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.

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1981 Baseball Season Headlines

Though the 1981 baseball season was literally torn in two by the players' strike, there was still plenty to talk about. Here are some of the headlines from the 1981 baseball season:

Nolan Ryan Hurls No-No No. 5

A national television audience witnessed the highlight of Nolan Ryan's 1981 season -- and the establishment of a major league record -- as The Express hurled his fifth career no-hitter on September 26, at the Astrodome, against the Dodgers. Ryan went 11-5, leading the National League in ERA (1.69) and fewest hits per game (5.98).

Gary Gaetti Cracks Open Career

On September 20, 1981, Twins rookie Gary Gaetti homered off Charlie Hough of Texas in his first major league at-bat to signal the beginning of an All-Star career. Gaetti was 47th player in major league history to accomplish the feat. Fellow rookie teammates Kent Hrbek and Tim Laudner, who were also playing in their first major league game, homered in the same contest.

Dwight Evans Clubs 22 Homers

Dwight Evans put up impressive numbers during the strike season, as he tied for the lead in the American League in homers with 22, batted .296, drove in 71 runs, and won his fourth Gold Glove. The misunderstood right fielder gained some respectability -- and a little insurance for his future with the team -- once his offensive output began to match his superb fielding and throwing.

Bill Madlock Wins 1981 National League Bat Title

Bill Madlock won his third National League batting crown in 1981, hitting .341 in 82 games. Mad Dog won four batting titles in his career, was an All-Star three times, and spearheaded three teams into postseason action over his 15-year stint. In his spare time, Madlock was an outstanding pingpong player.

Rollie Fingers Wins the 1981 American League MVP

No reliever with the possible exception of Willie Hernandez has ever had a season like the one Rollie Fingers had in 1981. Cited by many as being the greatest all-time reliever, Fingers figured in 55 percent of all the Brewer victories during the season (hurling in 13 of the team's final 15 triumphs that year).

Fingers (6-3, 28 saves, 1.04 ERA) captured both the 1981 American League MVP Award and the Cy Young Award while leading the Brewers to their first-ever postseason appearance. In the divisional playoffs, Fingers won one game and saved another, though his team lost in five to the Yankees.

Fernando Valenzuela Is a Star

Fernando Mania swept America in 1981 as Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican rookie sensation for the Dodgers, led the National League in innings pitched (192), strikeouts (180), and complete games (11). The first rookie to win the Cy Young Award, Valenzuela compiled a 13-7 record in a strike-shortened season and won a World Series game.

Tim Raines Sets Record with 71 Swipes

It took a great player like Montreal outfielder Tim Raines to finish second in 1981 National League Rookie of the Year balloting to Fernando Valenzuela. The recruit batted .304 while stealing 71 bases (a major league rookie record). Despite his steady performance, the Expos lost the pennant to the Dodgers.

Raines would go on to become one of the most exciting players of the 1980s. He would lead the league in batting, runs, doubles, and, of course, steals.

Steve Carlton Wins 13 Games

Despite winning an equal number of games and having a better winning percentage than Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Carlton finished third in the voting for the 1981 National League Cy Young Award. His 13-4 record led the Phillies to a strike-induced first playoff round against the Expos; once there, Carlton lost two games as the Phillies fell in five.

Bill Buckner Tops in Doubles

Bill Buckner missed out on a career year in 1981 due to the strike. That is not to say that the first baseman did not have an impressive showing. Buckner batted .311, drove in 75 runs in 106 games, and topped the National League in doubles with 35. He banged out 498 two-baggers over his career, 28th on the all-time list and just eight fewer than Babe Ruth's total.

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More 1981 Baseball Season Headlines

Below are more headlines from the 1981 baseball season, including Pete Rose's career hits record and the amazing rookie season of Fernando Valenzuela.

Tom Seaver Racks Up 14 Wins

Tom Seaver had a superb season in 1981, silencing critics who said the righty was nearing the end of the road. Seaver finished second to Fernando Valenzuela in balloting for the 1981 Cy Young Award, as he led the National League with 14 wins against two defeats and posted a 2.55 ERA.

Dave Winfield: 13 HRs, 68 RBI

Dave Winfield's 1981 performance justified his expensive free agent contract -- a minimum of $23 million for ten years. The Yankee outfielder batted .294 with 13 homers and 68 RBI in 105 games in 1981. For most of the 1980s, Winfield was one of the top ten players in the game. He could run, field, throw, and hit for both average and power.

Pete Rose Breaks Hit Record

Pete Rose topped the National League in hits with 140 in 1981. Tied with Stan Musial for the loop's all-time mark with 3,630 hits when the players' strike began in June, Rose finally broke the record on August 10, the night after the strike ended. At age 40, Charlie Hustle had his last .300 season, batting .325.

