Two traditional foes took a decidedly non-traditional path to meet in the 1981 World Series. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers met for the third time in five years in the Fall Classic. 1981 was a year marred by an in-season players’ strike that lasted for two months, which meant some creative ideas had to be used for both the regular season races and postseason structure.
Homefield advantage for the World Series was decided on a rotation basis, and this was an American League year. The flip side was that it also meant National League rules and no DH. The Series began in Yankee Stadium on a Tuesday evening.
It was a battle of lefthanders as Ron Guidry took the mound for New York against Jerry Reuss for Los Angeles. Guidry was one of the top power lefties of the time and the 1978 Cy Young winner. Reuss was a steady veteran who had been nothing short of brilliant in the ’81 postseason, especially the Division Series.
But the Yankees continued their pattern, established in the ALCS, of getting out quickly. Jerry Mumphrey singled with one out in the first. Lou Piniella hit a ground-rule double and with two outs, Bob Watson went deep for a quick 3-0 lead. Reuss was chased in the third when Mumphrey again singled with one out, stole second and scored on a two-out hit by Piniella.
The Los Angeles bullpen had control problems, and Bobby Castillo walked four straight batters to make it 5-0 New York. Dave Goltz came on for the Dodgers and finally brought some steadiness to the mound And the offense began to chip its way back.
Steve Yeager homered in the fifth to put Los Angeles on the board. In the eighth, two walks, a single and a passed ball set up two runs and the Dodgers had two chances with the tying run at the plate in a 5-3 game. New York manager Bob Lemon called on closer Goose Gossage to try and get Steve Garvey and Ron Cey. The Goose did it, although Garvey hit a line drive out.
The ninth inning went without incident on the scoreboard and the Yankees won 5-3, but there was a big incident on the field. Third baseman Graig Nettles made a diving stop, the kind he had tormented Los Angeles with in the 1978 World Series. In the process he broke his thumb. Nettles had been MVP of the American League Championship Series sweep over the Oakland A’s and while he played Game 2, he would miss the next three games after that. And he wouldn’t make the same contribution with his bat when he was in the lineup.
Burt Hooton was Los Angeles’ MVP of the National League Championship Series, with two dominant outings to both open and close the triumph over the Montreal Expos. He got the ball in Game 2, matched up with former Dodger teammate, now in Pinstripes, Tommy John.
John and Hooton matched zeroes for four innings and the Yankees got a soft run in the fifth—an error by Davey Lopes and a sac bunt from John allowed Larry Milbourne to pick up the RBI with a two-out double.
The score stayed 1-0 into the bottom of the seventh when the Yankees loaded the bases with one out. Hooton was removed for veteran reliever Terry Forster, who got Milbourne to ground into a double play. But one inning later, the Dodgers couldn’t escape another jam.
Piniella and Nettles each singled off Steve Howe. Watson drove in a run with a base hit and a later error on a pickup throw moved runners up and allowed Willie Randolph to make it 3-0 with a sac fly. New York closed out a Game 2 win and was in command.
Los Angeles turned to the NL Cy Young winner, 20-year-old phenom Fernando Valenzuela to try and turn the World Series around, while New York had its own young talent in Dave Righetti. Playing in front of their home fans, this time it was the Dodgers who got on the attack right away.
Lopes lead off the bottom of the first with a double and Bill Russell beat out a bunt. After Dusty Baker and Garvey each missed chances to drive in the run, Ron Cey came to the plate. Cey launched a three-run blast and Los Angeles had momentum.
But New York came right back. Watson homered to start the second, Rick Cerone doubled and Larry Milbourne drove Cerone in with a single. In the top of the third, Piniella singled and Cerone went deep. It was 4-3 and the Dodgers then missed a big opportunity. They put two on with none out, chasing Righetti. George Frazier came into the game and escaped the jam.
The Yankees still had the lead and after World Series losses to the Pinstripes in both 1977 and 1978, Dodger fans had to be wondering if this would ever turn around. In the bottom of the fifth, it did.
Garvey beat out an infield hit, Cey drew a walk and Pedro Guerrero slashed a double to tie it up. After an intentional walk, Frazier got a double-play groundout, but the lead run came through the backdoor.
The Yankees had one more rally in the eighth and Cey had more heroics. After consecutive singles to start the inning, Bobby Murcer looked to put down a sac bunt. The lefthanded hitter’s bunt got up in the air on a soft line. Cey charged in, dove out, caught it on the fly and immediately got to his feet to double off Milbourne. Rally done, Valenzuela completed the game with a 5-4 win, Los Angeles was back in it.
Saturday afternoon saw Rick Reuschel take the hill for the Yanks against Bob Welch for the Dodgers. Game 4 would have a lot of twists and turns in which the starters would be long gone by the time it was settled.
Willie Randolph started the game by tripling off Welch and Milbourne promptly doubled him in. Dave Winfield drew a walk and Reggie Jackson singled to load the bases. With no room for error, Dodger manager Tom Lasorda removed Welch and summoned Goltz. A sac fly from Watson added another run, but Goltz kept it at 2-0.
Randolph homered in the third, and the Yankees got two more in the fourth, with Rick Cerone drove in both Jackson and Watson. In the bottom of that same inning, Los Angeles started to come back from the 4-0 deficit.
