1981 Baseball Season
1981 Baseball Season
By Patrick Mondout
The 1981 season was unique in a number of ways due to a prolonged
player's strike. The most controversial aspect of the 1981 season was they
way teams qualified for the postseason. It was decided after the strike
was settled that the four teams in first place in their respective
divisions when the strike began were already qualified for the postseason
and that the teams that won their divisions in the second half would face
them in a Division Series (i.e., first half AL West winner versus second
half AL West winner) with the winners facing off in each League
Championship Series. If the same team won both halves, the team with the
second best overall second record would get in.1
The part that was controversial is that this decision was made after
the season started. In other words, every team started the 1981 season
believing it needed to be in first place on October 4th to be the lone
participant from its division in the League Championship Series - as had
been the case since divisional play began in 1969.
This eventually irked fans, players, and officials of both the St.
Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, who each finished a close second
in both halves, had the best records in each NL division, and failed to
make the postseason. Their whining was unwarranted, however. More on that
Bowie Kuhn announced the new playoff format shortly after the All-Star
game kicked off the second half. The announcement of the split season
itself was met with derision from a press and public fed up with greedy
owners and greedy players unable to avoid a strike, but it was a quirk in
the hastily fashioned Division Series rules that led to the next bit of
controversy. Former law student and White Sox manager Tony LaRussa figured
out a way that he might be put in a position where he could get into the
postseason by forfeiting the last four games of the season! It worked like
- Oakland won the first half division title in his AL West.
- The winner of the second half would face Oakland in the Division
- UNLESS it was Oakland. Then, under the original playoff plan, it
would be the team with the next best overall record from the division
- not necessarily the team with the second best, second half record.
LaRusa's Sox finished the first half 2 1/2 games behind Oakland and 1
game behind Texas. Kansas City was 9 1/2 games back.
- LaRussa calculated that if the A's had a one game lead over the
Royals and a five game lead over his Sox with four to play in the
second half, his out-of-the-running Sox - which still had an overall
lead in the combined first and second half standings versus the Royals
- could forfeit all four games of a theoretical series with the A's to
sneak in through the back door since the A's would then have won both
halves and the White Sox would have the second best overall record
ahead of the Royals.2
Major League baseball did not enjoy the press clippings of LaRussa (or
of at least 10 of his players) freely admitting to reporters that they
would indeed throw games to get in to the postseason. Ironically, manager
Whitey Herzog of the Cardinals also thought it worthwhile to suggest he'd
play the system to get to the postseason, perhaps making him look perhaps
less sympathetic in the resulting outcome.
Kuhn and the owners revised their plans to ensure there would be no way
to lose your way into the playoffs by giving the second half winner (or
runner-up, if a team won both halves) the postseason slot against the
first half winner.
The owners thought it in the "best interest of baseball" (a
phrase that almost always brings out the contrarian in me) to have all the
teams back in the pennant race and to expand the playoffs in order to
bring back the fan$. The resulting system gave all 22 teams that had not
won a division in the first half a second chance to make the postseason.
It was arbitrary, motivated perhaps by greed, but certainly fair and it
made for the best odds ever to make the postseason.
I can understand how Cards and Reds fans might have wished for the
season to simply have been resumed where it left off, but that by no means
would have assured either team a place in the postseason, as I will point
out below. It can be argued that a team such as the Dodgers were shafted
by having to play an extra round in the postseason just to get to the NLCS.
It may not be a very good argument, but it is at least as good as the
pro-Cards and pro-Reds arguments.
Standings for the 1981 Season showing the Cards and Reds in 1st are below.
The strike took place after the games of June 12th, but the player's
union originally intended to strike on May 29th. Take a look at the standings
following the games of May 29, 1981 (they are about half-way down the
page). You'll notice that it is St. Louis that is first place with the
Expos a half game out. You'll also notice that the Reds are a full 5 and a
half games behind the Dodgers (following a 5-2 victory by the Dodgers over
the Reds that very day). Would there have been so much whining from those
two cities had the strike ended the first half - as the players intended -
on May 29th?4
But the strike was postponed and the Reds soon went on a seven
game winning streak that only interrupted when the players finally struck.
The Cards, meanwhile, went 7-5 after May 29th while Philadelphia went 9-2
and the Expos slumped to 5-7, enabling the Cards to pass the Expos, but
still end up a game and a half behind the Phillies, when the first half
ended. The first half stopping point may have been arbitrary, but that's
life. Each team had just as much of a chance of winning the first half as
the Dodgers and Phillies and better odds in the second half than LA and
Philly did in the first, so there is no injustice there.
While the Cardinals and Reds finished close to first both halves, they
did not win either half and both had their seasons end on October 4
along with 16 other teams. They did, however, have the best overall
records in their respective divisions and the Reds actually had the best
record in baseball. As absolutely everyone in baseball was aware as soon
as the second half started that a team's overall record was completely
irrelevant with regards to the postseason and given that the four
first-half division winners coasted knowing they had nothing to play for
in the second half, there is really no legitimate reason to bring it up
overall records now. It does us no good to suggest that St. Louis and
Cincinnati would have won their divisions under the old rules since Philly
and LA would certainly have played with more enthusiasm once the season
resumed if they had been fighting for their playoff lives instead of
printing NLDS tickets.
