In 1995, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — then, at age 40, the youngest of the 38 federal judges in the Southern District of New York — helped rescue baseball from further ruin by issuing an injunction two days before the sport’s owners planned to open the season with replacement players. Sotomayor’s decision restored the status quo of baseball’s previous economic system and led the players to end their 7½-month strike, which had forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
“Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball,” President Barack Obama said when he nominated Sotomayor to the high court 14 years later.
Obama’s suggestion may be hyperbole, but there’s no denying Sotomayor’s part in saving the 1995 season and ushering in baseball’s longest period of labor peace since the formation of the players’ union in 1966.
“She had a major role in ending the strike,” said Dan Silverman, who, as regional director of the National Labor Relations Board’s New York office in 1995, filed the board’s petition for an injunction. “She understood the issues, she handled it brilliantly, and she did it in a timely fashion.”
In December 1994, four months after the players went on strike, the owners declared an impasse in negotiations, implemented a salary cap and announced they would begin the 1995 season with replacement players if the dispute was not resolved by Opening Day in April. The union responded by filing an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, which pressured the owners into revoking the salary cap system in early February.
After the union lifted its freeze on players signing contracts, which had been imposed in response to the salary cap being established, the owners unilaterally eliminated clubs’ rights to negotiate with and sign free agents, delegating that authority to the sport’s labor negotiations arm, the Player Relations Committee.
“To throw this kind of bomb into negotiations is to suggest the intent is to have the bomb explode,” union chief Donald Fehr told reporters at the time.
The union filed an amended unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, arguing the owners’ latest move violated labor law and was further evidence of their bad-faith bargaining. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton’s best efforts to resolve the dispute failed.
“The American people are the real losers,” Clinton said Feb. 7 after representatives of the owners and the union spent several hours at the White House. “I have done all I could to change this situation. … But the players and owners still remain apart on their differences.”
Silverman’s office investigated the union’s unfair labor practice charge and arrived at the conclusion that, by centralizing negotiations and unilaterally eliminating salary arbitration, free agent bidding and anti-collusion provisions from the negotiations, the owners had interfered with the market mechanisms of setting wages. This was a mandatory subject of bargaining, not a permissive one.
Litigating the case would have taken months or years, during which time the owners would benefit from their illegal action, so Silverman’s office recommended to Fred Feinstein, NLRB’s general counsel, that he seek authority from the five-person board to petition a federal court for a temporary injunction. On March 26, one week before Opening Day, the NLRB voted, 3-2, to seek a court order that would restore the provisions of the previous collective bargaining agreement. The vote broke along party lines, with NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV, a Democrat, breaking the tie.
Sotomayor was randomly selected to preside over the case, and at the prehearing the following day, a Monday, she admitted that all she knew about the dispute to that point was what she had read in the newspaper. She scheduled a hearing for that Friday, which would give her four days to immerse herself in the details of the case and, importantly, left open the possibility that she would make a ruling before Opening Day.
“Judge Sotomayor may not be a baseball fan — she says she only follows the game intermittently — but she can earn the gratitude of millions of her countrymen if she can get the game unstuck,” the New York Times editorial board wrote the day before the hearing, by which time the players had voted to end their strike if Sotomayor issued an injunction.
Sotomayor, who was raised three miles from Yankee Stadium, opened the hearing with an admonition for anyone who had questioned her baseball fandom.
“I hope that none of you assumed on Monday that my lack of knowledge of the intimate details of your dispute meant that I was not a baseball fan,” she said. “You can’t grow up in the Bronx without knowing about baseball, particularly from a family where their claim to fame is that every member of it has a different team that they have rooted for.”
Sotomayor grilled both sides for more than an hour before calling a recess. She returned from her chambers 15 minutes later and read her decision, the length and elegance of which suggested she had already made up her mind about issuing an injunction after reviewing the details of the case.
“I can’t help but to at least borrow some analogies from baseball as I start,” Sotomayor said. “The often leisurely game of baseball is filled with many small moments which catch a fan’s breath. There is, for example, that wonderful second when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it’s a home run, a double or a single off the wall or an out. Unwillingly, I have been drafted onto the deck of this field with those of you watching out there, waiting for one of those small moments to happen. I personally would have liked more time to practice my swing.”
In explaining why she agreed with the NLRB that the owners had committed an unfair labor practice, Sotomayor said any delay in rendering a decision would “halt the effective continuation of the negotiation process and its ultimate possible resolution.”
“Issuing an injunction by Opening Day is important to ensure that the symbolic value of that day is not tainted by an unfair labor practice and the NLRB’s inability to take effective steps against its perpetuation,” she said, adding that the strike had “placed the entire concept of collective bargaining on trial.”
“Simply put, this levels the playing field in the negotiating room,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher David Cone, a union representative. “Now we can bargain in good faith and hopefully get a deal.”
Sotomayor drew praise for her decisive action.
Newsday’s Jon Heyman wrote that Sotomayor “stole the game back from the owners in just 46 minutes and rightly returned it to the fans.” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis said Sotomayor was “now as much a part of baseball lore as Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt.”
“Her ruling did not produce an agreement, but it gave the parties time to get on with normal business and get back to the bargaining table and produce an agreement,” Fehr told the New York Times in 2009. “If it hadn’t ended when she ended it, it would have gone on for some time and it would have gotten uglier and uglier.”
“Now, saving baseball is a bit of an exaggeration, I suppose,” Silverman, who would find himself on the losing side of a ruling by Sotomayor in a non-baseball-related case years later, said in a recent interview. “She saved the season, at least the major part of the season, and she also taught the parties about negotiations.”
At Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing in 2009, Cone testified on her behalf.
“Others may think this is an overstatement,” Cone said, referencing Obama’s suggestion that Sotomayor saved baseball, “but look at it this way: A lot of people, both inside and outside of baseball, tried to settle the dispute. Presidents, special mediators, secretaries of labor, members of Congress all tried to help but were not successful. With one decision, Judge Sotomayor changed the entire dispute. … I believe all of us who have loved the game — players, owners and fans — are in her debt.”