The Division Series, the best-of-five round that takes place among the last four teams left in both leagues, came about by design in the realignment of the 1994 season. But more than a decade prior, the first Division Series came about by accident and it produced an ironic result–not only did the New York Yankees advance, but so did their old manager, who moved on with the Oakland A’s.
A players’ strike from mid-June to mid-August called for some creativity. MLB decided to have teams leading at the strike play those that won the post-strike period after starting from scratch. Out of the blue, everyone was told an extra round was added to the playoffs. Here’s a look back at the 1981 ALDS, who got there, and how it unfolded day-by-day.
The Yankees and A’s led their divisions when the strike began on June 12—with no Central Division in existence yet, there was just an East & West. After play resumed in August, the Milwaukee Brewers won the AL East’s second-half and the Kansas City Royals took the other berth in the AL West.
You can read more about all four teams regular season paths, the key players and decisive moments in their push to October at the links below. This article will focus on going day-by-day through the Division Series.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 6
The 1981 ALDS began on a Tuesday afternoon in Kansas City, as the Royals hosted the A’s. Kansas City, who had won the AL West four times in the previous five years, and the pennant in 1980, sent their ace, Dennis Leonard to the mound. Oakland had been the superior team in 1981, with a workhorse starting rotation and Billy Martin as their manager. The A’s countered with young Mike Norris on the hill.
Kansas City got the first threat of Game 1, loading the bases with one out. Norris, pitching like a postseason veteran, got two Royal vets, Frank White and George Brett, to escape unscathed. Oakland quickly made KC play. Dwayne Murphy drew a one-out walk in the fourth, and then Brett committed a two-out error. Oakland third baseman Wayne Gross ripped a three-run blast and the A’s had a 3-0 lead.
Norris was only challenged one more time, when Kansas City loaded the bases with none out in the fifth. Norris got leadoff hitter Willie Wilson to pop up, and then a White line drive went right at Gross, who turned it into a double play. Murphy gave Oakland some insurance in the eighth with a solo home run.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 7
Both series would be in action today and Oakland-KC, being two small market teams, again got stuck playing a weekday afternoon game. The A’s sent Steve McCatty to face KC righthander Mike Jones. The Royals had gotten decent work from Jones in 1981, but turning to him in this spot underscored that both Rich Gale and Paul Splittorff had struggled during the season and why Kansas City wasn’t quite as good as in previous years.
Murphy again got Oakland going, this time right away in the first, with a one-out single. He scored on a double by DH Cliff Johnson. The inning might have been bigger, but Johnson mysteriously only advanced one base on a subsequent double, and Kansas City was only behind 1-0.
It looked like Oakland’s failure to make the first inning bigger would hurt them. Both pitchers settled in, and with two outs in the fifth, the Royals tied it on successive singles from John Wathan, U.L. Washington and Wilson.
But Murphy once again came through, this time in the eighth inning for Oakland. He singled to lead off, was bunted up by Johnson and scored on a double by Tony Armas. McCatty delivered a complete-game six-hitter and Oakland had come into KC’s house and taken the first two games.
The focus of the American League stayed in the heartland, but went several hours north, as the Yankees and Brewers met in the old Milwaukee County Stadium in prime-time. New York had a former Cy Young winner, lefty Ron Guidry, while Milwaukee would rely on Moose Haas, a consistent, if unspectacular righthander.
Milwaukee could hit, and they got after Guidry in the second, with a two-out double from Sal Bando and an RBI base hit from Charlie Moore. In the third, Jim Gantner doubled off Guidry to start the inning. Paul Molitor laid down a sac bunt that was flubbed and the Brewers had runners on the corners.
It might have been a big inning, but Guidry settled down. Robin Yount picked up Gantner with a sac fly, but at 2-0, the Yankees had the bats to bet back into it. And that’s what they did immediately, starting in the top of the fourth.
After Haas walked Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble went deep and the game was quickly tied. Then Bob Watson singled and pesky Larry Milbourne beat out an infield hit. Rick Cerone doubled to clear the bases. Haas was gone and the Brewers were staring at a 4-2 hole.
Milwaukee’s offense got Guidry out of the game in the fifth, when the sequence of a Yount single, a walk of Cecil Cooper and a base hit by Ted Simmons made it 4-3. New York manager Bob Lemon called in his hard-throwing young reliever Ron Davis.
