Billy Martin & Four Aces Put The 1981 Oakland Athletics On Top

The Oakland A’s were baseball’s royalty in the early 1970s, winning three straight World Series from 1972-74. Oakland fell off the radar following a close second-place finish in 1976, but the 1981 Oakland Athletics returned with a vengeance. Manager Billy Martin and a starting rotation with four outstanding pitchers led the team to an AL West title in a strike-shortened season.

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Martin’s four aces were Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Mike Norris and Matt Keough. In a season that went little more than 100 games thanks to the strike that covered about two months between June and August, two of the starters (Langford and McCatty) got close to 200 innings. The rotation as a whole produced 60 complete games—the next highest in the American League was 33.

The pitching was supported by an offense that was fifth in the league in scoring runs, thanks to leading the AL in home runs, in spite of playing in the vast expanse of Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The lead slugger was Tony Armas and the rightfielder hit 22 home runs. Centerfielder Dwayne Murphy popped 15 out and designated hitter Cliff Johnson went deep 17 times.

But the best offensive player was a base-stealer. Rickey Henderson was starting a Hall of Fame career and the leadoff man and leftfielder finished with a .408 on-base percentage and stole 56 bases. Almost exclusively on the strength of Henderson, Oakland finished fourth in the league in stealing bases.

Oakland’s talented outfield of Henderson, Murphy and Armas made up for a subpar offense at the rest of the positions. The infield and catching spots are marked by OBP’s hovering around or below .300, and no power to speak of.

The A’s came blazing out of the gate and won their first eleven games. They built the record to 17-2, then to 20-3 and held a seven-game lead in the AL West on May 2. A trip to play the top teams in the AL East went poorly—Oakland lost ten of eleven to the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. The lead dwindled to a 2 ½ games, and by the end of May was a narrow half-game, with the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers in hot pursuit.

Oakland righted the ship in June and that proved to be the critical stretch in this strange season. The A’s went 6-3 to start the month, with the key being a home doubleheader sweep of Baltimore. The resurgence kept Oakland atop the division, by two games, when the players went on strike on June 12.

The strike ended in mid-August and the MLB hierarchy made a decision on how to pick up the pieces of the season. They declared that 1981 would be a “split season.” The teams leading what was then four divisions (the leagues were split into an East & West) were declared “first-half champions.” These teams, including Oakland, would play the “second-half champions” in the first-ever Division Series.

MLB then made the unfortunate decision not to give the first-half winners anything to play for after the strike. It was ruled that if the same team won both halves, rather than advancing directly to the LCS, the Division Series would still go on, but with the runner-up in the second half.

The incentive Oakland had was an additional home game—instead of playing Games 1 & 2 on the road, they would only have to play Game 1, if they won both halves. It’s nice, but not enough to sustain motivation in the dog days of August.

Oakland didn’t play badly after the strike and they went 27-22, while the Kansas City Royals went 30-23 to take the second half. But when the Division Series came around, the A’s were ready. Norris was brilliant in setting the tone with a Game 1 win, and Oakland won the AL West title with three straight wins.

The American League Championship Series didn’t go quite as well. Martin faced his old team, the Yankees, and the A’s looked like either a team not quite ready for prime-time, or a team whose lack of depth beyond the rotation and the outfield finally came exposed. New York won close games in Games 1 & 3, a blowout in Game 2 and swept Oakland home.

Unfortunately for Oakland fans, that was the end of the good times. The workload the starting pitchers undertook early in their careers would become the impetus for the pitch-count obsessions that persist to this day. None of the four had extended careers and most burned out quickly after.

Oakland fell apart for a few years and didn’t come back until Tony LaRussa came to town later in the decade and won three straight pennants with the Bash Brothers of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and captured the World Series in 1989.