Ken Landreaux started it with a leadoff double and came around a base hit by Lopes, who quickly stole second base. An infield hit and a productive ground ball scored Lopes, cutting the lead in half. An inning later the Dodgers got runners to second and third with one out. Reuschel was removed, and Rudy May, a steady starting pitcher during the regular season and the playoffs, came on and escaped with the 4-2 margin intact.
Cey delivered again in the fifth, following a one-out double by Garvey with an RBI base hit. But the Yankees quickly extended the lead in the sixth, with an error by Russell opening the door consecutive RBI singles from Oscar Gamble and Watson.
Trailing 6-3, Los Angeles pushed back again the bottom of the sixth. Ron Davis, a hard-throwing righthander and the team’s second-best reliever behind Gossage came on, but couldn’t get it done. Davis walked Mike Scioscia and gave up a home run to Jay Johnstone.
Then the defense failed, as Jackson committed an error that put the speedy Lopes aboard. Lopes stole second and third, and tied the game when Russell singled. Davis was out, and Frazier was in.
Frazier couldn’t stop the Dodger momentum though. LA picked right back up in the seventh, with an infield hit by Baker and a double by Rick Monday. After Guerrero was intentionally walked, Yeager delivered a sac fly to give Los Angeles the lead for the first time.
Steve Howe, the closer, batted for himself and bunted the runners up, allowing Lopes’ infield hit to score a key insurance run. It proved to matter when Jackson homered with two outs in the eighth, but Howe closed the door after that. A wild 8-7 win for the Dodgers had the Series tied.
After the crazy back-and-forth of Game 4, a steady pitchers’ duel was the perfect foil and that’s what the Guidry-Reuss rematch of Game 5 on late Sunday afternoon provided. The Yankees again scored first, with Jackson hitting a ground-rule double and coming around on a Lopes error and Piniella infield hit. But that was the end of scoring—or even serious threatening—until the seventh.
Guerrero and Yeager came up in the bottom of the seventh and delivered the decisive blows of the World Series—they homered back-to-back. It was Guidry’s only weak spot all day, but it was enough. Reuss completed a five-hitter and Los Angeles improbably had the Series lead.
The first four innings of Game 6 made it look like the Yankees might provide some pushback with the Series back in the Bronx. Randolph hit a solo home run in the third off Hooton, and while the Dodgers got singles from Baker, Monday and Yeager to tie it in the fourth, this was still a 1-1 game with the veteran John on the mound for New York.
Then the Yankees broke. John was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the inning with runners on first and second and two outs. It’s a legitimate scoring opportunity and Murcer, a good hitter, was the one who came off the bench. He hit the ball well, though it ended up a fly ball out to deep right. But that’s just way too early to pull a veteran starting pitcher in a big game. And the roof caved in immediately.
Lopes started the top of the fifth by singling off of Frazier. Lopes was bunted up and scored on a two-out single from Cey. Baker extended the inning with a single and Guerrero delivered the big blow with a triple that put LA up 4-1.
Davis came out of the Yankee bullpen in the sixth and issued a pair of walks, including one to Hooton. Russell drove in a run with a single, and now Reuschel came out of the Yankee pen to try and stop the bleeding. A double steal, a walk and an RBI grounder made it 6-1. Nettles, back in the lineup with his broken thumb committed a two-out error to reload the bases. Guerrero delivered again, with a two-run single to make it 8-1.
The Yankees got a run in the sixth, and Guerrero finished his magical night with a home run in the eighth. The final was 9-2. Howe worked the final 3.2 IP to close it out and Watson flied to Landreaux, the Dodgers were World Series champs.
Frazier proved an unfortunate goat for New York. He had been reliable in long relief all year and other than Game 6, didn’t pitch all that badly in this series. But he ended up the losing pitcher in three games, the first time a pitcher had ever lost three in a World Series.
It was the first title for the proud Dodger franchise since 1965, meaning it was the first since the expansion of 1969 created playoff rounds prior to the World Series. It was the first for Lasorda, who became the skipper in 1977.
And it was a championship driven by comebacks—Los Angeles became the first team to win best-of-five series after losing the first two in the Division Series. They won two straight road games in elimination spots to win the NLCS. They had won the World Series after losing the first two. And they had returned the favor to the Yankees, who three years earlier became the first team to drop Games 1 & 2 and then win four straight.
Three players shared 1981 World Series MVP honors, Cey, Guerrero and Yeager. Guerrero had the magic Game 6 and hit .333 for the Series. Yeager batted .286 and had two home runs, one of which came in the critical sequence of Game 5. These players had obviously helped. But this award should have gone to Cey alone.
Ron Cey hit .350 for the World Series, and he hit a three-run shot in Game 3 which came when Los Angeles desperately needed momentum, having lost the first two and about to squander an early opportunity in the third game. Cey then sealed the win with a defensive gem, and as the .350 average suggests, he contributed consistently throughout.
After a steady run of Dodgers-Yankees World Series that undoubtedly pleased the networks, these teams have not met in the Fall Classic since. New York disappeared from the postseason stage altogether until 1995. Los Angeles returned to the NLCS in 1983 and 1985 and won the World Series again in 1988.