1980’s “baseball decade in review”

25 09 2011

The decade of the 1980s was a remarkable one in the history of baseball.  It started with the last of the original 16 franchises winning its first World Series with the help of the future all-time hit king, then ended with the permanent banishment of that same player.  The 1980’s saw baseball’s last 300-inning pitcher and its last player-manager, while it also saw its first 40-save closer and the advent of the 9th-inning closer.  It was the decade where MLB began to lose its hold to the NFL as America’s favorite pastime.

The 1980’s was the first full decade of free agency in Major League Baseball, and labor issues loomed like a cloud over Major League Baseball more than any time in the past 100 years.  In 1981, there was a 2-month strike that altered the landscape of that season.  The league named separate division champions for the time before and after the strike, resulting in an additional round of playoffs and also ended up leaving St. Louis and Cincinnati out of the playoffs, even though they had the best cumulative record in their respective divisions.  In 1985, there was a 2-day work stoppage that ended with an increase in the minimum salary and increases in pensions.

But the collusion cases of the late 1980’s probably had more impact on the game than any other labor issue during the decade.  Three separate cases from 1986 to 1988 resulted in awards of over $100 million to the Players’ Association, and ultimately ended with a $280 million settlement in the early 90’s.  Commissioner Fay Vincent was convinced that the expansion of the 1990’s was done primarily to support the owners’ liability from this settlement.  The turmoil contributed in part to the most turnover at the Commissioner position than any other time period.  While there had been only five commissioners between 1920 and 1984, this decade saw four men hold the job.  Bowie Kuhn retired in 1984, and Peter Ueberroth took over for him.  The labor issues ultimately cost Ueberroth the job, and Bart Giamatti followed him.  But Giamatti died tragically one week after banning Pete Rose from the game, and his friend Fay Vincent took over.

It was a fairly stable decade for the status of MLB franchises, however.  There was no expansion of movement, though a few teams switched ownership and a very small number opened up new ballparks.  At the beginning of the decade, the Mets were sold to the Wilpon family (who may need to sell in the near future), the Cubs were sold to the Tribune Company, and Charlie Finley sold to the A’s.  In the middle of the decade, the Reds were sold to Marge Schott and the Pirates were sold to a “temporary” local group that held the team for more than a decade.  The Twins opened up the Metrodome in 1982, and Toronto opened up the Skydome in 1989.  In Chicago, the White Sox broke ground on a new park late in the decade – and the Cubs installed lights in Wrigley, playing the first night game in 1988 (The Big House followed suit in Ann Arbor some 23 years later).

It was a decade of catchy series names:

  • The 1982 “Suds Series” featured teams from famous brewing cities (St. Louis over Milwaukee),
  • the “I-95 Series” the next year featured Baltimore beating its neighbor the Phillies,
  • the “I-70 Series” in 1985 featured two teams from opposite sides of Missouri – this time St. Louis lost in a controversial 7-game series to Kansas City.
  • the “Battle of the Bay” became known as the “Earthquake Series” when Oakland swept its next door neighbors San Francisco over a 14-day span that was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Here’s a re-cap of what I consider to be the biggest on-field stories of each year in the decade, with some notation to some of the other things in the news.

1980 – Phillies win first title

The last of the inaugural 16 franchises (from 1901 when the American League was founded) won its first World Title in 1980, led by Sporting News player of the previous decade (Pete Rose), and the upcoming decade (Mike Schmidt).  Schmidt was the NL MVP, while Steve Carlton won the league’s Cy Young award.  Interesting facts about the Phillies title run.  Prior to the Phillies winning their first title, the A’s had won 5 World Series for Philadelphia, then moved to Kansas City, then to Oakland, where they promptly won 3 more.  The Yankees won 22 titles before the Phillies won their first, and the expansion Mets even won a title 11 years before the Phillies did.  The franchises 97-year stretch without a title is outdone only by the Cubs 100-year-plus futility that is currently ongoing.

