Twenty-five years ago today, the baseball season abruptly ended as the players went on strike, protesting a major overreach by ownership which attempted to consolidate too much power in the hands of the commissioner. Ownership really wanted to implement a salary cap, which then-union executive director Donald Fehr correctly said would come with no benefit to the players. It wasn’t just about that, though. Ownership had been deceitful many times in years past, so the union was distrustful and resentment festered.
There were no playoffs, no World Series in 1994. Awards were given out, but it was little solace for some of the players and teams in the midst of outstanding, potentially career- or franchise-altering seasons. Let’s take a look at exactly who those teams and players were.
The Expos joined the league in 1969. Their franchise history was mostly forgettable as they only once made the playoffs between ’69 and ’94, losing the NLCS in five games to the Dodgers. The ’94 Expos looked like they were going to change that, though. They boasted the league’s third-best offense, averaging 5.13 runs per game, about a half-run better than the league average. They also owned the league’s best collective ERA at 3.56, 0.65 runs per nine innings better than the league average.
27-year-old Moisés Alou was having his best year to date. He finished the season batting .339/.397/.592, smacking 22 home runs while striving in 78 runs. His adjusted OPS (OPS+), which accounts for league and park effects, was 153 (average is 100).
Larry Walker was also having a career year at the time, batting .322/.394/.587 with 19 home runs, 86 RBI, 15 stolen bases, and a league-high 44 doubles.
On the pitching side, Pedro Martínez was just coming into his own at the age of 22. That year, he posted an admirable 3.42 ERA, striking out 142 batters and walking 45 in 144 2/3 innings. He wasn’t yet the ace of the Expos’ staff, however. The rotation was solid one through four, with Ken Hill finishing the year with a 3.32 ERA, Jeff Fassero 2.99, and Butch Henry 2.43 over 15 starts and nine relief appearances.
In the bullpen, John Wetteland – who would have an ignominious life post-baseball – racked up 25 saves with a 2.83 ERA. Mel Rojas also contributed 16 saves with a 3.32 ERA. Behind them were some recognizable names like Gil Heredia (3.46), Jeff Shaw (3.88), and Tim Scott (2.70). The only teams with a better aggregate bullpen ERA were the Reds (3.39) and Phillies (3.44).
The Expos finished with a 74-40 record, the best record in baseball and good for a winning percentage of .649. They led the Braves by six games. Even worse, the Expos were on an absolute tear, winning 20 of 23 games between July 18 and the end of the season on August 11. The Braves played just a game above .500 (13-12) in that same span of time. Who knows where the Expos’ momentum might have taken them.
The core of that team disbanded after the strike. Walker became a free agent after ’94. The club traded Wetteland, Marquis Grissom, and Ken Hill in the span of two days on April 5-6, 1995. One wonders if the Expos had – if we dare to dream – won the World Series or at least made a very deep playoff run in ’94, if the franchise would have eventually had to move from Montréal to Washington, D.C. where they became the Nationals. Fans have been clamoring for a return to Montréal ever since.
New York Yankees
Most people remember the 1996 Yankees much more than the ’94-95 teams, and for good reason – they won the World Series. The ’94-95 seasons were kind of a transitional time for the Yankees as some of the key pieces to the roster were nearing the end of their careers, like Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs. Others, like Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte, were starting to come into their own.
Paul O’Neill was the big contributor on offense for the Yankees in ’94. In what would be his best season statistically over his 17-year career, he led the league in batting at .359 while posting a .460 on-base percentage and a .603 slugging percentage. He belted 21 homers with 83 ribbies.
Catcher Mike Stanley mustered a career-best .929 OPS, ripping 20 doubles and 17 dingers. Jim Leyritz, sharing catching duties with Stanley for most of the year, hit .265/.365/.518 with 17 homers and 58 RBI. Taken together, no team beat the Yankees (.908) in aggregate OPS from their catchers. The Dodgers were second at .864.
While Boggs had already authored much better seasons, his ‘94 was no slouch. He hit, at the age of 36, .342/.433/.489 with 11 home runs – the second-most he would ever hit in a season – 55 RBI and 61 runs scored. That year, Boggs also won his first Gold Glove Award.
