The 1981 New York Yankees were a team that marked the end of an era. The revival of the proud franchise that started in 1976 and produced two World Series titles (1977 and 1978), was about to disappear for more than a decade. But 1981, in the midst of a year marred by a players’ strike, the Yankees made one more run to an American League pennant.
New York made their usual big splash in the free agency market when they signed outfielder Dave Winfield to a then-record $25 million contract. Winfield had a good year, with a stat line of .360 on-base percentage/.464 slugging percentage, but the offense as a whole struggle.
The Yankees finished 11th in the American League in runs scored. They got subpar years production from the entire infield—Bob Watson, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles. Reggie Jackson had a down year in right field, with a .330/.428 stat line. The Yanks got punch from designated hitter Bobby Murcer, with his .470 slugging percentage and Oscar Gamble, at .357/.439. In fact, the team finished second in the league in home runs, but there were just not enough runners aboard for it to really count.
Fortunately for the Yanks, and their new manager Gene Michael, pitching cured a lot of ills. A trio of lefthanders—Tommy John, Ron Guidry and Dave Righetti, one a veteran sinkerballer, the other two younger power pitchers—led the best staff in the AL. Rudy May and Rick Reuschel filled out the staff.
And you needed to beat New York early, because you sure weren’t doing it late. The flamethrowing closer, Goose Gossage, saved 20 games in a season of 100-plus games and had a 0.77 ERA. Ron Davis was an on-the-rise flamethrower himself, and he finished with a 2.71 ERA. George Frazier provided quality depth to the bullpen with a buck-63 ERA.
New York started well and won eight of their first twelve. They hovered around the lead in the AL East, a half-game either way, from late April to mid-May. Then right after Memorial Day, the Yankees had a hiccup in Baltimore, losing three straight to the Orioles and falling 4 ½ games behind the Birds.
The tension between players and owners was building to its peak, and there was a deadline of June 12 for an agreement to be reached, overshadowing the sport in the early days of June. No one knew that the games being played were about to be decisive.
Baltimore made a return visit to New York in June. The Yankees trailed the Tuesday night opener 3-2 in the ninth before Nettles tied it up with a single. Then Dave Revering won the game with a two-blast in the 11th. The Wednesday night game also went 11 innings, this time Nettles hitting the two-run blast that won it. The Yankees made it easy on Thursday, taking a 7-0 lead after four innings winning 12-3 and moving into a tie for first place.
New York kept the winning going, taking five straight games before the strike hit. They held a two-game lead in the AL East because of it. The strike was not settled until mid-August, and it was then the Yankees reaped the fruit of their strong early June push.
MLB picked up the pieces of its shattered season by deciding to give everyone a clean slate. The way that was accomplished was to say that the four teams leading their divisions (at this time, there was only an East & West in both leagues and the notion of a wild-card was still 13 years off) were champions. They would be play whomever won the division’s “second half” in a new playoff round—the Division Series.
What it meant for New York was that there was nothing for them to play for. Even if they finished first in the second half, MLB would still require a Division Series, against the second-half runner-up. The only carrot given to the first-half winners was the prospect of an additional home game in the Division Series (they could get four of five at home instead of three of five).
It wasn’t a lot to play for, and New York played like it. They went 25-26 after the strike. One man who found this performance unacceptable was George Steinbrenner. The owner fired Michael with 25 games to play and replaced him with Bob Lemon, who had taken over the 1978 World Series winner in July. The intervening three years had already seen Lemon replaced by Billy Martin, then Dick Howser and then Michael. Job security wasn’t a virtue of the Yankee managerial post.
New York met up with the Milwaukee Brewers in the Division Series. It was a strange series, in that the road team won each of the first four games before the Yankee veterans finally took over at home in Game 5 and clinched another AL East title.
The Yankees then met up with an old friend in the American League Championship Series. Billy Martin was now managing the Oakland A’s and had a dominant starting rotation. The A’s weren’t nearly as deep nor as experienced as the Yanks were though, and New York swept their way to another AL flag.
It was another familiar foe in the World Series. The Yankees had beaten the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classics of both ’77 and ’78, and this year was another New York-LA matchup to make the networks happy. The Yankees appeared on their way to a third title in five years when they won the first two games at home.
But the Series got away in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won all three games out West and came back to New York in Game 6. It was revenge for New York inflicting the same fate on LA three years earlier.
The offseason signaled the Yankee transition. New York parted ways with Jackson, who signed with the California Angels. It was essentially a shift from the Jackson era to the Winfield era, with 1981 being a crisscross year. Winfield was always a good, productive player, but he never had Jackson’s knack for producing at the biggest moments.
And the competition in the AL East, always tough, wasn’t getting any easier. New York was a respectable, contending team through most of the 1980s, but they never won the AL East. They did not return to the playoffs until 1995, and then as a wild-card. The return to the top of the AL East—and ultimately to the World Series—came a year later with the arrival of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.