The 1981 Boston Red Sox took advantage of the unique nature of that season’s major league baseball campaign to put themselves in position to reach postseason play. But the Red Sox continued their pattern of the 1970s and came up short at the worst possible time.
MLB’s labor problems came to head in 1981 and there was a midseason players’ strike that began in the first part of June and lasted for two months. When play returned, the solution to restore interest was to declare the teams that were in first place when the strike hit to be “first half champions”, and reset the standings to zero. Everyone would play out the remainder of the schedule and the “second half champions” would meet the first-half winners in the first-ever Division Series.
Even before the turmoil within the game overall, Boston went through a tumultuous offseason. They let beloved catcher Carlton Fisk walk to the Chicago White Sox via free agency, and Fisk continued to produce.
The Red Sox traded the left side of their infield, Rick Burleson and Butch Hobson to the California Angels to get a new third baseman–24-year-old Carney Lansford, centerfielder Rick Miller and reliever Mark Clear. And they dealt former AL MVP Fred Lynn to California in a separate deal whose most notable acquisition was lefthander starting pitcher Frank Tanana.
While letting Fisk go was debatable, the deal to get Lansford, Miller and Clear was a boon. The first two were good hitters in 1981, and Clear was an acceptable reliever whose only problem was being forced to take on an outsized role in a mediocre Boston bullpen. Tanana was a reliable, if unspectacular starter, though certainly not worth the price tag of Lynn.
Boston had no problems scoring runs in 1981, with the most productive offense in the American League. Dwight Evans was the star of the show. The rightfielder finished second in the league in on-base percentage (.415), third in slugging percentage (.522), tied for the lead in home runs (22), was second in runs scored, fourth in RBI and first in walks. Evans was also one of the best defensive rightfielders in baseball and he finished third in the MVP voting.
Evans wasn’t the only star though–Lansford won the batting title, hitting .336. Second baseman and leadoff hitter Jerry Remy hit .307. Jim Rice popped 17 home runs. Rich Gedman, the new 21-year-old catcher showed promise with the bat and posted a .434 slugging percentage. Miller put up a .349 OBP.
And then there was Yaz. Carl Yastrzemski was now 41-years-old, and his power was gone. But the future Hall of Famer could still get on base and he finished with a .338 OBP.
The pitching wasn’t quite as good. Mike Torrez, now 34-years-old was the best starter at 10-3 in 22 starts, although his 3.68 ERA was more that of a middle-of-the-rotation arm than an ace. Tanana and 26-year-old Dennis Eckersley each made the full complement of 23 starts and had ERAs over 4.
First-year manager Ralph Houk patched the rest of the rotation together with a mix of John Tudor and a pair of 23-year-olds, Bob Ojeda and Steve Crawford, to marginal effect. The same was true in the bullpen where Houk squeezed what he could out of Clear, Bob Stanley, Tom Burgmeier and Bill Campbell.
After a 7-5 start, Boston dropped seven straight to non-contenders in the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins. Curiously, a ten-game road trip seemed to revive the Red Sox. They went 8-2 and closed to within two games of the AL East lead. Boston then traveled west to face the Oakland A’s in the first weekend of June.
Normally, this would have been just another road trip in early summer. In 1981, it was a series being played when the deadline for resolving the labor dispute was coming up the following Thursday. No one knew what impact the standings of mid-June would ultimately have, but it was looming out there.
Oakland was leading the AL West, and Tanana came out and held the A’s to one run through seven innings. The score was 1-1 in the top of the eighth, when Evans walked, then Yaz and Rice hit consecutive home runs. Tanana and Campbell finished out the 3-1 win.
Crawford got rocked on Saturday and the Red Sox lost 6-2. In the finale, Eckersley was brilliant for eight innings and had a 3-1 lead. Eck got two outs in the ninth, but gave up a game-tying home run. Clear gave up a walkoff shot in the 11th. The Red Sox were now four games out and that’s where they ended up when the strike shut down baseball until August 12.
Boston didn’t come blazing out of the gate, energized by a fresh start. They started the second half with a 14-12 record. The Detroit Tigers were 18-9 and were setting the pace, but starting on Labor Day the Red Sox would play the Tigers seven times in ten days.
The three-game set in Detroit didn’t begin well. The only offense Boston got was a solo shot by Yaz off Tiger ace Jack Morris in a 3-1 loss. But Yaz kept hitting on Tuesday, with three hits and a home run keying a 5-3 win. On Wednesday, the Red Sox trailed 4-1 in the eighth. Rice singled to drive in a run, and then in the ninth Remy hit a game-tying single with two outs. Boston scored twice in the eleventh, held off Detroit and won 6-5.
When the Tigers made a return trip to Fenway a week later, the results were even better. Remy sparked the offense with two hits and two RBI, while Stanley turned into 3.1 innings of brilliant relief work in a 5-2 win.
Then came Wednesday’s doubleheader. Eckersley and Morris staged an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel, each still on the mound in the 10th with the score tied 1-1. Lansford won the game with a two-out RBI single. The Red Sox got another big two-out hit in the nightcap–trailing 4-3 in the seventh, Dave Stapleton picked up two runs with a single and the 5-4 lead stood up.
Rice took over on Thursday, with four hits, four RBI and a home run. The 6-1 win completed Boston’s fantastic week and the AL East race was now a four-team affair–the Red Sox, Tigers, Brewers and Orioles were all packed on top of one another.
Boston kept rolling and took two of three from the New York Yankees. The Yanks had won the first half but their only reward for winning the second half would be an additional home game–the second-place team in the second half would advance, so New York was inconsequential to the race, and they joined the other first-half winners in basically playing out the string.
The Red Sox then won a series from Milwaukee. Detroit had held on to first place, but Boston was only a half-game out and tied in the loss column, with the Brewers and Orioles still in hot pursuit with a week and a half left.
With a four-game series at home against the Cleveland Indians, the time was ripe for the Sox to make their move. But in the pre-2004 era of this franchise, that move was often to miss an opportunity like this. The Red Sox dropped three of the four games, including an 8-7 decision in 11 innings that ended the series. Then they went to Milwaukee and dropped a series there.
By the time the final weekend came, it was over. The Brewers and Tigers were now both ahead of the Red Sox and the former two teams were playing head-to-head. Milwaukee won the second half race, and even though Boston took two of three in Cleveland, they had to settle for tying Detroit for second place.
There were some great moments for the 1981 Boston Red Sox, especially the early September run of wins against Detroit. But in this strange year for major league baseball, at least a missed opportunity for Boston was something fans could still rely on.