Also notable in 1980 – despite being below .300 in June, George Brett made a legitimate run at hitting .400, being above the mark as late as mid-September.  He finished at an incredible .390.  Also, a potential all-time great baseball career was lost when J.R. Richard suffered a stroke shortly after starting the All-Star game.  He was never the same pitcher who seemed destined to be baseball’s next big strikeout man alongside his teammate, Nolan Ryan.

1981 – Fernando-Mania!

If you can look past the strike, the emergence of Mexican phenom Fernando Valenzuela was the biggest story of 1981.  Valenzuela took the league by storm and was virtually unhittable before the labor stoppage.  He was still pretty good after the strike, taking home the Cy Young award while leading the league in strikeouts and hurling 8 shutouts.  Oh, and he led the Dodgers to their third World Series title!

1982 – 130 swipes for the Man of Steal

Rickey Henderson was arguably the best player of the 1980’s and no season was quite as amazing as his 1982 campaign, where he obliterated Lou Brock’s single season record of 118 steals with a mark of 130 that may never be broken.  He actually attempted to steal an incredible 172 times out of his 261 times on base.

1983 – Ryan Express and Lefty pass the Big Train

After holding the strikeout record for over a half-century, Walter Johnson was passed up by 3 pitchers in 1983.  Nolan Ryan got there first, then Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry followed.  Carlton actually passed Ryan in June due to a rare DL stint for the Ryan Express, and the two battled for the title over the next year-plus before Ryan moved ahead of Lefty for good at the end of 1984.

The other notable story of the season was the record-breaking consecutive game streak by Steve Garvey, who passed Billy Williams for the longest such streak by a National League player but was then forced to sit out due to injury after 1,207 games.  The standard for all such streaks had started in Baltimore the year before.

1984 – Tigers go wire-to-wire

The Tigers got off to a record-setting start and never looked back.  They went wire-to-wire to win the AL East, then swept the Royals and smashed the Padres to win a title highlighted by the first of Kirk Gibson’s 2 dramatic World Series home runs.

Another notable story was that, for the first time, baseball was played in the Olympics.  Japan outdid the U.S. collegians in the finale of the exhibition event.

The Pittsburgh drug trials were notable off-the field events that marred the 1984 and 1985 season.

1985 – The Hit King

Pete Rose took center stage in 1985.  He’d been traded back to his hometown Cincinnati to become player-manager in 1984, and he continued his assault on Ty Cobb’s hit record, finally passing the Georgia Peach on September 11, 1985 in front of a sold-out Riverfront Stadium crowd.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Doc Gooden had the best season of any pitcher in the decade in 1985.  He followed up his rookie campaign with a Cy Young award, going 24-4, posting a ridiculous 1.53 ERA, and wrapping up the NL pitching triple crown with over 260 strikeouts.  At one point he won 14 games in a row.  He really should have won the MVP over Willie McGee that year.

1986 – “It gets by Buckner”

The New York Mets were down to their last out in Game 6 of the World Series, trailing 5-3 with 2 outs in the bottom of the 10th and down to their final strike against Gary Carter.  It looked like Boston was going to win its first title in 68 years, but the Mets knocked out 3 consecutive hits and a wild pitch allowed the tying run to score and Ray Knight to move to second.  Mookie Wilson hit the next pitch right at first-baseman Bill Buckner, but the ball went through his legs and Knight scored the winning run.  The Mets took the next game and the series.

Boston’s Roger Clemens was the story during the regular season in 1986.  He matched Gooden’s 24-4 record from the previous year and took home the Cy Young and MVP award, while striking out a record 20 batters in a nine-inning game in April.

Bo Jackson was also a young star in the news.  He was drafted in the NFL draft’s first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he refused their demands that he quit his contract with the Kansas City Royals.  He’d sign with the Raiders one year later and join Deion Sanders as a two-sport star.