The Yankees’ starting rotation wasn’t anything to write home about, but it did feature Jimmy Key. Key finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting and sixth in AL MVP Award voting, leading the league with 17 wins (against only four losses) with a 3.27 ERA in 168 innings of work. He gave up only 10 home runs all year, the lowest rate per nine innings (0.5).
Likewise, the Yankees’ bullpen wasn’t anything special either, but Steve Howe had a last hurrah at the age of 36. He recorded 15 saves with a 1.80 ERA in 40 innings. He would go on to pitch miserably in ’95 and ’96 before retiring.
The Yankees finished 1994 with a 70-43 record, good for a .619 winning percentage. It put them 6.5 games ahead of the Orioles in the AL East. The Yankees were on a roll, winning 19 of 22 games between July 14 and August 5. However, they lost five of six before the season abruptly ended. Would that skid have continued, or would they have regained their momentum? We’ll never know.
Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas
Bagwell and Thomas were the respective MVPs of their leagues. The 26-year-old Bagwell had a historically great 1.201 OPS (213 OPS+), slashing .368/.451/.750 with 39 home runs, a major league best 116 RBI, and an NL-best 104 runs scored. He also swatted 32 doubles and stole 15 bases while winning a Gold Glove Award.
Prorating Bagwell’s counting stats over 162 games, he was on pace for 147 runs, 207 hits, 45 doubles, 55 home runs, 163 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. There have only been five 55+ homer, 160+ RBI seasons in baseball history. Babe Ruth’s 1921 season for the Yankees was the only one of those five that matches Bagwell’s prorated ’94 in totality. Ruth hit .378/.512/.846 with 59 home runs, 168 RBI, 177 runs scored, 204 hits, 44 doubles, and 17 stolen bases.
Thomas, 26, was not to be outdone. He slashed .353/.487/.729, leading the majors in on-base percentage, OPS (1.217), runs scored (106), and walks (109) while leading the AL in slugging percentage and adjusted OPS (212). He also hit 34 doubles, 38 home runs, and knocked in 101 runs. His ’94 MVP Award was his second in a row, and he would never win another MVP Award after that despite continuing to be an absolute monster at the plate. We wouldn’t see offensive seasons like that again until Mark McGwire in 1998 and Barry Bonds circa 2001-04. Going by wRC+, which is FanGraphs’ stat similar to OPS+, Bagwell (205) and Thomas tie McGwire for the fifth-best offensive season in the 25 years since.
Because of his mean and aggressive playing style, Albert Belle was arguably the most feared player in the majors during his career. Remember when Belle barreled into Fernando Viña to break up a double play? That later led to a brawl.
Belle was already established as a premier slugger prior to ’94, mashing 28 taters in ’91, 34 in ’92, and 38 in ’93. He was on his way to a career year in ’94 before the strike. Belle finished the year batting .357/.438/.714 with 147 hits, 35 doubles, 36 home runs, 101 RBI, and 90 runs scored as well as nine stolen bases. Over a 162-game season, that’s a pace of 207 hits, 49 doubles, 51 homers, 152 RBI, 127 runs, and 13 steals. Fittingly enough, Belle would put up similar numbers over closer to a full season the next year. In ’95, he hit .317/.401/.690 with 173 hits, 52 doubles, 50 homers, 126 RBI, and 121 runs.
Even if Bonds had the entirety of 1994, it would only have ranked as his third-best season to date. Still, he was on pace for a 40-40 season. At the time, it was a club with just one member: José Canseco. Bonds would join the club in 1996 and would be followed by Álex Rodríguez in ’98 and Alfonso Soriano in 2006.
When the season ended, Bonds owned a .312/.426/.647 triple-slash line with 37 home runs and 29 steals.
