A fiercely competitive Kansas City Royals relief pitcher, Jeff Montgomery enjoyed memorable moments during his 13-year big-league career — including 12 seasons in Royal blue.
The right-hander recorded more than 300 saves and made three All-Star teams on his way to carving out a spot in the Royals Hall of Fame.
“Monty,” the franchise’s career saves leader, didn’t hedge or equivocate when asked to reflect on his experience during the last work stoppage in Major League Baseball prior to this winter, the players strike in 1994.
“It was the lowest point of my career, when you’ve got to go through such a long stoppage, all the uncertainties, all the damage to the industry,” Montgomery said in a phone interview with The Star. “It was really tough.”
The 1994 strike forced the cancellation of the World Series and delayed the start of the 1995 season. It lasted 232 days, the longest such stoppage in MLB history.
MLB and the MLB Players Association hadn’t gone through another work stoppage until the owners locked out the players last month after the collective bargaining agreement expired.
Montgomery, who now works as an analyst on the Bally Sports KC pregame and postgame television coverage of the Royals, served as the Royals player representative during the 1994 strike.
Despite what were trying times for everyone in baseball, Montgomery remains steadfast that the players were justified in taking a stand to protect their rights as employees.
“That’s really what the strike was all about,” Montgomery said. “We said we felt like we should have the right to earn what somebody is willing to pay us. We were doing it for the guys playing after us. We’re doing it in respect for the players before us did.”
#Royals have worn black Players Association t-shirts during warmups during the series in Detroit. I asked Whit Merrifield what's behind that. He said it is in recognition and show of support for the players who went on strike in 1994, and how much players now have because of them pic.twitter.com/EsZV0hiQXO
— Lynn Worthy (@LWorthySports) August 10, 2019
Determined to fight
The atmosphere in the early 1990s was highly charged. Independent arbitrators having found owners colluded to suppress players’ pay in the 1980s.
The 1994 strike came on the heels of the owners having locked out the players in 1990. That 32-day lockout began in February, wiped out spring training, moved Opening Day back and extended the season three days.
Out of the 1990 lockout rose the initial stages of the “Super Two” designation with salary arbitration for the top 17% of players with between two and three years of major league service (that percentage was increased to 22 in 2011).
Owners annual contribution to the players benefit fund increased, minimum salary raised to $100,000, roster size increased from 24 to 25, stiffer penalties were established for collusion and a study was commissioned to look into revenue sharing and baseball economics.
The owners unsuccessfully sought a salary cap tied to revenue in 1990.
In the months prior to the 1994 strike, the owners altered their voting rules to require a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority to approve any agreement.
That served as a sign that the owners were prepared to dig in against the MLBPA.
“Looking back, I feel like there was probably a pretty concerted effort on behalf of baseball and the owners to break the players union,” Montgomery said. “That was seemingly, hindsight is more clear, and we didn’t realize it at the time but that was an opportunity to break the players union.”
The strike began on Aug. 12. The players’ initially thought by striking in August it would leave time to reconcile and still have a postseason.
Instead, the season never resumed and the World Series didn’t take place for the first time since 1904. MLB became the first major American professional sports league to lose an entire postseason because of labor struggles.
“It’s a hard one to sell publicly,” Montgomery said. “Because everyone who looks in the newspaper and sees what the player is making says, ‘How in the world can he go on strike making that much money?’ You almost have to erase the number, what the actual salary is, and say we went on strike for the right to earn what an employer is willing to pay us.
“Players put time in in the minor leagues. They have to have to play in the major leagues for at least three years to have the opportunity to make decent money, so often times that’s a period of seven, eight, 10 years before a player is even arbitration eligible. Then it’s another three years until that player has free agency.”
Montgomery was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds out of Marshall University in 1983 at age of 21, then debuted in majors in 1987 at 25.
He didn’t exceed rookie limits until 1988 following a trade to the Royals. He reached free agency following the 1995 season shortly before he turned 34.
As a free agent, he turned down more money from other teams to stay in Kansas City, exercising his right to choose where he wanted to play. He remained with the Royals through his final season in 1999.
Union rep and lightning rod
Montgomery remembers the warning his former teammate Dan Quisenberry gave him about taking on player rep duties.