1987 – Twins win it all

The Twins beat the Cardinals in a fantastic 7-game series that was notable on many levels.  It was the first World Series played in a dome, and the first time the home team had won every game.

Two players approached the 50-HR mark. Mark McGwire’s breakout campaign established the rookie record with 49 home runs, while Andre Dawson hit the same number in Wrigley Field to become the first player to win the MVP award for a last place team.

1988 – Hershiser passes Drysdale on the last day of the season

1988 saw another historic pitching season turned in, this time by Orel Hershiser.  The “Bulldog” did not give up a run in the month of September, and in the last game he needed to throw 10 scoreless innings to break Don Drysdale’s scoreless innings record.  In a crazy twist, Andy Hawkins matched Hershiser with a regulation shut-out, enabling him to pitch into the 10th inning and establish the new mark.  The Dodgers followed his historic season to a World Series title punctuated by Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run on 1 leg off A’s closer Dennis Eckersley in game 1.

The A’s Jose Canseco was the other big story – he put together the first 40-40 season in MLB history.

1989 – Rose banned from baseball

The ongoing investigation into Rose’s alleged gambling on the Reds and related legal positioning hung like a cloud over the game for most of 1989.  Eventually, Rose was banned for life in August, and the commissioner who kicked him out died of a heart attack one week later.

The Bay Series and the earthquake that postponed game 3 was the other big story from 1989.


Strikeouts – Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Bert Blyleven all struck out their 3,000th batter in the 1980’s.  Ryan and Carlton struck out their 4,000th batter in the decade – while Ryan became the first (and is still the only) to strike out 5,000 in 1989.

Wins – Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Phil Niekro all won their 300th game.

Saves – Rollie Fingers became the first pitcher with 300 saves in 1982.

Home runs – Reggie Jackson (’84) and Mike Schmidt (’87) joined the 500 home run club.

Hits – During the decade, Pete Rose became just the second player with over 4,000 hits and 3,000 singles.

Doubles – Rose became the fourth player with over 700 doubles.

Runs scored – Rose became the fifth player with over 2,000 runs scored.

Perfect games – Len Barker (1981), Mike Witt (1984) and Tom Browning (1988).


  • Ryan and Carlton both passed Walter Johnson and each held the career record for some time in 1983 and 1984.  Ryan finally passed Carlton for good toward the end of the ’84 season.
  • Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982 to pass Lou Brock’s single season record of 118.
  • Fingers broke Hoyt Wilhelm’s career saves record in 1980 and established a career total of 341.  Dan Quisenberry passed John Hiller’s single-season record of 38 by saving 45 games in 1983.  Bruce Sutter matched this mark the next year, and Dave Righetti saved 46 in 1986.
  • Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record in 1985, and he also established career records for singles, at bats, plate appearances and games played all of which had been set by Carl Yastrzemski earlier in the decade.  Rose also set NL marks for doubles and runs scored.


Mike Schmidt won 3 MVP’s while Dale Murphy and Robin Yount each won 2.  Yount became the 3rd player to win the award at 2 different positions.

Roger Clemens won back-to-back Cy Young awards, while Steve Carlton and Brett Saberhagen also won the award twice.  Fernando Valenzuela became the first (and he’s still the only) pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award in the same season.

Best Player in baseball

Throughout my write-ups, I tracked who I thought held the title as the current “Best Player (Pitcher) in Baseball”.  This was done by looking at looks at the players’ previous 5-and-3-year stretches as well as their most recent season.  Here was my breakdown:

Best Player

1980-1984 – Mike Schmidt

1985 – Rickey Henderson

1986-1987 – Tim Raines

1988-1989 – Wade Boggs

Best Pitcher

1980-1983 – Steve Carlton

1984 – Dan Quisenberry

1985-1986 – Dwight Gooden

1987-1989 – Roger Clemens




One response

25 09 2011

Awesome post. Nice job summarizing an entire decade, you can tell a lot of effort and thought went into that.

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