1981 baseball season in review

24 08 2010

On to my next part – a quick run down of the 1981 season. I’d now be a 1-year-old, somewhere between learning to crawl and walk. This was a tough year for my rooting interests – this was the strike-shortened year:

Highlights and Events:

Before the season, two teams changed ownership.  Charlie Finley finally sold the A’s – this time his sale was allowed as Walter A. Haas Jr. of Levi Strauss & Co. planned to keep the team in Oakland.  Bill Veeck, Jr. ended his 2nd tenure as White Sox owner, selling the team to real estate magnate Jerry Reinsdorf.  During the season, the Wrigley family sold its interest in the Cubs to the Tribune Company, ending 55 years of majority ownership by the family.

On opening day, Fernando Valenzuela was given a spot start to replace injured Jerry Reuss.  “Fernandomania” began that day as Valenzuela threw a 5-hit shutout.  Fernando would start the season 8-0 with 4 shutouts in his first 5 games and created a media sensation every time he pitched.  The strike shortened season cut some of his momentum, but he still managed to start the All-Star game, win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, and lead the Dodgers to the first half division lead.

Similar to the year before, this season also had a number of pitching milestones before the strike.  In April, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton struck out their 3,000th batter, becoming the 5th and 6th players to do so.  In May, Charlie Lea of Montreal no-hit the Giants; 5 days later Len Barker pitched a perfect game, blanking the Toronto Blue Jays.  Additionally, Nolan Ryan set the ML record for career walks, passing Early Wynn, while Pete Rose passed Stan Musial for the most hits by a National League player.

On June 12th, MLB and players’ union negotiations halted when the two sides were unable to agree on team compensation for lost free agents.  The players’ strike began, and baseball wouldn’t resume until August 9th. During that time, future HOF-ers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. played in a minor league game that went over 8 hours and 33 innings, the longest professional game ever.

The strike ended with the All-Star game with the National League winning its 10th straight game 5-4 behind MVP Gary Carter’s 2 home runs.  After the strike, Ryan threw his fifth career no-hitter, breaking the record he previously held with Sandy Koufax.

Mike Schmidt’s MVP season only solidified his title as “best player in baseball” – his only competition, fellow third-bagger George Brett, had a moderate year.

The best pitcher in baseball was still Steve Carlton – he had another phenomenal year, finishing 3rd behind Fernandomania and Tom Seaver in Cy Young voting.


Reds season

Team MVP: George Foster (.295/22/90)

Best Pitcher: Tom Seaver (14-2/2.54/87)

Award Winners:

Foster, Silver Slugger

Dave Concepcion, Silver Slugger


Foster (starter)

Concepcion (starter)


The Reds ended the season 66-42, the best record in baseball. But they finished 2nd to different teams in both halves, falling 1/2 game behind the Dodgers at the time of the strike, and falling 1.5 games back of the Astros in the 2nd half.  One more Big Red Machiner was gone; Cesar Geronimo was traded to the Royals before the 1981 season. Johnny Bench switched to first base and played only 52 games.  Meanwhile, “Charlie Hustle” Rose was busy for the Phillies becoming the only 40-year old player to lead the league in hits.

Tom “Terrific” led the NL in wins, going 14-3 with a 2.54 ERA, and finished second to “Fernandomania” in the Cy Young voting.  George Foster was again the team’s best player. Foster (3rd in MVP voting) smashed 22 homers and knocked in an astounding 90 batters, while Dave Concepcion (4th) drove in 67 and had his best year statistically.  Seaver, Foster and Concepcion were all-stars.  Ken Griffey had another solid year, batting .311. Ron Oester followed up an excellent rookie campaign to team at second with Concepcion to establish a solid tandem up the middle. Young Mario Soto won 12 games and struck out 151 batters.

Read on for the postseason summary…


The owners created a controversial but revenue-boosting playoff format.  The teams with the best record in each division at the strike would play the teams with the best record in the division during the 2nd half, or a wild card if a team won both.  This created a situation where there was no incentive for the first half winners to win games – and no team won both halves.  Both the Reds and Cardinals had the best record of their division but remained at home in October.

The Phillies made the playoffs as defending World Series champions, and Mike Schmidt successfully defended his MVP award by being the only player to bang out over 30 homers in the shortened year.  However the Phillies were upset 3-2 by the Montreal Expos, who were making their first (and would turn out to be their only) playoff appearance.  The Expos were led by runners-up in the MVP and Rookie of the Year voting. Andre Dawson smashed 24 homers, while Tim Raines set a rookie record (despite the short season) with 71 steals.

In the other first-round series, the Dodgers staff of Valenzuela, Reuss, Burt Hooton and young Bob Welch and Dave Stewart out-dueled the Astros pitchers Ryan and Joe Niekro to erase a 2-0 deficit by winning the final 3 games.  The NLCS went five games, and the Dodgers sent the Expos home in what would become known as “Blue Monday” when Rick Monday homered in the top of the 9th to break a 1-1 tie.

Blue Monday

Blue Monday

The Royals fared even worse as defending AL champs, being swept out by the Oakland A’s, who were in turn swept by the Yankees in the ALCS. In the first round the Yankees bested the Brewers, who were led by MVP and Cy Young closer Rollie Fingers.  Fingers became the first reliever to win the MVP, edging out the A’s Rickey Henderson for the award.

World Series:

The World Series then featured a familiar matchup of the Yankees and Dodgers.  This was the 11th time these two franchises played each other,  but only the 3rd time the Dodgers came away as winners.  They again lost the first two games, but the Yankees played a number of games without 2 of their stars.  Reggie Jackson had a leg injury and didn’t play until game 4 of the series; Graig Nettles hurt his thumb diving for a ball at third base in game 2.  Still, they nearly took a 3-0 lead; LA needed the help of their upstart rookie Valenzuela. Fernando gave up 4 early runs in game 3 and trailed 4-3, but he settled down to pitch a complete game and allow for a 5-4 comeback win.  The Dodgers went on to win the next 3 games to cement their 5th world championship. Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager shared MVP honors as the trio batted a collective .327 with 5 homers and 17 RBI.




2 responses

27 08 2014

I was a little kid when this happened, but looking back the craziest thing is not necessarily the first half/second half format, but the uneven number of games played and how it actually affected which teams made the playoffs.

Not only did the Cardinals have the best overall record, but they were tied with or ahead of the winning team in the loss column in both halves! In the second half, Montreal went 30-23 and St. Louis went 29-23. If the Cards had played that one extra game and won they would have been tied for a playoff spot! Their first half was similar, although it may have been more of a long shot for it to have made a difference, with the Phillies going 34-21 and the Cards 30-20. But still, if St. Louis had played 5 more games it wouldn’t be that improbable for a good team to go 4-1 (or even 5-0). And the Reds had a similar beef in the first half, going 35-21 and “losing” to the 36-21 Dodgers. The Rangers also had this situation in the AL, although it was much less likely to have made a difference, with Texas going 33-22 and the A’s 37-23.

At any rate, looking at this, I have to wonder how steamed the Cardinals/Reds and their fans were at the time…

27 08 2014

Yeh that’s a good point. I noticed it but never thought about it that way. I agree both factors make it a bug difference.

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