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1981 Baseball Season

The 1981 baseball season is, unfortunately, best remembered for the ten-week players' strike that canceled 713 games and put America through a disorientating summer. The players' union walked out because the league's owners, worried about rising salaries, were trying to cut back on free agency.

Major league baseball eventually resumed, but under an unpopular "split-season" format. According to the format, those teams in first place before the strike began were declared first-half winners. The teams that finished atop their divisions after the strike would be declared second-half winners. The first-half winners would then play the second-half winners in divisional playoffs.

The format garnered more playoff revenue for the league, but it turned out to be an unfair and embarrassing creation. Cincinnati and St. Louis, the National League teams with the best overall records, didn't even make the playoffs.

The National League East playoffs instead featured the Phillies and Expos, with Montreal winning three games to two. Philadelphia got another MVP year from Mike Schmidt, who spearheaded the league in home runs with 31 and RBI with 91.

Montreal was led by Gary Carter, who hit a pair of homers in the 1981 All-Star Game at Cleveland, the first game played after the strike ended. Rookie Tim Raines, the league leader in steals with 71, was another Expo asset.

The Dodgers beat the Astros in five games in the National League West playoffs. Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, 1981 Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winner, was backed by a great Los Angeles staff, including Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch, Burt Hooton, and Dave Stewart. The Astros pitching was more than adequate, too, with Nolan Ryan (1.69 ERA), Don Sutton, Joe Niekro, and Bob Knepper.

Dave Winfield
Dave Winfield was a great
all-around player: he could
run, field, throw and hit.

In the American League East, Buck Rodgers's Brewers faced the Yankees in the postseason playoff. Milwaukee boasted relief ace Rollie Fingers, who won both the Cy Young and MVP titles. But the Yankees, who had picked up free agent Dave Winfield over the winter, beat the Brewers in five.

Billy Martin's Athletics swept Kansas City in the American League West playoffs. The A's had led the league with 60 complete games (the next highest total was 33), but a few years later, pitching staff leaders Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, and Mike Norris would retire from baseball as the result of arm injuries.

Among other notable events, Ryan fired his fifth career nohitter, a new major league record. Pete Rose got his 3,631st hit, breaking Stan Musial's National League record. Tom Seaver struck out No. 3,000. And Toronto's Danny Ainge wisely retired from baseball to pursue a career in the NBA.

The National League Championship Series wasn't decided until the last inning of the fifth game, when LA's Rick Monday blasted a two-out homer off Steve Rogers to break a 1-1 tie. Rogers, who had pitched a complete game just three days earlier, was making only his third relief appearance in nine seasons.

In the American League Championship Series, the Yankees beat the A's in three straight games. The A's scored just four runs over the tournament; the Yanks racked up 20 runs.

The Yankees won the first two games of the 1981 World Series, beating the Dodgers 5-3 and 3-0. But the Dodgers, sparked by strong play from Pedro Guerrero, Ron Cey, and Steve Yeager, went on to win the next four for the World Championship. Yankee reliever George Frazier was the Series goat, going 0-3 with a 17.18 ERA.

Find headlines and summaries of the major stories from the 1981 baseball season on the next page.

To learn more about baseball, see: