The 1981 New York Yankees were the franchise's only World Series team of the decade, but they always seem to be glossed over when recalling the Yankees' pantheon of pennant-winners. This omission is likely a byproduct of both the bizarre nature of the '81 split-season due to the two-month Players' Strike, and the fact that the eighties are not remembered as a successful period of the team's history even though they won more games than any other team in the decade.
Regardless, it hardly seems fair to forget a team that won the American League pennant. The '81 squad was the last gasp of triumph from the great Yankee teams of the late seventies. Scout Gene "Stick" Michael was appointed manager after Dick Howser was fired despite an AL East-winning season in '80 with 103 victories (the Yankees were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, leading to Howser's ousting). It was a transitional year, made most apparent by the addition of athletic outfielder Dave Winfield in the final season of fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson's Yankee career.
Winfield was signed to the biggest deal the game had seen thus far: Ten years and $23 million. He was in the prime of his career, and he earned his money by leading the team's offensive charge with a .294/.360/.464 triple slash and a 139 OPS+. While Jackson struggled to a then career-worst .237/.330/.428 line, the Yankees got a career year out of center fielder Jerry Mumphrey. Winfield's old teammate with the San Diego Padres was acquired at the end of Spring Training, and he went on to hit .307/.354/.429 with a 127 OPS+ in 80 games. The pitching staff featured reliable veterans Ron Guidry and Tommy John, but the breakout star was rookie southpaw Dave Righetti. He won the AL Rookie of the Year award with a 2.05 ERA and 174 ERA+ in 15 starts, and Hall of Fame closer Rich "Goose" Gossage closed out several of the kid's starts in one of the most dominating relief seasons in history. Due to the shortened season, he only pitched 46.2 innings, but his 0.77 ERA (465 ERA+) was minuscule. The team had talent, and Michael was respected by his players for his calm methods of managing the stars. Unfortunately, the man at the top of the organizational hierarchy was not impressed.
The Yankees held a 34-22 record at the end of play on June 11th, two games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. The season was put on hold for a couple months though, as the players went on strike over conflicts in labor negotiations. When the sides resolved their differences, baseball returned with the All-Star Game on August 9th, and the season resumed on August 10th. MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that the season would be split, and the first-half champions secured playoff spots. Teams that finished with the best division record in the second half (or second-best record in the second half should the first-half leader finish on top again) would play against the first-half champions in an additional round, the Division Series. This decision led to oddities like the Cincinnati Reds missing the playoffs despite finishing the season with the best record in baseball at 66-42 (.611) and the Royals making the playoffs despite an overall losing record (50-53).
On the morning of September 6th, the Yankees were 14-12 in the second half, three games out of first. Suddenly, they found themselves with a new manager. Michael spent most of the season feuding with Steinbrenner over his meddling manners. Stick could not understand why Steinbrenner continued to be so critical despite the team's first-half success, so he challenged the Boss to either stop bothering him or simply fire him. At first, Steinbrenner backed down, but when Michael told the press about his stand, the Boss let him go. Michael later told Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger, "I know I'm going to be fired for this, but I wanted to get it out there ... what it's like to work for this guy." In Steinbrenner's statement, he said, "I very much regret that Gene Michael and I have been unable to resolve certain differences."
Steinbrenner replaced Michael with Bob Lemon, who guided a team with most of the same players to a World Series victory in 1978. They finished the season 11-14 under Lemon and lost the second half of the season to the Milwaukee Brewers. Undeterred, the team won the Division Series over the Brewers, despite nearly blowing a 2-0 series lead at home. The Yankees then swept former manager Billy Martin's Oakland Athletics in the ALCS to win their 33rd American League pennant. The six-game World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers led to Steinbrenner apologizing to the fans for the season, but there was no need for an apology. If anything, there should have been an apology to Michael for not letting him finish the season with the players that made the playoffs under his first-half success.
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.