The move paid off—Davis got out of the inning with the one-run lead intact and he worked 2.2 innings of perfect baseball. Milwaukee never threatened again, and New York picked up an insurance run in the ninth to win it 5-3.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 8
Oakland and Kansas City were traveling, and New York and Milwaukee got it going in an afternoon game. Both teams sent lefthanders to the hill, although that was about all Dave Righetti and Mike Caldwell had in common. New York’s Righetti was a hard-throwing young arm. Milwaukee’s Caldwell was a veteran finesse pitcher. Both were brilliant on this day.
The Yankees’ Lou Piniella got to Caldwell for a two-out home run in the fourth inning and into the seventh inning, the 1-0 game stood up, with nary a threat from either side. In the bottom of the seventh, Davis came on, but lacked the control of the previous night. Two walks and a single loaded the bases.
New York was stacked in the bullpen, and Lemon simply upgraded to closer Goose Gossage, a future Hall of Famer. With one out, Gossage got Yount to pop up and struck out Cooper. In the top of the ninth, the Yankees got a two-run blast from Jackson. The insurance runs weren’t technically needed, although they undoubtedly improved Lemon’s peace of mind when the Brewers got singles from Bando and Molitor with one out in the ninth. But Yount again popped out, Gossage slammed the door and with the 3-0 win, the Yankees joined the A’s in taking the first two games on the road.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 9
There was no travel day for Brewers-Yanks, so this would be a doubleheader day in the ALDS. The Royals and A’s started with a 2:10 PM local start that was early evening on the East Coast, meaning it could swing into the Brewers-Yankees at 8:20 PM local time in the Bronx.
Kansas City turned to their veteran lefty Larry Gura to try and keep the season alive, with Oakland countering with Rick Langford, who’d pitched as well all year as Norris and McCatty. And Langford continued the trend of great A’s starting pitching.
The A’s gave Langford a quick run when Rickey Henderson drew a walk, stole second with two outs and scored on a single by Armas. In the third, Henderson singled and again took off for second—this time he was out…but for an error by Washington at short that kept Henderson on the basepaths. Then Wathan, the KC catcher, dropped a foul-ball out on Murphy. Then Murphy beat out in an infield hit, and Henderson kept on chugging all the way home.
It was 2-0 and Kansas City did not look like the experienced veteran team. Oakland loaded the bases with no outs, but consecutive strikeouts by the A’s weak bottom of the order forced Martin to try something improbable—Murphy took off on a steal of home, but it didn’t work. The Royals weren’t playing well, but they were breathing.
White led off the KC fourth with a single. Willie Aikens singled to right. White took third on the hit and scored on an RBI grounder by Amos Otis. But as quickly as Kansas City got on the board, Oakland had an answer, and once again Murphy was in the middle of it.
It began with a solo home run by Dave McKay. With two outs, Henderson again singled and Murphy slashed an RBI double and it was 4-1.
Kansas City didn’t go quietly—they got four singles in the top of the fifth, but the combination of Clint Hurdle being picked off, runners moving up just one base at a time and a couple infield popouts, meant no runs. In the top of the eighth, the Royals put two on with one out. Martin summoned Tom Underwood in relief of Langford, and he struck out the power-hitting Aikens who represented the tying run. Martin then turned to Dave Beard to get Otis.
That was the last shot for the Royals. Beard slammed the door in the ninth and for the first time since 1975, the Oakland A’s were AL West champs.
Could Friday be a day of a sweep on both coasts? The pitching matchup certainly suggested it. The Yankees had their terrific veteran lefty Tommy John, while the Brewers put their season into the hands of journeyman Randy Lerch.
But Lerch was terrific. New York got a run in the fourth when Bob Watson delivered a two-out RBI single, but even with John pitching great, the Yankee lead was only 1-0 into the seventh. And then the Brewer offense awoke.
It started small, with an infield hit by Cooper, but quickly went big, as Simmons homered for a 2-1 Milwaukee lead. Gorman Thomas singled, and was sacrificed up by Ben Ogilvie. Bando drove in the run with a single and Milwaukee had a 3-1 lead, with the league MVP—closer Rollie Fingers—in reserve.
But Fingers struggled in the seventh, and New York got four straight one-out singles from Watson, Milbourne, Cerone and Willie Randolph to immediately tie the game back up. Milwaukee could have been forgiven for folding—but they didn’t—Molitor homered to start the eighth and put his team right back on top.
Yount beat out an infield hit. John was removed, and Simmons again had a big RBI, this time a double for a 5-3 lead. Given a reprieve, Fingers rolled through the eighth and ninth. We would come back to Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10
Milwaukee’s Pete Vuckovich was a year away from an 18-win Cy Young season. He shouldered his team’s fate against New York’s Rick Reuschel, who had been the ace of some disappointing Cubs’ teams in the late 1970s and now had the chance to be on the October stage.
