Sadly, the 1981 baseball season is remembered best for the 10-week players’ strike that canceled 713 games and put America through a disorientating summer. The players’ union walked out in response to an attempt by league owners to combat rising salaries by limiting free agency. Major league baseball eventually resumed, but under an unpopular “split-season” format that provided for multiple winners from each division. The baseball hierarchy elected to declare those teams that stood in first place before the strike began the first-half winners of their respective divisions. The teams that finished atop their divisions after play resumed were subsequently declared the second-half winners. The first and second-half winners then met in the first-ever divisional playoffs. Once the division champions were determined, they faced each other in the traditional League Championship Series.
The Oakland Athletics and the Kansas City Royals ended up coming out of the A.L. West. The Billy Martin-led A’s compiled the division’s best record prior to the strike, edging out the Texas Rangers by 1 ½ games and the Chicago White Sox by 2 ½ games. Oakland also put together a solid second half, finishing just one game behind the first-place Royals.
Oakland played an aggressive brand of baseball known as “Billy-Ball” that featured speed, bunting, hitting-and-running, and base-stealing. Leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson symbolized the ball club’s style of play. Appearing in 108 of Oakland's 109 games, Henderson finished fourth in the league with a .319 batting average, and he topped the circuit with 89 runs scored, 135 hits, and 56 stolen bases. Meanwhile, Tony Armas supplied much of the power in the middle of the A’s lineup, leading the league with 22 home runs and placing second with 76 runs batted in. Steve McCatty led Oakland’s pitching staff with a record of 14-7, a 2.33 ERA, 16 complete games, and four shutouts.
Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Amos Otis, and George Brett paced the Royals on offense. Wilson batted .303, scored 54 runs, and stole 34 bases. Aikens hit 17 homers and drove in 53 runs. Otis led the team with 57 runs batted in. Brett placed among the league leaders with seven triples, 27 doubles, and a .314 batting average. Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura anchored Kansas City’s starting rotation. Leonard posted 13 victories, compiled a 2.99 ERA, and threw 202 innings. Gura finished 11-8 with a team-leading 2.72 ERA and 12 complete games. Dan Quisenberry excelled out of the bullpen, saving 18 games and posting a 1.73 ERA.
The Yankees compiled the Eastern Division’s best record during the season’s first half, while the Milwaukee Brewers emerged as the second-half winner. New York posted a record of 34-22 prior to the strike, finishing two games ahead of Baltimore and three games in front of Milwaukee. The Brewers compiled a mark of 31-22 after the players returned to their jobs, edging out both the Red Sox and Tigers by a game-and-a-half.
The Yankees benefited from the split-season format perhaps more than any other team since they struggled during the second half of the campaign, posting a record of only 25-26 that left them with an overall mark of just 59-48. Dissatisfied with his ball club’s lackluster performance after play resumed, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner replaced Gene Michael at the helm with Bob Lemon. New York fared no better under Lemon, going just 11-14 over the final 25 games.
With many of the team’s regulars suffering through subpar seasons, New York finished just 11th in the American League in runs scored. Only off-season acquisitions Jerry Mumphrey and Dave Winfield performed well on offense. Mumphrey led the team with a .307 batting average and 14 stolen bases, while Winfield hit 13 home runs, batted .294, and finished first on the club with 68 runs batted in, 25 doubles, and 114 hits.
Fortunately for the Yankees, they had the American League’s best pitching staff. With a starting rotation that included Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and A.L. Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti, New York finished first in the circuit with a 2.90 team ERA. Guidry, John, and Righetti posted a combined record of 28-17 between them. Righetti led the league with a 2.05 ERA, while John and Guidry compiled marks of 2.63 and 2.76, respectively. Meanwhile, Goose Gossage had a sensational year working out of the bullpen, compiling an ERA of 0.77, finishing second in the league with 20 saves, and allowing only 22 hits in 47 innings of work, while striking out 48 batters.
As well as Gossage pitched for New York, he had to take a backseat to Rollie Fingers, who earned A.L. Cy Young and MVP honors for Milwaukee. Fingers finished 6-3, with a 1.04 ERA and a league-leading 28 saves. He surrendered 55 hits in 78 innings pitched, walked only 13 batters, and struck out 61. The Brewers also got fine seasons from Pete Vuckovich, who finished 14-4, and Cecil Cooper, who knocked in 60 runs, scored 70 others, and batted .320. But Fingers served as the driving force behind Milwaukee’s successful run to the playoffs, having a hand in 34 of his team’s 62 victories.
The A’s quickly disposed of the Royals in the Western Division Playoff Series, defeating them in three straight games and outscoring them by a combined margin of 10-2. The Yankees had a far more difficult time getting past the Brewers in the Eastern Division Series, needing five games to advance to the next round, after initially jumping out to a two-games-to-none advantage. New York then made surprisingly quick work of Oakland in the ALCS, sweeping the Series in three games by a combined score of 20-4.
However, the Yankees didn’t fare nearly as well against the Dodgers in the World Series. After winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees lost four straight games to Los Angeles, with injuries to Graig Nettles and Reggie Jackson contributing significantly to the defeat. Reliever George Frazier had a horrible Series for New York, going 0-3 with a 17.18 ERA. Meanwhile, Dave Winfield’s 1-for-22 performance subsequently drew criticism from George Steinbrenner, who referred to his $23 million superstar as “Mr. May.”
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• February 12 - Reputedly because the Boston Red Sox mailed out his contract two days late, catcher Carlton Fisk became a free agent. He subsequently signed with the Chicago White Sox.
• April 10 – Carlton Fisk made his debut with the White Sox, coincidentally in Fenway Park against his former team, the Boston Red Sox. The new White Sox catcher hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning to help his team to a 5-3 win.
• May 15 – Cleveland’s Len Barker pitched a perfect game against Toronto.
• May 25 - Carl Yastrzemski played in his 3,000th major league game, joining Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron in an extremely exclusive club.
• June 12 - After meeting with major league owners for most of the previous day, players' union chief Marvin Miller announced, "We have accomplished nothing. The strike is on."
• Boston's Carney Lansford led the American League with a .336 batting average.
• The Hall of Fame inducted Bob Gibson, Johnny Mize, and Rube Foster.
• The Yankees traded Willie McGee to St. Louis for Bob Sykes.
• Boston traded Fred Lynn and Steve Renko to California for Frank Tanana, Joe Rudi, and Jim Dorsey.
• Detroit sent Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon.
• Buddy Bell of Texas established a modern major league record by making 2.93 assists per game at third base.
• Baltimore’s Eddie Murray, Oakland's Tony Armas, California's Bobby Grich, and Boston's Dwight Evans all tied for the American League lead with 22 home runs.
• Murray also topped the circuit with 78 runs batted in.
• Grich batted a career-high .304 and led the league with a .543 slugging average.
• Evans also knocked in 71 runs, batted .296, and finished second in the league with 84 runs scored.
• Cleveland's Mike Hargrove topped the circuit with a .432 on-base percentage.
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