The Athletics staying in Kansas City
By Chris Nuttall
Part 8 – Free Agent Follies
Owners threatened to lock out the players in 1975, but Bowie Kuhn ordered them to open the gates. He insisted that baseball had had years of great pennant races and good will to the fans with teams that had never won, or hadn’t in a long time, suddenly winning. “We are not going to let that good will disappear,” he insisted.
Kuhn said he wasn’t worried about keeping his job, if it was for the good of baseball, and in 1979, he would be rehired; something some said was proof the owners really liked free agency, or at least many did.
Before 1975, the Yankees traded for Tug McGraw, who’d had a disastrous 1974, as the Mets continued to retool their farm system. Nolan Ryan signed for a few more years for the Mets, but then he wanted to go home to Texas or Houston by 1979 or 1980; he would be traded to the Reds in ‘77. Tommy John was injured, and wound up undergoing a new, innovative surgery. 1972 seemed like decades ago for the Mets.
The Reds also had a decision. Tony Perez had planned to become a free agent, but at this point, they didn’t have a surefire replacement. Don Gullett had already announced he would play without a signed contract; just accept being “renewed.” The Reds still hadn’t won a World Series since 1940, so they convinced Perez to sign a three-year contract, though for more than they wanted to pay him. He could play third, too, if need be, though Pete Rose was going to be tried there. Gullett, meanwhile, wasn’t signed to a longer deal, as Sparky Anderson felt that with enough young pitching, he could be replaced. Already, too, there were some concerns about his arm.
The Big Red Machine won the next 2 World Series, bridging the gap between the era before and after free agency began. They won 4 straight divisions, before the Phillies won one in 1977. The Dodgers, who came close in 1971-‘73, repeated their ’74 title in 1975, only because – after Messrsmith left for Atlanta – Walt Alston did a masterful job working Charlie Hough and youngster Rick Rhoden into the rotation. They were only 86-76, but won by 4 games over the Giants, after being way ahead in late May; the Giants were a game ahead in early August, partly thanks to the trade in mid-June of Willie Montanez, who had just been acquired, Gary Matthews, and others to the Braves for Darrell Evans and others. Evans played third, but also subbed for McCovey at first, especially in ’76, when McCovey lost his starting job before a nice comeback in ’77-‘80.
Walt Alston retired after 1975, sensing that it might be hard for his Dodgers to win pennants with the Reds in the East, and therefore that he’d likely not get another World Series appearance like 1974. Tommy Lasorda took over, and let the club to 2 more straight division titles, till the Brewers surprised them in 1978. Like with Williams and Herzog, both men would be Hall of Fame managers. L.A. had a deep farm system, and was in a large enough market, they didn’t worry about free agency. They could even sign some. The Reds mostly worried about keeping their own.
Kansas City was in the same boat. Reggie Jackson was the one they were most concerned about. He liked it there, but he wanted to be a superstar in a major market. George Steinbrenner signed quite a few with the Yankees. The Athletics decided to give it one more go in 1975, though.
Catfish Hunter made history for the Athletics, as the majors’ last 30-game winner, capturing his 2nd straight Cy Young. Blue and Splitorff were good again, but the latter still struggled a few times, and the team wouldn’t have a consistent 4th starter till Dennnis Leonard and Larry Gura started to pitch well a couple years later. Reggie hit 35 homers.
Kansas City beat Boston in 5 tough ALCS games, as Hunter won game 5 in Boston before taking games 3 and 6 in the World Seires. However, the Athletics met their match in the Reds, and went down to defeat in a great 7-game Series. Cincinnati scored a run in the 9th to tie, and then won it in the top of the 11th.
A number of Athletics had vowed to test the market; now, it was up to Kansas City to re-sign as many as they could. They had a great farm system. Hal McRae, who had been the DH in ’75, after coming over via trade, could play a corner outfield spot if he had to,
Rick Monday also left, though, joining the Dodgers. Bill Buckner was traded to the Cubs, so L.A. needed an outfielder. Joe Rudi went to the Angels, in his home state. Reggie Jackson signed with the Yankees. Bert Campaneris stayed, though he was a backup infielder by ’78. So did Sal Bando, Gene Tenace (though he was traded after 1979 to the Padres), Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers, also traded after ‘79.
Hunter had been signed to a 2-year deal before 1974, but he signed a 3-year extension after his 25-win season in 1974. His 25 wins, followed by 30, meant he was one of the top hurlers in the game, and that, plus his Series dominance, helped get him into the Hall.