Both pitchers rolled through three innings and the Brewers began chipping away in the fourth. Molitor and Yount both singled. A sac fly from Cooper plated the first run and Ogilvie’s two-out double staked Vuckovich to a 2-zip lead.
An error and a double by Dave Winfield gave the Yankees second and third with no outs in the sixth. Vuckovich was removed for lefthander Jamie Easterly. It wasn’t a long or noteworthy career for Easterly, but this is at or near the top of his greatest moments.
He struck out Jackson, and even though Piniella picked up one run with an RBI groundout, Easterly had maintained the lead.
And a Brewer tag-team of Jim Slaton from the right side, Bob McClure from the left and eventually Fingers, slammed the door. Milwaukee won 2-1 and this strange series, with the road team winning every game, would go to a decisive finale on Sunday night.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 11
It was a Hass-Guidry rematch and the Brewers again showed they could hit the renowned Yankee ace. Thomas homered in the second. In the third, utility man Ed Romero singled, Molitor walked, Young legged out an infield hit, Cooper picked up the RBI with a sac fly and it was 2-0…just like it had been in Game 1.
And just like the opener, Haas couldn’t hold the lead and it was the fourth inning, with the Jackson/Gamble duo doing the Brewer pitcher in. It began with a leadoff single from Milbourne. Jackson then went deep tie the game and Gamble immediately followed with a home run to put New York on top.
Haas was gone and Caldwell was in, but the Brewer lefty didn’t have the stuff of Game 2. Graig Nettles and Watson each singled and with runners on the corners, Rick Cerone picked up the RBI with a productive groundball.
It was still only 4-2, and just like Game 1, the Brewers got a run back. In the seventh inning, with Righetti on for Guidry, Yount tripled and came in on a Cooper base hit. But New York immediately answered when Cerone took Slaton deep.
In a battle of teams with great closers, it was New York who turned a lead over to Gossage, while Fingers could only watch. The Goose gave up a couple walks in the eighth, but got Don Money to fly out and keep the 5-3 lead. New York tacked on two insurance runs in the bottom of the inning, and it was all over, but the shouting, ending 7-3.
Both series of the 1981 ALDS had been taken by the first-half winners, as the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s advanced to the American League Championship Series.
1981 DIVISION SERIES MVPS
This wasn’t an official award then, nor is it today, but it should be. So let’s rectify the omission and give out some hardware. In the Oakland-KC series, Dwayne Murphy is an easy choice. He was 6-for-11 and there was no significant A’s rally that Murphy didn’t have his hands in.
The New York-Milwaukee series has three worthwhile candidates. Gamble went 5-for-9 and hit two home runs, both in decisive spots of the series opener and closer. Righetti won two games—he came on in the fifth inning of Game 5 and got the win in that game and pitched brilliantly in nine total innings.
But the overriding factor in this series was the dominance of the New York bullpen. Gossage saved all three New York victories and they were all legitimate saves (i.e., none of this stuff were you get three easy outs with a three-run lead). The Goose pitched multiple innings in close games. In 6.2 IP of work, he shut out a great offensive team and only gave up three hits. He would be my choice.
THE AFTERMATH FOR THE VANQUISHED
Milwaukee and Kansas City would each be back. The Brewers built on the postseason experience gained, won the AL East in 1982 and reached the World Series, losing a good seven-game Fall Classic to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Royals were a steady organization and though it took a couple more years, they again won the AL West in 1984. One year later, Kansas City saw its dreams come true, with a World Series victory over St. Louis.
THE AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTORIOUS
New York and Oakland’s ALCS matchup featured two good games, but the Yankees won both of those, and took home the pennant in a three-game sweep.
The Yankees then won the first two games of the World Series at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the trip west proved their undoing. New York lost three consecutive one-run games and then were blown out on their home field in Game 6.
Most surprising is that the Yankees and A’s disappeared from the October stage for several years. New York fielded pretty good teams in the coming years, but not up to the usual standards of this franchise and they didn’t make the postseason until the new alignment and wild-card era began in 1995.
Oakland fell completely off the map, as their starting pitching burned out, Martin burned out and the A’s disappeared until a new cast of characters emerged later in the decade. Neither disappearing act would have been expected when the Yankees and A’s were pouring champagne at the end of the 1981 ALDS.