1994 Winter Meetings: Year-Round Labor Negotiations Resolve Strike

This article was written by Abigail Miskowiec

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016With interim Commissioner Bud Selig calling an end to the 1994 season on September 14 because of the players strike, the baseball offseason commenced earlier than usual. The major feature of the annual winter meetings was, of course, the resolution of the strike, but the issues of offseason transactions and replacement players hung over the sport’s head. In addition to the multiple meetings between Donald Fehr, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the owners’ negotiator, Richard Ravitch, the general managers convened in Scottsdale, Arizona, while the annual minor-league meetings commenced in Dallas, Texas.

 

Silence Between Representatives, Congress Gets Involved

As soon as Selig issued his resolution, which also canceled the 1994 World Series, Fehr  indicated that, if asked by owners, he would be willing to observe a monthlong waiting period before entering into a legal battle with the owners.[1]Instead, he took to the road and convened a series of regional meetings with players in Atlanta, Tampa, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Also on his itinerary was a date with Congress as antitrust hearings continued throughout the winter of 1994.

Fehr’s meetings with players served little more than informational purposes. As the fallout of the strike settled, the players received much of the news from media outlets, and Fehr used this one-on-one time to clarify the union’s position and to ensure a united front.

As Brett Butler, the Los Angeles Dodgers player representative, put it, “Until they’re ready to negotiate, all we can do is inform our players, keep having these meetings and keep them up to snuff on what’s going on.”[2]

 

Managerial Moves

Despite the whirl of adversity and uncertainty surrounding the winter months, teams still took steps to better their clubs for the coming 1995 season. Many organizations chose to work from the top down, firing five general managers and seven managers in total.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos continued to clean house, firing manager Johnny Oates a week after the season prematurely ended. Oates, sporting a 291-270 record at that point in his career, quickly signed on as manager of the Texas Rangers. Phil Regan stepped in to replace Oates.

Tom Trebelhorn saw the end of his tenuous time with the Chicago Cubs, with Jim Riggleman moving from San Diego to take over the North Side club. Bruce Bochy, former third-base coach of the Padres, oversaw San Diego as the youngest manager in the league in 1995.

Although the Texas Rangers sat in first place at the time of the strike, manager Kevin Kennedy found himself on the job market. Luckily, he found an open position in Boston when Butch Hobson was let go after three mediocre seasons.

The Kansas City Royals similarly experienced managerial changes. Manager Hal McRae made way for Bob Boone.[3]Boone couldn’t turn the Royals around and found himself out of work by 1997.

The general-manager front was equally active. The Texas Rangers completed their overhaul, firing Tom Grieve and signing Doug Melvin, who would lead the club to three playoff appearances, the first three in franchise history. The Chicago Cubs likewise made front-office changes when Larry Himes stepped aside for Ed Lynch in October.[4]

St. Louis replaced Dal Maxvill with Walt Jocketty, former assistant general manager of the Colorado Rockies. Just a season removed from back-to-back World Series championships, the Toronto Blue Jays let future Hall of Famer Pat Gillick go and hired Gord Ash.[5] Finally, the Minnesota Twins watched Andy MacPhail accept a position as the CEO of the Chicago Cubs and filled the general-manager role with Terry Ryan.

 

Free Agent Fracas on the Horizon

Without a new collective-bargaining agreement in place, free-agency filings would start on October 15, and the signing period would begin on October 30. Many players, if they were still on strike, would not sign new contracts, meaning the owners would be forced to reckon with more than 800 free agents from the 40-man rosters.

To avoid this calamity, the owners pushed for a 45-day freeze.[6] Rather than force the clubs to face hundreds of free agents, the freeze would stall only 170 free-agency-eligible players, with whom the owners would not be able to negotiate during the period.[7] This would allow the owners to focus their energies on working out a new free-agency calendar.

Union representatives held off on making a judgment on the freeze. Ultimately, they found that the owners were perfectly willing to come to a conclusion for them. “As for the free agents, Fehr said a letter the union received from O’Connor on Thursday led him to believe the owners plan to unilaterally impose their freeze proposal – which would keep players from filing for free agency and signing contracts before November 30,” according to the Washington Post.[8]

Adding to the confusion, players at that time needed six years of major-league service to become eligible for free agency. Many of those players who entered the 1994 season with five years of service fell short of the six-year mark because of the strike and subsequent cancellation of the final 52 days of the season. On the first day of the free-agent signing period, Jim Abbott, Jack McDowell, Erik Hanson, and Kenny Rogers tested the waters despite falling short of the required service time. Management’s Player Relations Committee rejected the filing immediately, setting up yet another battle in the contentious 1994 offseason.[9]

Among the players most affected by the 1994 strike was Chris Gwynn, brother of Tony Gwynn. Gwynn finished the 1994 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers a mere one day short of the six-year service term. Gwynn attempted to file for free agency on October 17, 1994, but the Player Relations Committee immediately rejected the suit.

 

The National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital

Amid the free-agency chaos and the ongoing strike, the players’ and owners’ representatives descended upon the nation’s capital on October 18 to reconvene overtures that had stalled since September 9. Former Secretary of Labor Bill Usery Jr. joined the discussions at the behest of President Bill Clinton. Usery brought more than four decades of labor-relations experience to the table.

After a day of separate meetings with the union representatives and the owners, Usery brought the two sides together for a formal session. Richard Ravitch appeared with a contingent of 11 owners while Donald Fehr brought six players to the table. While reportedly the sides discussed nothing of grave significance, Ravitch’s comments after the meeting inspired optimism. First, he stated that the owners still had not set a date for a potential free-agency freeze, and second, he said, “We have no contemplation of taking any legal steps whatsoever at this point. We reserve our right to do what we’re legally entitled to, but we have no current expectation and there was no discussion with the negotiating committee about our proceeding with any legal steps whatsoever.”[10]

After the first joint meeting, though, Usery took a backstage role in mediation and would not call the two sides together until November 10 at Doral Arrowwood Resort in Rye Brook, New York. Unlike the October meetings, Commissioner Bud Selig attended the first day of the four-day session but left thereafter due to the death of a close friend.

Richard Ravitch, on the other hand, found his importance to the ongoing negotiations to be waning after John Harrington, Boston Red Sox CEO, stepped into the position of owners’ committee chairman. Ravitch’s three-year, $2.25 million contract was set to expire at the end of 1994, and the lingering strike threatened his position within baseball. He was in attendance at the meetings in New York, but had little interaction with the press and referred to himself as “an adviser.”[11]

The New York meetings adjourned a day early, on November 12, so that the owners could come up with a new proposal for ending the strike. By this point, it had become clear that the  union refused to accept any proposal containing a salary cap, so Usery pushed the owners to replace the cap with a luxury tax. But developing the new proposal would take time and compromise.

 

Alternative League Sees Opportunity

The swirling mass of confusion hanging over baseball opened opportunities for developing leagues. For the first time in 80 years, since the days of the short-lived Federal League, a rival league threatened to steal striking players from the majors. The budding United Baseball League convened a meeting of interested parties on November 1, 1994, in New York City.

This new league focused on rectifying the mistakes of major-league baseball’s 1994 season. The owners, led by Congressmen Bob Mrazek and John Bryant, agent Richard Moss, and economist Andrew Zimbalist, proposed a league built on player-owner cooperation. Owners would share 35 percent of pretax revenues with the players on top of a collective 10 percent player share in all teams.

