Impact of 1994 Baseball Strike Still Lingers

August 1994 seems such a long time ago now. Let’s see we were just a few months removed from the nightly soap opera that was Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding and both teams which played their home games in Madison Square Garden had just concluded seasons which ended with them playing for their league’s championship. The New York Knicks concluded a magical run by losing in game 7 to the Houston Rockets while the New York Rangers ended more than an half-century drought by ousting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Rich Ramblings 2014While the 1994 NFL Draft ended up being somewhat reminiscent of the 2013 draft in that most of the best players turned out to be on the defensive side of the line. And, oh yes, the 1994 Major League Baseball season was having a magical run although the storm clouds were brewing.

A key issue was the owners withheld a crucial payment to the players in July.  Although the games were continuing, the strike vote was taken and was approved by the great majority of players. 20 years ago this week, the last games were played in what became the Lost Season.

Upper Deck 1994 BaseballIt had been a great season. The late Tony Gwynn (and I still have problems writing that adjective for him) was chasing .400.  Gwynn was at .394 when the work stoppage came and with his special hitting skills, he had a real chance of becoming the first man to achieve the milestone since fellow San Diegan Ted Williams.

Both Matt Williams and Ken Griffey had 40 homers and some statistic models had Williams surpassing Roger Maris’ then single-season home run record.

The Montreal Expos (remember?) had baseball’s best record and beyond that, we were expecting some really good pennant races to conclude in September.

I still remember the day the strike began I was heading out on what would be an extended show trip/vacation back home. I made it a point to wake up even earlier so I could watch the latest Sports Center and hope against hope that sanity had reached both sides in the dispute between owners and players. I also remember watching the baseball highlights and hearing an announcer saying “Griffey gets his 40th homer before the break.”

1994 Baseball Strike TIME MagazineBecause my first stop was to the Albany/Watkins Glen area, and there were no direct flights from Dallas, the trip itself took almost a full day to complete. The goal was to fly up Thursday, hit some stores and a show on Friday and then a racing show on Saturday. I should mention that this was about the time Beckett began their Racing magazine and we all needed to gather as much data as possible to help make it work.

On Friday I attended the show at the local mall which had plenty of decent dealers. I made it a point to try to talk to the closest thing to a “market maker” among the dealers. And yes, you could always tell whom the “market-making” dealer was based on the inventory he carried and opinions of the other dealers. I still remember the conversation with the major dealer. He told me that although it has just been two days at that point, not one collector was asking for new cards of any baseball players. The interruption ended any collecting interest in new cards.

That comment was the first sign the dealers and most store owners would really start struggling, especially if they mainly delved in the newer cards. I will say the racing show was excellent, well attended and was really rocking.

The next week I would attend the East Coast National and more of the same I had seen at the Albany mall show was confirmed. The newer card market was going to be severely hurt and because the strike lasted into the next year, those several months changed everyone’s perception forever. What else was interesting was at Beckett each month we would write these passionate responses explaining this was a great buying opportunity and to take advantage of the sudden dearth of interest which we all felt would eventually return.

1994 Fleer Manny RamirezHowever, the real answer became this was a time in which it really became tough for many stores and shows to survive.  The hobby did lose a lot of collectors for good once the season was declared over without a World Series winner for the first time in 90 years.  The collateral damage to the industry as a whole is difficult to measure but safe to say it is huge.

One answer was that the card companies started producing cards more for the very loyal segment of their “adult base” rather than the wider base which had existed not that long ago. Within two years of the strike, we had print runs on cards Derek Jeter 1996 Select Mirror Goldconfirmed to be just 30 copies. I was just reading on the Beckett message boards about a collector attempting to add the 1996 Select Mirror Gold Derek Jeter to his collection and his low five-figure offer was not enough to procure that card. Yes, some of the very early short-print cards have held their value really well.

So we are still seeing the fallout from the strike event today.  However, with the growth of the Internet, my belief is the hobby would be in the same place it is in today with the growth of sales made primarily through online venues and less through interpersonal methods. The best shows and stores will continue to survive and thrive and as we have seen the ones not able to adapt have fallen by the wayside.

The good news is, many people are returning to the hobby they grew up loving in the late 1980s and 90s and we may just be ready for another growth spurt, even if not the explosive one we had during the boom years.  In addition, just as we have seen with print, even the dissemination of hobby news has changed from the primarily print world what we had in 1994 to sites such as this today that bring it to collectors much faster.

Baseball and baseball card collectors weren’t alone in their misery. The NHL had its own problems later that year, losing tremendous momentum and then struggling for years after a lockout (the same cycle repeated itself this decade but it looks like the league recovered much better this time).

We can only hope nothing screws it all up again.