Bobby Grich Slugs Way to Top

Bobby Grich made the most of the strike-shortened 1981 season, batting a career-high .304 and topping the American League in slugging average at .543. He also placed himself in a four-way tie for the lead in the American League in homers (22). Also a Gold Glover at second base, Grich was ranked as one of the 40 greatest players ever by Total Baseball.

Billy Martin Wins with Billy Ball

Billy Martin traveled to his fifth major league managerial stop in 1980 when he took over the A's. In 1981, his charges took the West Division Championship only to fall to Martin's previous employers, the Yankees, in three straight in the American League Championship Series. The A's won with a style known as "Billy Ball," which included bunting, stealing, and hit-and-running.

Fernando Valenzuela Is a Sensation

Fernando Valenzuela's game-three victory in the 1981 World Series gave the Dodgers their first win in the six-game affair. The pitching virtuosity and incredible farm-to-baseball-field story of the Dodger rookie piqued the interest of a nation. Valenzuela was the 1981 Sporting News Player of the Year.

Jack Morris Wins 14 Games

With a bag of tricks that included a fastball, slider, and split-finger fastball, Jack Morris became the winningest pitcher of the 1980s. In 1981, Morris tied for the American League-lead in victories with 14, pitched two shutout innings in the 1981 All-Star Game, and was named Sporting News Pitcher of the Year in the junior circuit.

Pedro Guerrero Ties for 1981 World Series MVP Honors

Playing in his first full season for the Dodgers, Pedro Guerrero batted an even .300 (and hit 12 homers) in 1981. An outstanding contributor in that fall's World Series, he batted .333, smacking two homers and leading the ballclub with seven RBI. Giving the performance of his life in the final contest of that six-game 1981 World Series, he batted in five runs. For his efforts, Guerrero was named co-MVP of the Series along with Steve Yeager and Ron Cey.

Dave Winfield Ends with a Dive

Although Dave Winfield had much to do with helping the Yankees make it to the 1981 World Series, the outfielder suffered through a terrible slump once he got there. Batting just .045 in the fall classic, Winfield posted one hit and one RBI over the six-game tournament. His Series performance left New Yorkers expecting more.

Bob Welch Bombs in 1981 World Series

Bob Welch compiled a record of 9-5 during the 1981 season, tallying a 3.45 ERA. In that year's postseason play, the righty suffered a disastrous start in game four of the World Series, where he surrendered a triple, a double, a walk, and a single to the first four Yankee batters he faced before being pulled from action.

Find more highlights from the 1981 baseball season on the next page.

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1981 Baseball Season Highlights

Eight weeks of the 1981 baseball season were canceled due to players' strikes. Once baseball resumed, it was under an unpopular "split-season" format; because of this system, the two teams with the best records -- the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals -- didn't even make the playoffs.

Besides all of the turmoil, the season was also known for great performances by players like Fernando Valenzuela, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton. Below, you will find the highlights from the 1981 baseball season:

  • Players' strike cancels eight weeks of the 1981 baseball season.

  • Strike settlement results in first split-season campaign in majors since 1892.

  • Owing to split-season format, the team with baseball's best record, Cincinnati, doesn't qualify for postseason play.

  • In the National League East, first-half winner Phils are beaten by second-half winner Expos in five-game division playoff.

  • In the National League West, first-half winner LA bests second-half winner Houston in five games.

  • Dodgers beat Expos in National League Championship Series, as Rick Monday wins game five 2-1 with a ninth-inning homer.

  • In the American League East, first-half winner New York tops second-half winner Milwaukee in five games.

  • In the American League West, first-half winner Oakland sweeps second-half winner KC, which made the playoffs with a 50-53 overall record.

  • Yanks sweep A's in American League Championship Series.

  • Dodgers win 1981 World Series in six games after losing opening two games in New York.

  • Yankees bullpen flops in Series, especially George Frazier (0-3).

  • LA's Fernando Valenzuela wins the 1981 National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young, as he tops the National League in innings (192), CGs (11), shutouts (eight), and Ks (180).

  • Rollie Fingers is named 1981 American League MVP and Cy Young winner.

  • Mike Schmidt is named the 1981 National League MVP.

  • Dave Righetti wins the American League Rookie of the Year.

  • Pete Rose tops the major league in hits (140) to become the only 40-year-old player ever to accomplish this.

  • Rose collects his 3,631st hit, breaking Stan Musial's National League record.

  • Steve Carlton becomes first left-hander to collect 3,000 career strikeouts.

  • On September 20, Minnesota's Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, and Tim Laudner all homer in their first major league game.

  • Schmidt leads the majors in home runs (31), RBI (91), total bases (228), slugging (.644), runs produced (138), and OBP (.439).

  • Schmidt leads the National League in walks (73) and runs (78).