The league eyed international fan bases by placing teams in both Canada and Mexico, with a plan to expand to various Asian countries.[12] The league’s 154-game season was set to commence in 1996, but the high hopes fell apart when the league folded.[13]

 

General Managers’ Meeting Quiet

With the free-agent service-time decision still up in the air, the general managers’ meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 16 lacked its usual fervor. Not knowing what kind of economic system they would be operating under or what their respective budgets would be, the GMs had to hold off signing free agents for the time being.  For example, the Chicago Cubs stalled on re-signing star first baseman Mark Grace, who filed for free agency prior to the meetings, in case outfielders Sammy Sosa and Glenallen Hill, who fell short of the then-required six years of service time, became eligible due to a restructuring of the system.[14]

Other teams seemed to be operating under similar restrictions. “We’re kind of treading water till this new system is in place,” said Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. “Most general managers are waiting to see what the new arrangement will mean.”[15]

Even new GMs recognized the bizarre nature of the 1994 meetings. “Coming in as a new general manager,” Doug Melvin of the Texas Rangers added, “you want to be aggressive, but now you have to be a little cautious. Without knowing the system, it’s a lot tougher than normal.”[16]

Melvin shopped around quite a bit for a new home for outfielder Jose Canseco but couldn’t find a taker over the three-day span of the meetings. The Houston Astros, likewise, looked to sell off big-ticket stars, including second baseman Craig Biggio and right-handed hurler Doug Drabek.

The sole move of the 1994 general managers’ meetings occurred on the last day in Arizona. The Cleveland Indians sent three right-handers – Paul Byrd, Jerry Dipoto, and Dave Mlicki – plus minor-league infielder Jesus Azuaje to the New York Mets in exchange for slugging outfielder Jeromy Burnitz and right-hander Joe Roa. Byrd and Burnitz would make the All-Star Game in 1999, representing the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively.

 

Chaotic Winter Doesn’t Affect Trades and Signings

The Texas Rangers completed the first major move of the 1994 offseason just weeks after the close of the general managers’ meeting. The Boston Red Sox took the bait and nabbed Jose Canseco in exchange for outfielder Otis Nixon and infielder Luis Ortiz.

The Houston Astros followed with a 12-player deal with the San Diego Padres on December 28. Among the names involved in the trade were third baseman Ken Caminiti and outfielder Steve Finley. Caminiti slugged his way to the MVP Award in 1996 with the Padres while Steve Finley helped the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks to the World Series championship.[17]

The Los Angeles Dodgers made a splash in the international waters by signing right-hander Hideo Nomo, the first Japanese major-league player to make the jump to the American majors. Nomo took home the Rookie of the Year Award in 1995 with a 13-6 record and a 2.54 ERA.

 

At an Impasse, Owners Impose Salary Cap

Throughout the last weeks of November, the owners and player representatives gathered again to attempt to settle the strike. Usery once again proposed that the owners postpone the declaration of an impasse and the implementation of a salary cap. In fact, Usery delayed the inevitable until December 23.

The 10-week-old negotiations fell apart when the owners rejected a last-minute proposal from the players. Even Usery admitted defeat: “There was no sense going further tonight and I recessed the negotiations. A deadline was set by owners and it was evident that we weren’t going to reach an agreement by that time.”[18]

In the week leading up to the final meeting, the owners passed a resolution to allow the executive council to declare an impasse if a deal did not fall into place by December 22. Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles was among the few dissenting voices at the preliminary meeting in Chicago. He called the move “mass financial suicide,” a declaration that seemed to hold water when, at the same meeting, the owners learned that the 28 major-league teams owed a collective $600 million.[19]

Both the union and the owners filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Union representative Donald Fehr stated, “As the investigation proceeds, we are confident that the board will come to see that the clubs entered into negotiations with no intention of reaching an agreement other than upon the clubs’ preconceived terms.”[20] The owners, on the other hand, argued that the players refused to negotiate wages on a collective basis, a direct violation of the labor act.

 

Replacements Cause Further Controversy

As the calendar flipped to 1995, the prospect of spring training filled with unfamiliar faces loomed over the league.[21]The buzz revolved around replacement players who would cross the picket line and suit up in the spring. To preserve solidarity and prevent this from happening, the Major League Baseball Players Association announced that it would impose sanctions on agents who represent any replacement players.

