The era of 1978-88 was an age of parity in major league baseball. 1978 marked the end of the old era, which had the same teams in the playoffs as the previous year and the same results through October. Then from 1979-88, it was a free-for-all. Repeat division titles were rare. A repeat pennant-winner didn’t happen and that naturally precluded anyone from winning the World Series in consecutive years.
TheSportsNotebook has articles on the most relevant teams of this 11-year era. This includes an article on every team that won a division, a game-by-game narrative of each postseason series and articles on some of the most notable runner-ups.
The links below take you to a page that will have the individual articles within each season. Read on and experience what it was like to be a baseball fan in this era, through the eyes of its best teams.
1978 is remembered for the epic AL East race when the Yankees prevailed over the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. That, and the accompanying MVP debate over Jim Rice and Ron Guidry were indeed the most compelling stories of the year. But ’78 also included a Phillies-Pirates battle in the NL East that went to the wire, the Dodgers pulling away from the Giants and Reds down the stretch in the NL West and the Royals chiseling out a third straight AL West crown. The Yankees then beat the Royals and Dodgers in October for the second straight year.
The Pirates were “Fam-A-Lee” and Willie Stargell led them to victory in an outstanding NL East race with the Expos. The NL’s other race, between the Reds and Astros was no less compelling. Over in the American League, the Orioles cruised home and dethroned the Yankees in the AL East, while the Angels supplanted the Royals atop the AL West. After Pittsburgh and Baltimore took care of business in the LCS round, they staged an excellent seven-game World Series. The Orioles appeared to have the Series in hand—but Stargell had some more heroics up his sleeve.
For the second straight season, both National League division races went down to the wire and this time they were both settled head-to-head on the final weekend. The Phillies outlasted the Expos. The Astros staved off collapse and survived the Dodgers. If that weren’t enough drama, Philadelphia and Houston then played the greatest LCS round baseball has ever seen, setting the stage for a Philly title. The American League saw George Brett chase .400 and finally push the Royals to the World Series, while the Yankees and Orioles each hit the 100-win threshold in the AL East.
It was a strange year, ripped apart in the middle by a two-month players’ strike and a split-season format that doubled the size of the postseason. Familiar faces like the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Royals all qualified. So did newcomers like the Brewers and Expos. The Astros and A’s were at the party. But the team who won more games than anyone—the Reds—did not. This strange year was followed by a good postseason, with three Division Series rounds going the distance and the NLCS coming down to the final inning. The Dodgers ultimately won it all.
Two division races were hot and went to the final day of the season. Joe Torre’s Atlanta Braves won the NL West. But the big game was in Baltimore, where the Brewers and Orioles played a winner-take-all finale. Milwaukee won that one. Then the Brewers won a dramatic ALCS against an Angel team that was fortified by the addition of Reggie Jackson. Through it all, the Cardinals kept churning, getting to the postseason for the first time since the expansion of 1969. They swept the Braves and then in an excellent seven-game Series, survived the Brewers.
The Orioles were in the first year without Earl Weaver and the Birds broke open the AL East race in September. They took on the 99-win White Sox, where Tony LaRussa was managing his first postseason team and won the ALCS. In the National League, the Phillies reassembled some aging parts of the old Big Red Machine and won the NL East. They faced a familiar foe in the NLCS—the Dodgers outlasted the Braves in an NL West race that was the regular season’s best. The Phils reached the Series, but Oriole Magic got the last word in October.
Tiger dominance and Cubbie heartbreak was the story of the season. The Tigers had one of the great seasons of the modern era with a runaway title in the tough AL East. The National League also saw fresh faces, with the Cubs and Padres. Chicago appeared to have the NLCS in hand, but then let it get away. The AL West had the best division race, although it was based on the shared mediocrity of the Royals, Twins and Angels. Kansas City prevailed, but neither they—nor San Diego–were any match for mighty Detroit in October.
One of the best baseball seasons of all-time, with three division races going down to the final weekend. The Blue Jays made their first postseason trip, surviving the Yankees. The Royals chased down the Angels. The Cards outlasted the Mets. Only the Dodgers won their division with room to spare. Then all three postseason series in October were dramatic. George Brett lifted KC past Toronto. Jack Clark and Ozzie Smith hit dramatic home runs to key a Cardinal pennant. Finally, Royal fortitude—aided by a bad call at a big moment—won them their first title.
The regular season was comparatively quiet—the Mets, Red Sox, Astros and Angels all won their divisions comfortably. There was some modest noise from the Yankees and a nice year from the Giants, but no pennant race drama. All that changed in October. The Red Sox and Angels went the full seven in the ALCS, with Boston coming from death’s doorstep to win. New York and Houston played six games that felt like nine, with the Mets staving off their challenger. Finally came an iconic World Series, a legendary error, heartbreak in the Hub and a big celebration in Queens.
Met dominance was supposed to be at hand, but the Cardinals didn’t get the memo. St. Louis won a good race in the NL East. Meanwhile, the best pennant race of the decade took place in the AL East, where the Tigers rallied in the final week to catch and pass the Blue Jays. The Giants took over the NL West and played a terrific NLCS against the Cards, before St. Louis survived in seven. The Twins were a seeming afterthought, winning a weak AL West. But they upset the Tigers, took down the Cards and won it all.
The Dodgers had been on a downward spiral and there were no signs of revival. But led by Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson, they won the NL West. They were heavy underdogs to the Mets in the playoffs. But Los Angeles won a memorable NLCS. The Oakland A’s dominated the regular season and then the ALCS against an overmatched Red Sox team who won a weak AL East. With the A’s coronation at hand, the Dodgers responded with the most improbable upset of them all—keyed by one of the most iconic home runs in World Series history.