We’re talking too much about hitters. Maddux’s ’94 had the potential to rank among the very best starting pitching seasons of all time. It does, actually, but his counting stats tend not to show up in lists because he was 10 starts short of his normal 35. Maddux went 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA and a 156/31 K/BB ratio in 202 innings of work. He led the majors in [unfurls giant scroll]: ERA, adjusted ERA (ERA+; 271), complete games (10), shutouts (3), innings pitched, WHIP (0.896), and HR/9 (0.2). Maddux also finished fifth in NL MVP Award voting. For a pitcher to finish top-five in the MVP vote, he must have had a damn good year. It doesn’t happen often.
’95 turned out to be nearly as strong a campaign for Maddux, losing slightly fewer games to a truncated season. Over 28 starts, he went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA and a 181/23 K/BB ratio in 209 2/3 innings.
One more hitter and one footnote. Gwynn was really flirting with hitting .400. There has still been no one to bat .400 since Ted Williams (.406) in 1941 for the Red Sox. At the time of the strike, Gwynn was hitting .394. He would have had to hit even better down the stretch, but it would have been a feat even more rare than winning the Triple Crown.
Not only was Gwynn hitting for his trademark high average, he was also showing considerable power. Gwynn rapped 36 doubles and 12 home runs, putting him on pace for 49 and 17, respectively, both of which would have matched later career-bests. Coincidentally, he hit 49 doubles and 17 home runs in 1997.
The Giants’ Williams led the league in home runs at 43, which put him on pace for 62. At the time, Roger Maris was still the single-season home run record-holder, hitting 61 in ’61. Williams was coming off of his hottest full month as well, posting a 1.081 OPS with 11 home runs in July. He homered in three of nine August games before the sudden end of the season.
While McGriff had an outstanding ’94 campaign, I’m not going to go into too much detail since this article is already nearly at 2,000 words. I just want to note that he hit 34 home runs in 113 games in ’94, which prorates to 48 over a full season. If he had those 14 home runs, he would have joined the elite 500 home run club when his career was all said and done rather than resting at 493. While I don’t personally consider McGriff a Hall of Fame player, his having joined the 500 home run club likely would have made a significant impact on his otherwise low Hall of Fame vote percentages. He fell off the ballot after 10 years.
Despite all of these team- and player-focused achievements that never quite were, it was worth it in the end. Fans erroneously blamed the players for perceived greediness thanks to decades upon decades of propaganda fed by ownership and propagated by the baseball media for decades prior. That went hand in hand with the larger anti-union messaging from the U.S. government since the late ‘60’s.
The truth is that unions – warts and all – are undeniable forces of good and are absolutely necessary in every industry. Industries without unions run roughshod over their employees, working them to the bone for little pay, no benefits, and substandard working conditions. If you don’t believe me, ask the scores of people working in the unorganized video game development industry. You can thank unions for things like the end of child labor, the involvement of women in the labor force, the eight-hour work day, and sick leave.
The MLB Players Association, particularly under the leadership of Marvin Miller, helped effect significant change in the sport. When Miller helped negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement between the MLBPA and ownership, players saw their minimum salary increase from $7,000 to $10,000. In modern dollars, that’s an annual increase of about $12,000. Miller and Curt Flood challenged MLB’s reserve clause, which essentially gave teams unilateral rights over players. While Flood’s challenge was unsuccessful, it paved the way for the reserve clause to end in 1974, bringing about free agency.
In the time since, players’ salaries have continued to grow, but so too have MLB revenues and ownership profits. Revenues crossed $10 billion in 2018! As much as the owners would be loath to admit it, that wouldn’t have been possible without the union. Raising players’ pay helped make the sport more attractive, drawing for many years the best athletes, which helped make the sport exciting.
Was the 1994-95 strike frustrating because the seasons were shortened and the ’94 playoffs erased? Sure. But it was fundamentally necessary. The threat of a strike is only as strong as one’s willingness to follow through. The owners were getting greedy and the union was left with little choice but to strike. In a perfect world, there is never disharmony between labor and ownership, but we don’t live in such a world. Unions provide a way to check and limit ownership power. The players, currently in the midst of labor unrest themselves, should look to the ’94 strike as, perhaps, a source of inspiration.