The owners, for their part, drafted and ratified a set of rules governing replacement players. The new guidelines stated that nonprofessional replacement players would be paid $115,000 for the season, and each team could pay up to three former major leaguers with at least three years of experience $275,000. The contracts of current big leaguers who chose to play in the replacement games would be honored as written.[22]

The Players Association strongly suggested that all players listed on teams’ 40-man rosters, not just those in the majors at the time of the strike, should abstain from spring training. With the season just a few months away and a settlement possible at any time, striking players struggled to stay in game shape. San Diego Padres outfielder and future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn commented, “I get 10 or 15 minutes into my workout and sometimes I say, ‘The hell with this. They’re not going to settle.’ It’s hard to push yourself when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”[23]

When spring training finally commenced, a motley crew of players took the field. Ken Oberkfell, who made his major-league debut in 1977 and had not played in two years, suited up for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies also featured former major leaguers Jeff Stone (who found work in a steel mill after his baseball career), Todd Cruz, and Marty Bystrom, all in their 30s.

Also among the replacements were a cable-television technician/Pentecostal deacon, a Coca-Cola plant supervisor, and brothers with the monikers “Motorboat” and “Speedboat” Jones.[24]

One of the shining stars of spring training was Pedro Borbon, who stepped in for the Cincinnati Reds. The 48-year-old right-handed pitcher, a member of the Big Red Machine, retired after the 1980 season but continued to pitch in winter ball and in the Dominican Republic. In his spare time, Borbon raised birds in Texas. Borbon, winner of two World Series with the Reds in the 1970s, was the most prominent name on the roster but was released after injuring himself when he slipped while attempting to field a ball.

Joe Girardi, Colorado Rockies player representative, slammed the replacements, saying, “After two or three days of watching UPS drivers trying to play baseball, then what are they going to do? The product is bound to be horrible. It’s a slap in the face to the fans to say: ‘You will pay for any brand of baseball we put out there.’”[25]

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, quickly becoming known as a renegade among the owners, refused to field a team of strikebreakers or play against any team made up of replacements. As a result, all 32 Orioles spring-training games were canceled, and the Orioles instead opted to stage exhibitions between their minor-league affiliates. In the event the strike lingered into the 1995 season, Angelos seemed prepared to forfeit regular-season games.[26]

 

Short-Lived Cap Falls Through

On February 4, a little more than a week before players were to report to spring training, the owners budged. The salary cap implemented by the owners in late December crumpled under threats from the National Labor Relations Board. Had the owners not withdrawn the cap, the NLRB could have filed an injunction against the owners and taken the labor dispute to federal court.

The crux of the issue was the legality of the owners’ impasse declaration. The NLRB found that the 25-to-3 vote in Chicago allowing the executive board to declare an impasse on behalf of the owners was unofficial and not a legal basis for the declaration.

 

The Commissioner Gets Involved

Throughout the offseason meetings, interim Commissioner Bud Selig took a back seat. In late February, though, the overseer and Milwaukee Brewers owner got directly involved in the talks. Selig sat down with Fehr in a series of meetings that spanned the months of February and March. However, the extensive meetings found no common ground, and only the intervention by a federal court would put this conflict to rest.

In a bit of synchronicity, on March 22, the day that owners voted 26 to 2 to use replacement players in the regular season, the NLRB took the side of the Players Association and asked US District Court Judge (and future Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor to issue an injunction to restore free-agent bidding and salary arbitration.

Sotomayor granted the injunction on March 31, effectively reinstating the pre-1994 collective-bargaining agreement. In light of the decision, the players extended an offer to end the strike. The offer included a luxury tax in lieu of the salary cap.

“We hope that offer will be accepted and accepted promptly,” said Fehr. “If both sides want it to be, this can be an opportunity to bargain this out. It seems to me we need to seize that opportunity.”[27]

The owners accepted the agreement on April 2, 1995, and set an April 26 date for Opening Day. The season began without a new collective-bargaining agreement, and in fact a new agreement would not be agreed upon until November 1996. To this day, Major League Baseball remains the only major professional sports league without a salary cap. But the 1995 season began, belatedly, and the experience of the costly strike may have prompted later rounds of collective bargaining to be concluded less acrimoniously. There has not been another work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike.