  • The National League wins its tenth straight All-Star Game, 5-4 in Cleveland.

  • Charley Finley sells A's to Levi's jeans magnates.

  • Bill Veeck sells White Sox for second time in his life.

  • The Cubs are sold to the Chicago Tribune Co.

  • Len Barker of Cleveland pitches a perfect game vs. Toronto on May 15.

  • Nolan Ryan throws a major league record fifth no-hitter on Sept. 26 vs. LA.

  • Charlie Lea of Montreal no-hits San Francisco on May 10.

  • Rochester and Pawtucket of the International League play 3 3-inning game -- longest in OB history -- over a two-day period.

  • Expo Tim Raines sets a major league rookie record with 71 steals despite abbreviated season (record since broken).

Continue to the next page for more headlines from the 1981 baseball season.

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More 1981 Baseball Season Highlights

Below are more highlights of the strike-shortened 1981 season, including year-end honors, the first black manager in the National League, and the year's Hall of Fame inductees.
  • Boston's Carney Lansford wins the American League bat crown at .336.

  • Pirate Bill Madlock barely qualifies for the BA crown, winning at .341.

  • Nolan Ryan has the best ERA in the majors (1.69).

  • Tom Seaver leads National League with 14 wins and .875 win pct.

  • Oakland, managed by Billy Martin, plays in a manner that is labeled "Billy Ball" and finishes with the best record in the American League (64-45).

  • Martin sets a major league record for most franchises managed to a division title (four).

  • Hall of Fame inducts Bob Gibson, Johnny Mize, and Rube Foster.

  • Fernando Valenzuela is the third consecutive Dodgers pitcher to win National League Rookie of the Year honor.

  • Ranger Jim Sundberg wins the last of six consecutive Gold Gloves awarded to American League catchers.

  • Oakland outfielder Rickey Henderson wins his only Gold Glove to date.

  • Yankees send Willie McGee to St. Louis for Bob Sykes.

  • Boston trades Fred Lynn and Steve Renko to California for Frank Tanana, Joe Rudi, and Jim Dorsey.

  • Cincinnati swaps Ray Knight for Houston's Cesar Cedeno.

  • Detroit sends Steve Kemp to White Sox for Chet Lemon.

  • St. Louis deals Tony Scott to Houston for Joaquin Andujar.

  • Mets trade Jeff Reardon and Dan Norman to Expos for Ellis Valentine.

  • Ozzie Smith
    Ozzie Smith joined the
    St. Louis Cardinals in 1981.

    St. Louis deals Garry Templeton to San Diego for Ozzie Smith.

  • The Carpenter family sells the Phillies.

  • George Argyros buys control of the Mariners.

  • The Astros allow a major league record-low 2.08 runs per game at home.

  • Houston's Art Howe hits in 23 consecutive games to set Astros team record.

  • Former Astros GM Tal Smith hired by several owners to advise them in an escalating number of salary arbitrations.

  • Fred Lindstrom dies.

  • Giants' Vida Blue is the first to be an All-Star Game winning pitcher in both leagues.

  • Mike Schmidt's .644 SA is a record high for National League third basemen.

  • Ranger Bill Stein sets an American League record with seven consecutive pinch hits.

  • Ranger Buddy Bell makes a modern major league record 2.93 assists per game by a third baseman.

  • Giants' Frank Robinson is the first black manager in National League.

  • Chicago's Bill Buckner tops National League in doubles (35).

  • Padre Gene Richards and Astro Craig Reynolds compete for the National League lead in triples with 12.

  • Henderson leads American League in swipes (56), hits (135), and runs (89).

  • Milwaukee's Cecil Cooper tops American League with 35 doubles.

  • Eddie Murray, Oakland's Tony Armas, California's Bobby Grich, and Boston's Dwight Evans all tie for American League homer crown with 22.

  • Murray tops American League in RBI (78).

  • Grich leads American League in SA (.543).

  • Evans tops American League in walks (85) and runs produced (133).

  • Cleveland's Mike Hargrove leads American League in OBP (.432).

  • Oakland's Steve McCatty wins American League ERA crown (2.32).

  • KC's Dennis Leonard tops the major league with 202 innings.

  • Barker leads American League in strikeouts with just 127.

  • Oakland's Rick Langford leads the major league with 18 CGs.

  • Rollie Fingers tops the major league with 28 saves.

  • Cardinal Bruce Sutter's 25 saves are tops in the National League.

  • Seattle's Tom Paciorek is runner-up for American League bat crown (.326) and also stands high in several other offensive departments.

  • Every team in the American League East finishes above .500 except last-place Blue Jays, who have the worst record in majors (37-69).

  • No pitcher in American League has more than four shutouts.

  • Minnesota's John Castino leads American League in triples with just nine.
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