Yet to this day you can still find fans who really think the Cardinals
and Reds were shafted. They don't seem to realize that no two teams had ever
had such an easy path to the postseason and that both teams simply blew
it. Let me explain. Before the 1969 divisional realignment, you had one
shot to make it to the postseason: you had to win the pennant in your
league by having the best record (or winning a rare playoff in case of a
tie). Starting in 1969, the postseason was expanded to include winners in
each of two divisions in each league. The League Championship Series'
determined the winners who then went on to the World Series. While you had
a 1 in 8 shot (8 teams in each league from 1901-1960) or a 1 in 10 shot
(1961-1968) at the postseason before, the LCS meant you had a 1 in 6 shot
(6 teams in each division starting in 1969). What then were the odds for
the Cardinals and Reds?5
Let's set aside the first half of the 1981 seasons since all teams had
a 1-6 shot at winning the first half (even if they did not know it at the
time). In the second half, the Reds and Cards - who already had one shot
at the postseason in the first half - simply had to have a better second
half record than the other teams in their division minus the top two
teams! (The Dodgers were already in and the Reds finished second and
the Phillies were already in and the Cards finished second; the Cards and
Reds did not have to compete with the best teams in their division nor the
second best (themselves).) This means that all the Cards or Reds had to do
to get in the postseason was to hold off the teams that had finished 3rd
through last in the first half. Not only were these the best odds ever at
1 in 5, but again - they only had to beat the worst teams in their own
division. In fact, when you consider that teams in each division actually
had an unprecedented 1 in 3 chance (2 teams from each 6 team division made
the postseason) of making the '81 postseason, it is inexcusable to
whine about failing to do so. That neither team was able tells us, I
believe, more about the true nature of the '81 Reds and Cards than their
irrelevant-then-as-now overall records do.
Some have also erroneously suggested the Reds were cheated because they
played one less game than the Dodgers in the first half and only finished
a half game back (presuming that if they had played one more, they would
have won it and forced a tie). The number of games played had no meaning
whatsoever as far as who was in the postseason. It was winning percentage
(as it has been since 1893) and not the number of wins that got you to the
postseason in 1981. If, for example, a game which the Reds lost in the
first half would actually have been rained out (and not made up before the
strike), they would have finished with two less games and a 35-20
record (.636) that would have placed the 36-21 (.631) Dodgers in second
place. The Dodgers hardly had an advantage by playing one
"extra" game. After all, which game was it? Did they win or lose
it? Lastly, had the first half ended "on time" (May 29th), the
Cardinals would have won the NL East despite playing five games less than
the Expos and six less than the Phillies.
Both the Cards and the Reds went into the final week of the season with
great shots at winning the second half. The Cards actually had a half game
lead with 5 to play but went just 3-2 the rest of the way while the Expos
went on a five game winning streak (before resting their starters in a
meaningless season finale loss to the Mets) to win the second half. The
Astros actually lost four of their last six games - including a split with
Cincy - while the Reds finished one and a half games back of Houston after
losing two of three at home to the 5th place Atlanta Braves. If they
couldn't hold off the 3rd-6th place teams from their division in the
second half, then what makes fans of these teams think they could have
held off the defending champ Phillies or soon-to-be champion Dodgers in a
The Cards and the Reds each had a pair of shots at making the '81
postseason with the best odds that have ever been offered and couldn't get
it done. They weren't shafted, they simply failed (twice each). I do not
shed any tears of what might have been for the last gasp of the Big Red
Machine or for Whitey Herzog's legacy (whose biggest blow would come four
years later courtesy of Don Denkinger - that is, if you believe that myth).
If you want to look for someone who was shafted by the strike,
look no further than Tim Raines. He had 50 steals in 56 games when the
strike was called and was on a pace beyond what even Rickey Henderson
would do a year later. Raines was injured after the season resumed and
finished with a rookie record 71 in 88 games, though that mark was soon
erased by Juan Samuel and Vince Coleman. Just how many steals might the
second best leadoff man of all time have had in a "normal"
season? His 1982 season was damaged by admitted drug use and he never
stole with the same frequency. We missed one of the all-time single-season
performances because of this strike.
Although the overall standings were completely
irrelevant in determining who would be in the postseason due to the
unique, somewhat arbitrary, and altered rules of the strike-shortened 1981
season, we have posted them here so that certain Cincinnati and St. Louis
fans can continue to needlessly feel cheated two decades on.
1981 STANDINGS OVERALL
1. While 1892 also featured a split season, it was
by design. The American Association no longer existed and the National
League wanted to have a postseason series similar to the NL/AA contests of
the previous decade, so it split the season in two to allow the winners
from each half to square off in a postseason championship series. That was
the only year Major League Baseball had a split season by design and 1981
was the only other split season.
2. Kansas City, of course, did have a great second half and made
the playoffs. But only the Angels played worse in the American League than
LaRussa's Sox in the second half.
3. The strike was delayed by two weeks pending hearings into an
injunction by the player's union. The judge gave the sides 48 hours to
work something out on June 10th effectively announcing the strike for just
after the games of June 12th.
4. The standings of May 31st also show that the Baltimore Orioles -
not the 4th place Yankees (who soon went on a 9 game winning streak) -
would have won the first half had the strike happened "on time."
5. The American League odds were slightly worse at 1 in 7 for each
half or 2 in 7 overall. Baltimore and the Rangers had the second best
overall records but participated in little, if any, self-indulgent
Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia by John Thorn, et al.
ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia by Gary Gillette (Editor), Pete Palmer (Editor).