, and the Giants kept him, Duane Kuiper and the rest of the broadcasting team on payroll. Their responsibility: call season ticket holders and try to reason with them. With no baseball games to narrate, they had to put their voices to work in another way.

But instead of reassuring lifelong Giants fans and keeping them engaged, Krukow remembers many of them being turned off. The 1994-95 strike, the last work stoppage in MLB, cost the sport the 94 World Series, part of the 1995 season and millions of dollars in revenue. It alienated countless fans, which may have been irrecoverable if not for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s once-in-a-generation home run race in 1998.

“1994 was so catastrophic to all of us who loved this game,” Krukow said recently on KNBR.

Twenty-six years later, the longest labor peace in US professional sports is over. The players struck in 1994 as the owners demanded a salary cap. In 2021, the owners have locked out the players as the two sides grapple with the fact that record-breaking league revenue has outpaced average player salaries. 

The power dynamics and societal context is vastly different now than it was in 1994. Although current commissioner Rob Manfred advised the owners during the strike, many of the major power brokers are different now, too. 

While it remains unlikely that MLB misses regular season games in 2022, talks on core economics — the meat of what’s being negotiated — won’t resume until January. The more contentious the labor dispute grows, the more jeopardized baseball becomes. 

Right now, the two sides are miles apart. Lessons learned from 1994-95 show just how paramount a swift agreement is. 

“I know they canceled the World Series back in 94,” former Giants pitcher Shawn Estes told KNBR. “That was different. That was extreme. But I don’t think you can afford to dip into the season this year. I think you really have to figure this out prior to the season starting.” 

Minutes after MLB owners officially instituted a lockout, MLB.com became a barren wasteland of content. Nowhere on the league’s official site were any references to active players, only coaches, Hall of Fame posts and a letter from the commissioner. A generic silhouette replaced every player’s previous headshot on their profile pages. 

In turn, many players — including Giants starter Alex Wood — responded on Twitter by changing their profile pictures to MLB’s faceless avatar. It was, yes, a modern Internet troll. But really it was an act of solidarity among the players. 

This is baseball’s first major labor dispute in the social media era, and that’s actually important. Public perception can be influential in any labor strike — it was especially volatile in 1994-95 — and the players have a new tool they can wield to their advantage. And as Stanford University economist Roger Noll notes, “many more people follow players than follow owners.” 

Although the owners were demanding a clearly untenable salary cap in 1994, it was the players whom fans mostly directed their ire. 

Average attendance league-wide in 1994 was 31,256. Negative sentiment was so pervasive after the strike caused the World Series cancellation, attendance didn’t crack 30,000 again until 2004. And fans who did show up in the late 90s often carried signs lambasting “greedy” players. Some threw debris on the field. 

Getty Images

“In strange situations, the public perception is usually against the players, and the public has difficulty distinguishing between a strike and a lockout,” labor and relations law scholar Bill Gould said. “(Fans) generally are more impatient with the players because many feel that, ‘hey, this is something I could do, too. It’s a lot of fun.’ I haven’t seen great sympathy for players in these past disputes.”

Shawn Estes was in the minor leagues at the time of the strike; he made his debut for the Giants in the 1995 season when play resumed. Perception of players had soured so much, even Estes was “pissed off” at the big league guys during the strike. 

“I think, first and foremost, you have to have communication,” Estes said. “With every player in the organization, they have to understand what’s going on. Because I do remember one thing that offseason was all the back and forth. We don’t have the media presence now that we once did as far as social media’s concerned, and the owners pretty much controlled the narrative of what was going on in the media. Made the players look like they were greedy, like they weren’t bargaining in good faith, like it was their fault.” 

In today’s media environment, though, players have the chance to redirect fans’ resentment. But Estes cautions: they need to do it in an informed way. Any signs of weakness, particularly from prominent players, could cause setbacks for the union, let alone potentially put it in legal danger. Players must be unified and on point with messaging. 

But, if deployed correctly, social media can be an advantage for players. They can speak directly to fans to explain what issues the union is fighting for. They can debunk the “millionaires vs billionaires” oversimplification by pointing out that while just seven of 30 owners aren’t worth nine figures, an estimated two-thirds of players retire with less than a million. They can remind fans MLB tinkered with the baseballs in-season and allows overt service time manipulation, a practice that wouldn’t fly in any other sport or industry. 

The players lost the public perception battle so badly in 1994-95, it damaged the sport’s reputation. Now, players can weaponize social media to fortify a position of strength.

Like Estes, Tony Clark was on the verge of his big league debut in 1994, when the strike began. Clark, now the executive director of the players union, represents many players who weren’t even alive yet at the time.

“It was one of the most challenging times in our history,” Clark told The Los Angeles Times. “But when you believe in a fundamental level of fairness and rights, and that is the reason you are willing to take a stand, there are going to be repercussions — some near-term, some longer-term. So I can appreciate that it was difficult. It wasn’t pretty.” 

The strike lasted 232 days, then a record in major league professional sports. Baseball lost 948 games, including the entire 1994 postseason. It came on the heels of years of distrust and hostility between the players and management, which has been renewed by previous CBA agreements in which players have made significant concessions. 

The players union wouldn’t budge as the owners demanded a salary cap. Congress introduced antitrust bills to end the strike. President Bill Clinton ordered a deadline for the league and union to reach an agreement. When that passed without resolution, MLB tried to start the 1995 season with replacement players. 

Eventually, the National Labor Relations Board filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the owners which eventually led to an injunction to end the strike. 

In all, the strike caused losses of $580 million in ownership revenue and $230 million in player salaries — money Noll said was never recouped. 

Gould, the law scholar, was the chairman of the NLRB at the time who helped facilitate the return to play. Gould said it’s hard to see a similar shutdown this time around, but it’s possible. 

Gould said “I’m not clairvoyant, I can’t really predict” how the 2021 lockout will play out. But he anticipates the owners, hit hard with losses from the 2020 COVID-19 season, are motivated to stay steadfast. 

“You don’t know which side is bluffing,” Gould said. “It’s like a card game. Which side is bluffing more? It’s hard to figure at this point.” 

If both the owners and union are equally unwavering, as they were in 1994 and 1995, tensions could escalate. Remembering the strike’s damage could be a mutual driving force to avoid catastrophe in 2021.

The question then becomes: will the strike’s memory that has helped prevent work stoppages for 25 years persist? 

“No gains that either side obtained in (the strike) were sufficient to offset that humongous loss,” Noll said. “That was sort of hitting the mule with a two-by-four for two decades. Everybody learned their lesson — we’re all making a lot of money, so let’s find a way to keep the game going…Maybe every generation, people have to learn this lesson on their own.”