Sports History Files: The baseball strike, 20 years later

How I enjoy and perceive the game of baseball changed forever 20 years ago this week, when well-heeled major leaguers went on strike.

A month later, as pennant races should have been coming to a climax, MLB cancelled not only the regular season, but the playoffs.

There would be no World Series for the first time in 90 years.

Many, many other things were lost, as Tim Keown wrote on ESPN.com on Tuesday, including Tony Gwynn’s bid for a .400 season, Matt Williams’ attempt to eclipse Roger Maris and the Montreal Expos gunning for a rare slice of team supremacy.

Lords of the RealmWhatever sense of innocence the most idealistic baseball fan may have had was crushed. Coming off the heels of the World Cup in the United States, I was ready to move on.

Screw this, I thought, embittered that this latest labor issue came as the Atlanta Braves were ascendant, and might have been in that World Series, as they had been two of three previous seasons.

Tom Glavine, the Braves’ player rep, didn’t seem all that broken up by what had happened. Calm and cool and collected as he was on the mound, this was his persona. I understood that.

But screw it, I thought, there are other things. As I recall those events from the late summer of 1994, I realize my emotional breakup with baseball has been largely a good thing.

Above all, it prompted me to confront the unappetizing background of baseball and labor. Ironically enough, John Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm: the Real History of Baseball,” was published as the 1994 season opened, and for anyone reading it new, as that contentious season progressed, his lavishly detailed history must have seemed prophetic.

From the very first sentence, “Before it was ever a business, it was a game,” Helyar is unsparing in how ruthlessly baseball owners treated players. The reserve clause was put in place before the turn of the 20th century, and it lasted for nearly another one.

The rise of Marvin Miller is recounted in fascinating fashion, and Helyar explains how the entry of entrepreneurial-minded owners like Ted Turner created havoc among the “Lords” themselves as they grappled with free agency, complex television deals and the vagaries of a changing business model most of them would rather not have had to deal with. As he recounts Turner’s famous comment:

“Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re fucking it up.”

They continued to fuck it up, as salaries and television revenues escalated, along with labor tensions. The walkout on Aug. 12, 1994, was the eighth work stoppage in 22 years, and the fourth to take place during a season. It would be the last, but for some fans like me, the game would never be the same. Helyar’s last words were even more prophetic than the first:

“The Lords and the agents, the lawyers and the czars, had done their best to kill baseball. There was something about the national pastime that made people behave badly. They were, perhaps, blinded by the light of what it represented — a glowing distillate of America. Men fought to control it as though they could own it. They wallowed in dubious battle, locked in ugly trench warfare for dominion over the green fields. The money poured into the game and men gorged and gouged over it — made damned fools of themselves over it.

“And the fans, ever forgiving, were still there.”

After some time, they returned. It took me longer, but I found myself among them too, albeit quite a bit more jaded, as I remain today. Even the Braves winning it all in 1995 didn’t excite me all that much.

About 10 years ago I read Helyar’s paperback version, which included an afterword from November 1994, as the World Series cancellation was setting in.

In the decade since, I’ve seen my hometown team struggle to maintain pace with the big spenders of the big leagues. The Braves locked up some fine young talent before this season, but many of those who pitch are sidelined with Tommy John injuries, some for the second time. Others being paid well to hit aren’t, and some have been booted out of town, still on the payroll.

The franchise is absconding a perfectly fine stadium in downtown Atlanta, a gift of the 1996 Olympics. The Braves are headed my way, building a new ball park in part with my tax money following a two-week public information process that was an absolute sham.

My local public library, a true community gem, was built in 1966, the same year as the original Atlanta Stadium. My local elected officials can’t seem to find the money to build a new library, although it has been obsolete for decades. But they did get some “freebies” recently from the Braves for their cooperation.

Major League Baseball is a business, and an unforgiving one, and I know the Braves face some serious business issues. After nearly a half-century in downtown Atlanta, long-promised redevelopment has never materialized, with plenty of political interference a nagging concern. I don’t blame them for looking elsewhere.

The 1994 strike may seem long ago, and “peace and prosperity” has reigned since then, but this is what I think about now as I ponder the fate of a team I’ve grown up with, and have followed most of my life.

As the Lords meet this week to select Bud Selig’s successor, that haunting piece of history just won’t go away.

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