Twenty-five years ago, unified players thwarted owners' plan to implement salary cap

Players remained unified over the course of a 232-day strike that began 25 years ago to thwart owners’ plans to implement a salary cap.

The owners’ plan began to reveal itself in September 1992 when they forced out Commissioner Fay Vincent, who they considered too accommodative to players, and installed then-Brewers owner Bud Selig as acting commissioner – a title he would hold for six more years before being named commissioner in 1998.

With Vincent out and Selig in, owners began to put in place a plan designed to force players to accept a salary cap. At their winter meetings in Louisville in December 1992, owners voted 15-13 to reopen the existing Basic Agreement.

Despite re-opening the collective bargaining agreement, owners did no actual negotiating in 1993, but they did vote among themselves to link revenue sharing to a salary cap and the existing Basic Agreement quietly expired on Dec. 31.

The owners’ plan went into full gear beginning on Jan. 18, 1994 when they agreed on an (unannounced) revenue-sharing plan that would be tied to a salary cap. Selig told his fellow owners that day that they should be prepared to lock out players and use scabs to replace them until players agreed to their demands.

"You do it by taking a position and telling them (players) we're not going to play unless we make a deal and being prepared not to play one or two years if you have to," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said at the time.

On the following day, the owners disbanded their Player Relations Committee and vested labor relations authority in the Commissioner’s Office.

On March 7, 1994 in St. Petersburg, Fla., owners and players finally had their first bargaining session – more than a year after re-opening the contract. The owners’ chief negotiator, Richard Ravitch, told 75 players in attendance that baseball needed a salary cap.

In June 1994, owners established a rule requiring a three-quarter majority of owners to ratify a new Basic Agreement, putting a group of hardliners in position to veto any deal they deemed unacceptable and signaled their intention to try and break the union and force a cap.

Eighteen months after voting to re-open the contract, on June 14, 1994, the owners submitted their first proposal to players. It called for a salary cap which would give players 50 percent of revenues, including the revenue from the players’ own licensing program.

Players countered with their own proposal on July 18 that asked for arbitration after two years and increases in the minimum salaries. When owners rejected the union’s proposal on July 27, players announced they would go on strike on Aug. 12 absent an agreement.

Pushed to their limit, players left their clubs and went on strike. They felt they had been left no choice by an ownership group intent on breaking their union. They would stick together for the next 232 days, which at the time was the longest strike in professional sports history.

Don Fehr, who had begun his career with the MLBPA at the dawn of free agency following his successful work as outside counsel for the union, in which he defended the 1975 Andy Messersmith case against federal court challenges, kept the players informed and unified.

"I have detected no change in the players' mood or resolve in these meetings,'' Fehr said following a player meeting in September 1994. "They wanted to know what happened during the negotiations, where things stand now and what they might expect. I cannot predict what might happen. No one can. But it (union solidarity) has never been a concern of mine, and it is not now a concern.”

Fehr’s confidence in players and their resolve was well founded, having helped lead them

through four previous work stoppages, as well as the recent collusion years, a period that had ultimately served to galvanize players.

``It's simple, really,” said David Cone, an all-star pitcher with the Royals who was also a top player leader during the strike. “A baseball career is a finite thing. It is the duty of every major-leaguer to make sure that the free market remains free, that the value of the talent -- the most important part of the sport -- is always well taken care of. We owe that to the players who broke ground before us. And we owe it to the players who will follow us."

"We're solid. What's right is right, and timing doesn't change what is right,” said Joe Girardi, who was the Rockies’ catcher at the time. “What we have believed in since Aug. 12 -- what we've believed in since 1969 -- is still right. It's about principle, and money has nothing to do with principle."

"The salary cap ruins free agency and there's no price on freedom," Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser said.

On Sept. 14, just over a month into the strike and with no progress being made, Selig canceled the postseason and the World Series. On Nov. 29, owners announced they would implement their revenue sharing-and-salary cap plan and open spring training camp using scab players if the strike was not settled by then.

On Dec. 23, after spending much of December with federal mediators, owners declared an impasse in bargaining, which they believed would allow them to implement their salary cap plan. However, the Players Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against the owners with the National Labor Relations Board four days later saying that the impasse was not valid.

Owners proceeded and on Feb. 16, 1995 opened spring training with scab players. On March 14, the NLRB issued an unfair labor practice charge against owners, setting in motion a request for a court injunction preventing owners from implementing their plan.

On March 26, the NLRB voted 3-2 to authorize the injunction request and the following day went to federal court to file the request. Three days later, players voted to end their strike and return to the field if the injunction was upheld.

On March 31, US District Court Judge Sonya Sotomayor upheld the NLRB’s injunction request and restored the system that had been in place before the strike.

The scab players were all released on April 1 and after owners tried but couldn’t get the 21 votes required to lock out players, they opened camps on April 5 and players ended their strike.

The strike was over, but it required another 19 months of bargaining, until late November 1996, for players and owners to reach an agreement.