 

Notes

[1] Ross Newhan, “Baseball Season, Series Cancelled,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1994: 1.

[2] “Players Solidly Behind Strike,” Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1994: 4.  

[3] McRae and Boone share more than just their history with the Kansas City Royals; both had the pleasure of managing a son in the major leagues.

[4] The 1994 Chicago Cubs season failed on many fronts, illustrated by the sudden retirement of star Ryne Sandberg in mid-June. Sandberg would return to the Cubs for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.

[5] Ash would draft All-Stars Roy Halladay, Michael Young, Vernon Wells, and Orlando Hudson.

[6] Larry Whiteside, “Baseball Owners Seek a 45-day Freeze,” Boston Globe, October 5, 1994: 73.

[7] According to a January 6 article in the Washington Post, only 234 of the 1,069 major-league players were under contract for 1995 and beyond. If all restricted free agents became unrestricted free agents, 835 players would be on the market.

[8] Mark Maske, “Ex-Labor Secretary Usery to Mediate Baseball Meetings,” Washington Post, October 15, 1994.

[9] Murray Chass, “Four Players Fire the First Salvo of the Free-Agent Wars,” New York Times, October 16, 1994.

[10] Murray Chass, “A Hint of Hope by Baseball Owners,” New York Times, October 20, 1994.

[11] Murray Chass, “Owners’ New Voice Is Peddling Same Line,” New York Times, November 12, 1994.

[12] Murray Chass, “New League Plans Partnership for Clubs and Players,” New York Times, November 1, 1994.

[13] The league folded in April 1996 when Liberty Sports, the television station with whom the UBL had a deal, merged with Fox. See “United League Strikes Out,” Gainesville Sun, April 12, 1996: 2C.

[14] Jerome Holtzman, “Between Rounds of Golf, GMs Plan for the Future,” Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1994.

[15] Murray Chass, “Traders Can’t Shuffle Their Decks,” New York Times, November 17, 1994.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The full deal found the Astros sending shortstop Andujar Cedeño, infielder-outfielder Roberto Petagine, right-hander Brian Williams and a player to be named (who became left-hander Sean Fesh), plus Caminiti and Finley to the Padres, while San Diego shipped outfielder Derek Bell, right-handed pitcher Doug Brocail, infielder Ricky Gutierrez, left-hander Pedro Martinez (not the Hall of Famer), outfielder Phil Plantier, and Australian-born infielder Craig Shipley.

[18] Murray Chass, “Baseball Owners Implement a Cap on Players’ Pay,” New York Times. December 23, 1994. [If you can find the chart, perhaps on library microfilm, that could be interesting, but otherwise we can live without it.]

[19] Mark Maske, “Even Owners Split on Baseball’s Direction,” Washington Post, December 25, 1994.

[20] Murray Chass, “Players and Owners File Complaints With Labor Board,” New York Times, December 28, 1994.

[21] Several big-name players started their career as replacements. As a result, their likenesses and names were banned by the Players Association from licensed merchandise. Additionally, World Series winners Shane Spencer (New York Yankees), Damian Miller (Arizona Diamondbacks), Brendan Donnelly (Anaheim Angels), and Kevin Millar (Boston Red Sox) were banned from commemorative championship merchandise.

[22] Mark Maske, “Replacement Rules Approved,” Washington Post, January 14, 1995.

[23] Chuck Johnson, “Players Work to Stay Fit, Focused During Negotiations,” USA Today, February 3, 1995.

[24] Tom Verducci, “The Sham Spring,” Sports Illustrated, February 23, 2015.

[25] Ross Newhan, “Strike Throws Curve Into Start of Spring Training Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1995.

[26] Mark Maske, “Orioles’ Opponents Pull Out of Games,” Washington Post, March 1, 1995: F01.

[27] Mark Maske, “Baseball Players Offer to End Strike,” Washington Post, April 1, 1995: A01.

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