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Revisiting the Yankees’ wild strike-shortened 1981 season

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The 1981 Yankees’ season was disappointing on numerous levels, but it certainly wasn’t boring.

Gene Michael & George Steinbrenner Look Over Papers
Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner, and an unidentified acquaintance
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

“Condolences.” – Graig Nettles, to Bob Lemon as Lemon entered Yankee Stadium after once again being named Yankees manager, September 1981.

The 1980 Yankees are on the shortlist of the best Yankees teams to not win the World Series. Under general manager Gene Michael and manager Dick Howser, the team went 103-59 on their way to winning a very tough AL East (five of the best six records in the AL that season were posted by AL East teams). Although an ALCS sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals cost both Michael and Howser their jobs at season’s end — which may be odd but was not unusual in the Bronx in that era — the team had considerable reasons for optimism heading into the 1981 season.

Every key contributor to the 1980 team would be returning in 1981, and they’d be getting some significant additions as well. A late March trade brought a nice center field upgrade in Jerry Mumphrey, highly regarded rookie pitching prospect Dave Righetti would be joining the rotation, and future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was added as the prize free agent of the 1980-81 offseason. The only question was whether the team’s biggest hurdles to overcome would be the imposing on-field challenges of the Orioles and Brewers, or the off-field challenges of their increasingly temperamental owner and a looming MLB work stoppage?

Dave Winfield Holding Shirt and Cap
Dave Winfield

The club played respectably through May, posting a 25-20 record in what was once again a competitive AL East. A nine-game winning streak over the first nine days of June then propelled the Yanks into first place with leads of three and four games over Baltimore and Milwaukee, respectively. The optimism among the organization and fans turned sour pretty quickly however, when on June 12th, the MLBPA went on strike (only the second time in which games needed to be canceled).

A comprehensive review of what led to the strike is too long for the time we have today, but the short version is that MLB owners wanted more compensation for teams that lost a player in free agency — in some cases, even a player from the roster of the team that signed the free agent (which of course, is not “free agency”). What is important for our discussion is that the strike ended just short of two months later, with the All-Star Game in Cleveland being the first game played on August 9, 1981. The talent-laden Yankees sent six players to that showcase: Winfield, Reggie Jackson, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Rich Gossage, and Ron Davis.

One of the agreements between the players and owners in getting the season resumed was that the season would be split into two halves, with the games already played from April through June constituting the first half, and the remaining games being the second half. Significant to the Yankees was that the first-place teams in the first half were declared first-half winners, and automatically had a place in the postseason. The winners of each division in the season’s second half would play their first-half winning counterparts in the first-ever League Division Series.

This created a situation in which there was little-to-no incentive for the first-half winners to play well, as they knew they had a playoff spot clinched on August 10th when games resumed. Even if the first half winners won the second half, they’d need to play the second-half runner up in a Division Series. We’ll never know how this affected the mindset of the players we’ll never know, though the Yankees’ Tommy John stated “With the first-half divisional ‘title’ wrapped up, we lost our intensity.”

It’s probably safe to say that John wasn’t speaking for all players. Regardless, things got interesting in the Bronx (as they often did in that era).

New York Yankees
Gene Michael
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When games resumed on August 10th, Yankees’ manager Gene Michael — yes, you read that correctly, the same Gene Michael who was fired as GM the previous fall — made two serious mistakes: First, he allowed his team to get off to a 14-12 record in the season’s second half. This led to owner George Steinbrenner threatening Michael’s job on numerous occasions, despite the relative irrelevancy of the games being played, and despite the team playing close to .600 ball under Michael for the season. That led to Michael’s second mistake: Publicly stating that constant interference from ownership was annoying.

That was enough for Steinbrenner, who fired Michael on September 6th, when Michael refused to publicly apologize to the Boss. Despite having changed managers seven times in the previous seven years, Steinbrenner had apparent difficulty in this instance, telling reporters, “I feel like a father scorned. I feel like I have a son who has done something wrong and isn’t mature enough to admit it. This is the worst thing to happen to me since I got the Yankees.” The last sentence being an insinuation that getting suspended from baseball after being federally convicted for making illegal political contributions in 1974 wasn’t the worst thing to happen to him as owner of the Yankees up to that point.

‘’I kind of knew that this is what I’d be dealing with here,’’ said Winfield, when he experienced his first managerial change as a Yankee. Bronx Zoo veteran Ron Guidry had a more practical response, and perhaps some advice when he said “I’ve been here six years and played for six managers. I think the secret of managing success is to shut up. Usually, when a man speaks his mind, he gets patted on the back. Here, with the surrounding environment — Gene didn’t do the wisest thing.’’

Los Angeles Dodgers vs New York Yankees, 1978 World Series
Bob Lemon
Set Number: X22788 TK6 R2 F15

To replace Michael, Steinbrenner turned to Bob Lemon, who’d be making his second stint as Yankees’ manager. It was also the second time he’d be replacing someone midseason, as he led the Yankees to the 1978 championship after taking over in July. This was a pragmatic move, as Lemon was still under contract and receiving pay from his first stint as manager two years prior, so no new paperwork needed to be drawn up. The Yankees went 11-14 down the stretch under the (not really) new leadership and headed to the postseason.

Led by some clutch bullpen work from Gossage, the Yankees won three of five from Milwaukee to take the ALDS. After that, it was off to face Oakland and old friend Billy Martin in the ALCS, where series MVP Graig Nettles’ nine RBI in three games led to a 3-0 sweep. This set up a date in the City of Angels where the Yankees would face the Dodgers for the 11th time in the Fall Classic.

After taking the first two games in the Bronx, the Yankees would go on to lose the next four in a row to the Dodgers, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Yankees reliever George Frazier became the only pitcher to ever take the loss in three games in a single World Series (excluding Lefty Williams of the 1919 White Sox, who had incentives to lose). Winfield went 1-for-22 in the Series, infamously earning him the nickname “Mr. May” from the Boss, who must’ve forgotten Winfield’s nine hits in the eight ALDS and ALCS games, four of which went for extra bases. Even George himself got into the act – in his own way.

The day after the Game 3 loss, George held a press conference in which he was sporting a cast on his wrist. He claimed he got it defending himself from two unruly Dodgers fans in a Dodger Stadium elevator after the game. There were no witnesses to corroborate the story, and the only specifics George added were that there were now a couple of guys walking around Los Angeles “looking for their teeth.”

Work stoppages in baseball are a miserable process for fans, and just the possibility of another one heading into next season can give any one of us a headache. That said, regardless of causes, outcomes, and everything in between, the Yankees have a habit of turning work stoppage seasons into memorable ones.