The New York Yankees and Oakland A’s had combined to mostly own the American League in the 1970s. The A’s won three straight pennants from 1972-74, taking the World Series each time. The Yankees won three straight pennants from 1976-78 and grabbed two Series titles. But the teams’ paths had never crisscrossed in October. That changed when they met in the 1981 ALCS.
An interesting subplot was that Oakland’s revival was under the leadership of manager Billy Martin, who had also restored to the Yankees to prominence five years earlier. New York fans would now be rooting against their old favorite.
You can read more about each team’s regular season path, including the performance of key players, at the links below. This article will focus on the games of the 1981 ALCS.
LCS play was a best-of-five round at this time, and homefield was determined on a rotation basis. The series would begin with two games in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then go to Oakland for the balance of the series.
It was veteran sinkerballer Tommy John pitching the opener for New York, with Mike Norris going for Oakland. Norris had pitched brilliantly all year and in the Division Series, but the Yankees got to him right away in Game 1.
Larry Milbourne hit a one-out single, and Dave Winfield drew a walk. After another walk to Oscar Gamble, and two outs in the inning, Graig Nettles hit a bases-clearing double and New York had a 3-0 lead before anyone was settled in.
Norris did get settled in, and the Yankees never scored—or even seriously threatened again. But the first-inning damage was enough. John allowed two singles to start the top of the second, but got out of it. Oakland got a run in the fifth, when Rob Picciolo singled, Rickey Henderson doubled him to third with one out and Dwayne Murphy picked up the run with an RBI grounder.
It was still 3-1 in the eighth, with hard-throwing setup man Ron Davis on the mound for New York. Davis lost his control and walked two with one out. The equally hard-throwing closer Goose Gossage—who had better control and better movement—came on and retired five straight batters to close the Game 1 win.
The teams had a quick turnaround, coming back on Wednesday afternoon. Oakland turned to Steve McCatty, while New York went to Rudy May. The Yankees again wasted little time getting on the board. Jerry Mumphrey led off the first with a double, took a third a base hit to left by Milbourne and then came home when Reggie Jackson delivered a productive ground ball out.
Oakland tied it up in the third with a double by Rick Bosetti and a one-out triple from Henderson. But the A’s couldn’t get their first lead of the series, as May struck out Murphy and went to escape the inning.
In the fourth, the A’s did break through against May. Three straight singles produced one run and left runners on second and third after a throw home. May was pulled and George Frazier, who had pitched well all year, came on in long relief. Frazier did his job. After an intentional walk and an infield hit made it 3-1, Frazier got Henderson to bounce back to the mound and Frazier started a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.
And in the bottom of the frame, the avalanche came for New York. Nettles singled. McCatty hit a batter with one out. Randolph singled to cut the lead to 3-2. Mumphrey walked, and Martin came out to remove McCatty.
The Oakland staff was heavily dependent on the starters, and Dave Beard couldn’t stop the carnage. Milbourne singled to tie the game. Winfield doubled and the score was 5-3. Then Lou Piniella administered the coup de grace, with a three-run blast and it was 8-3.
Nor did New York stop—the scored a run in the sixth and four more in the seventh, thanks to a three-run blast by Nettles and the final was 13-3.
No team had ever lost the first two games of LCS, a round that went back to 1969, and come back to win. But in the Division Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off the feat. And the Yankees survived a scare, going up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Brewers, before being pushed to the brink in Game 5. With the series going back west, and Martin having a quality starter at his disposal each night, this wasn’t over.
Only it was. The A’s bats weren’t going to wake up and the Yanks’ power lefty, Dave Righetti dominated Oakland in Game 3. The A’s never registered any rally worthy of the name.
Matt Keough, the Oakland starter, responded well and matched zeroes with Righetti for five innings but Willie Randolph hit a home run with two outs in the sixth. The game stayed 1-0 into the ninth. After a walk and an error to start the inning, Keough was removed.
Piniella promptly singled, though Oakland threw out Mumprhey at the plate. The bases were re-loaded with two outs and Nettles ended any doubt when he delivered a double that cleared the bases. The game ended 4-0.
Nettles finished 6-for-12 in the series, had a home run, along with two bases-loaded doubles with two outs, each in huge spots. His double in the first inning of Game 1 set the tone and then he repeated the feat in Game 3 to seal the deal. He was an easy choice for 1981 ALCS MVP.
New York went to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and kept the momentum going for two games, winning Games 1 & 2 at home. Then it all came apart quickly. The Yankees lost three straight one-run games at Dodger Stadium and then came undone in a Game 6 rout at home.
It turned out to be the last hurrah—at least for a little while for both teams, at least as presently constituted. Oakland’s starting pitching worked too many innings, burned out and they didn’t again contend until Tony LaRussa managed a series of outstanding teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No one would have guessed that the Yankees were about to disappear from the landscape. They would never again win the AL East, as it was constituted prior to the realignment of 1994, with seven teams. New York didn’t return to postseason play until 1995, and didn’t win the AL East until the revival of the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter years that began in 1996.