“He said you be prepared because you’re going to feel like a lightning rod,” Montgomery said. “Once things go south in negotiations, everybody is going to be calling you.”
Montgomery found out just how accurate a statement that was as he served as the club’s mouthpiece, their voice in union meetings and the means of communication for his entire team in an era before email.
Montgomery received information via a large FedEx package or over a conference call with the other union reps.
Then he’d started dialing up every player one-by-one and letting them know when they’d have a conference call so he could relay information from MLBPA to the entire team.
Following those conference calls was when his job really got trying.
“Without fail, there would be calls after these conference calls with players who were in a state of almost panic,” Montgomery said. “You know, ‘What am I going to do.’
“These weren’t players who had established themselves and played for a number of years in the major leagues. These were players who very early in their careers, one year of service or less. But they’re on the 40-man roster, they’re on strike, they’re receiving no income.”
Players who’d been in the majors for multiple years had money saved up from licensing. The MLBPA would hold onto that money and then give the players a monthly payment to help with expenses and bills.
But guys without service time didn’t have access to that war chest.
Montgomery said he is still “somewhat amazed” that MLBPA leadership kept everyone together and unified for so long and in such difficult circumstances.
The memory still lingers with Montgomery of picking up the phone and having a young player crying on the other end worried that the strike would tear apart his marriage.
“He was literally in tears saying, ‘My wife is going to leave me because she thought she was marrying someone who is going to have a career in baseball,’” Montgomery said. “... There weren’t dozens of calls like that, but there were a handful of calls where guys were like, ‘Look, realistically, are we going to have baseball this year? I can’t make it until next year. I can’t make it much longer.’ It was a very difficult time for everybody.”
Far-reaching impact of the strike
At the time of the strike, MLB owners claimed 19 of 28 teams were losing money.
The following winter with labor strife ongoing, owners unilaterally implemented a salary cap and prepared to start the 1995 season with replacement players.
Six months into the stoppage, the impasse reached the top office in the United States with MLB commissioner Bud Selig and his top officials and MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr and union officials summoned to the White House for an hours-long negotiating session led by President Bill Clinton.
Even the gravitas of the presidency didn’t significantly push the sides towards an agreement.
In a Feb. 7, 1995, press conference with vice president Al Gore standing in the background over his right shoulder, Clinton said, “Unfortunately, the parties have not reached agreement. The American people are the real losers.”
Both were part of the White House negotiating sessions. The two recounted the tumultuous time in a recent episode of the podcast “Toeing The Slab with David Cone.”
“I think a lot of owners, back in that day, truly despised the players association and they wanted to beat the union,” Glavine said. “They knew the best way to get a salary cap was to get the union to break.”
Cone described it as a “real constituted effort by the owners to rewrite the basic agreement, virtually eliminating any rights that were gained going back to Curt Flood. So we really had no choice back then to make our stand.”
The National Labor Relations Board cited the owners for unfair labor practices and filed for an injunction to return the players to work under the terms of the expired basic agreement.
That injunction was granted by U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who now sits on the Supreme Court, on March 31.
The replacement players were dismissed, and play resumed on April 25 under the previous rules. After a lost season in 1994, each team played 144 games in 1995.
Following the strike, attendance and ratings dipped for MLB. The fans in stadiums voiced their discontent on a regular basis.
Similarly to Montgomery, Cone called that period the most difficult thing he’d been through in his professional life.
Cone and Glavine recalled players around the league being roundly booed upon returning to the field.
The year baseball returned, the Royals held free youth clinics at Kauffman held by players in an effort to endear themselves to the local community again.
Baseball’s popularity eventually rebounded as fans embraced Cal Ripken Jr.’s chase of Lou Gerhig’s consecutive games played record in September 1995, followed by the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998.
The legal fighting paved the way for the the Curt Flood Act of 1998. Signed into law by Clinton, the piece of legislation partially revoked MLB’s antitrust exemption in regard to conduct and practices of MLB surrounding players’ employment.
MLB remains the only of the four major North American sports leagues without a salary cap. Issues of compensation, arbitration and eligibility for free agency remain part of the contentious points between the current players and owners.