Labor peace is a lie, pt. 3: The rise of Bud Selig and the 1994 strike

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be emailing out sections of a larger story, titled “Labor peace is a lie.” Here’s part three, on Bud Selig’s transition from owner to “acting” commissioner. If you missed any of the other five parts, you can find them here.

The rise of Bud Selig

Bud Selig wasn’t MLB commissioner in 1990. He was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and a central figure in every labor dispute. He was one of the colluding owners, and a ringleader of the ‘90 lockout — he even attempted to divide the union by exploiting the different concerns of its age groups, secretly negotiating with veterans like Brewers’ star Paul Molitor, who just wanted to get back to work and cash his already-large paychecks at the expense of those younger players still working toward or within their arbitration years.

There were cracks in the union, and while the Players Association held firm during the 1990 lockout and 1994 strike, through failure Selig had figured out how to widen those cracks and start earning wins for the owners once again.

Selig and the other owners forced Fay Vincent — the MLB commissioner who had helped to end the 1990 lockout mostly because he knew the owners had no chance of winning following three years of collusion — out of power with a vote of no-confidence that led to his resignation. Selig, who had previously been the owner in charge of bargaining for the rest of the owners with the MLBPA, then took on the title of “acting commissioner” because it would help him pay back the debts that his role in collusion had caused him and his team to accrue.

Bud Selig, owner, was obsessed with scaling back salaries while keeping his team in a market that could not sustain a baseball team without help — just like when Selig brought the Brewers back to Milwaukee from Atlanta, taking over as “acting commissioner” would serve his personal interests by allowing Milwaukee to keep a baseball team yet again, and help him figure out a way to pay the debts he had racked up after baseball’s salaries finally started to look fair for players. After all, he was still an owner while he was the de facto commish, so he still had bills to pay, which was definitely not a conflict of interest for some reason.

Selig understood the importance of a united front on the owners’ side — he had lived through every labor battle that had fallen apart for the owners as their relationships similarly broke down. He also knew the importance of sympathy for the plight of the owners, even if said plight was mostly self-inflicted due to owners like Selig who weren’t actually rich enough to own a baseball team in a world where George Steinbrenner’s nearly half-billion dollar cable deal existed and the union had rights, a world where colluding against players and then locking them out for being upset about that were seen as solutions to their problems.

Selig spoke endlessly about the need for revenue-sharing to keep the small-market teams afloat, and sold that idea to the richest owners by promising they’d get the players to pay for the difference by instituting a salary cap. Future President of the United States George W. Bush was the MLB owner who ended up in politics, but Selig, Bush’s adversary for the commissioner role post-Vincent, was the one with the real knack for playing the political game..

As Jon Pessah points out in The Game, Selig was basically the commissioner even before he was the commissioner — other owners went to him, not Fay Vincent, with their problems. The relationships he built with the other owners in this time are what allowed him to be both the Brewers’ owner and the “acting commissioner,” and also what allowed the delaying of his being named the full-time commissioner until after labor disputes were settled and the Brewers were assured of remaining in Milwaukee, courtesy a stadium paid for by taxpayers. If you know nothing else about Bud Selig, you know how much he loves taxpayer-funded stadiums, and like with everything else he believes, that came from his time owning the Brewers.

The owners try to get rid of free agency

Selig was still “acting commissioner” during the labor negotiations that took place during the 1994 season. Getting revenue-sharing enacted wasn’t supposed to be an issue: Donald Fehr and the MLBPA wanted revenue-sharing as well, because it would create more teams willing and able to spend on free agents. How to pay for revenue-sharing was the issue, as ownership wanted a salary cap, while the players wanted nothing to do with limiting earnings — in fact, the proposal from the owners in June, 1994, would have resulted in a significant pay cut for the players, as it would have limited their revenues to 50 percent of MLB’s total, when it was at 58 percent at that time.

The players went on strike on August 12, believing the season would be resumed once a deal was struck, as had been the case with past strikes. What Fehr and the MLBPA did not know, however, was that Selig, with the support of hardline owners like the White Sox’ Jerry Reinsdorf, were willing to end that season and the next one if necessary to get the deal they wanted. The 1994 World Series was canceled, and while it’s remembered by many fans as one of Selig’s great gaffes, it also allowed the owners a chance to blame the players for all that transpired.

The owners were just trying to save the game of baseball — men like Selig never stopped talking about how much danger the game was in, with salaries on the rise and the rich only getting richer, and the need to stop that by limiting player salaries and sharing the other owners’ wealth. Selig had found the thread that would define his legacy, and he never stopped pulling on it since.

The owners were better unified, but they still made a series of massive mistakes: when players still wouldn’t agree to a salary cap after the ‘94 World Series was canceled, the owners unilaterally implemented one, and then eliminated arbitration and free agency entirely, with the idea being that there was nothing saying either was a right of the players, and therefore did not have to be collectively bargained. Fehr and the MLBPA’s response was to declare every player a free agent. Most of MLB’s owners then began to recruit and use replacement players in spring training — Baltimore’s Peter Angelos, who was a union lawyer, refused to join in and even canceled spring training for his Orioles, and the MLBPA refused to end their strike if replacement players played regular season games.

All of these rapid, escalating counters effectively ended the strike, but not the collective bargaining, as federal judge Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with the owners’ assertion about free agency and arbitration, and ruled that the previous CBA be used while negotiations for a new one continued.

The 1995 and 1996 seasons were played without a labor agreement in place. Attendance and TV ratings dropped, which is how we end up with the narrative of the 1998 home run chase of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saving baseball: it got fans excited again, and put the labor disputes in the past.

Before the ‘97 campaign, the two sides finally agreed on a deal that included revenue-sharing — while there was no salary cap, the owners managed to still come away with a victory they could build on: the introduction of a luxury tax on the five highest-spending teams… a luxury tax that began as an idea of the union’s during the strike in order to avoid a salary cap. This rare concession from the players, who had historically always been playing catch up in a system designed to keep them from their fair share, would have major consequences that still influence today’s game.

Part four of this story will focus on MLB’s ownership class changing their anti-labor tactics in a way that still reverberates in the present.

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