The Athletics tried to regroup for 1976, after the free agent departures. They traded for Amos Otis, who provided great help to solidify a young outfield. The Mets, at 78-84 and in 4th, 30 games back, in ’75, had Bostock from the Koosman trade, after all. Still, he ended up spurning them for the Angels after ’77. The joke was that most California players would want to go home; just not to Oakland.
Oakland saw increasing discontent with Finley. He tried to send Steve Busby down to the minors in 1974, after his 20-win season for a poor ball ‘73 club, but was prevented by Kuhn, Though Finley was glad, when the A’s contended in ’74, he was upset enough by the ruling that anyone could play 1975 without signing offer sheets, he tried to sell Busby and others, a move block by Kuhn. Fans who started to come to see them stayed away again, as Finley was trying to have a fire sale a year after something that should have made him really happy! Only 950,000 had come out in ’74, though, and the way Finley was acting in ’75, with the Giants again contending, that number sank to slightly under 800,000. Finley again talked of moving.
Busby would sign with Cleveland as a free agent before 1976, and others would leave, too. George Brett had only been up all of 1974 and a few games each of the last 3 seasons, but he made it clear he’d also leave as a free agent; the years of service didn’t yet matter at this point..
One player who really liked free agency was Dick Allen. He’d had no specific players – like he did Ron Santo after a trade to Oakland – with whom he quarreled, but he’d had enough problems with White Sox management that he chose to play 1975 to become a free agent. Finley sent veterans to Chicago for Allen, as the White Sox were out of the race in May, hoping his storied power would draw fans. Instead, he had a poor year, and fought with Ron santo several times. He found few takers, because of his attitude, but he’d helped Chicago enough that he figured he’d draw some interest.
The Phillies convinced him to sign with them as a free agent, instead of retiring. He saw things had improved, and they were on the verge of contention. They managed to finish only 3 games behind the Reds in 1976, and challenged till the end, though never in front more than a couple games, and that not after August. In 1977, he was a role player on the league champs, though he only got 1 at-bat in the World Series. The Phillies had won the ’77 pennant mostly thanks to a trade for Sparky Lyle in ’76, when the Red Sox, who had failed to repeat their 1974 World Championship, traded him and Reggie Smith for young talent, fearing the players’ ages were catching up to them.
Part 9 Yankees Return to Form, Pay a Price, but Get it Back later
Tom Seaver was another who benefited, but he hadn’t played 1975 intending to become a free agent. Instead, as 1976 came, the Braves were horrible. They had already traded Hank Aaron to Milwaukee, where he played outfield and first, before ’75; he had 17 home runs his last 2 years there, finishing with 755.
Seaver had wanted to remain a Brave, but other than him, the team was awful. They’d contended in 1974, but even with the addition of Messrsmith, the ’75 Braves fell to 31 games back in 5th, a game behind the Mets and only a few games ahead of the last place Expos. Seaver had still won the Cy Young, his 3rd, only because there weren’t any other great pitchers in the N.L. that year.
The Yankees had been inquiring about an ace for over a year. With the Red Sox’ pitching getting older, they felt they had a good chance at a pennant if they could get one in ‘76. They had already signed Reggie Jackson, acquiring Oscar Gamble and then sending him to the White Sox with cash and several others – most notably LaMarr Hoyt - for Bucky Dent and Goose Gossage; they also got Carlos may in mid-’76 from the club. New York also signed Don Gullett away from the Reds for 1976, causing Cincinnati to sign Wayne Garland from the Orioles. As Sparky Anderson said, “A middle reliever who showed real promise as a potential starter, nurtured under Weaver’s tutelage, should do well.”
Garland would win 21 for the Reds in ’76 and get Cy Young votes before arm trouble hampered him the rest of his career.
The Yankees knew Gullett had missed time with arm problems in ’75, though. So, they hoped to land Seaver. They traded Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey, and Tippy Martinez for Doyle Alexander and Grant Jackson, with some other players included on each side, in spring training. They sent a few minor players for Cliff Johnson of the Astros. Still, they held on as long as they could to the pitcher the Braves coveted.
In the end, they gave in. Baltimore had really improved, Boston was defending division champ, and they felt they had to make a splash to keep up with their rivals. So, a few weeks into the season, they got Seaver for Cliff Johnson, Ken Brett, and others, and swallowed their pride. They gave up s Southerner who they knew could draw people to Atlanta, where attendance had really sagged - Louisiana Lightning, Ron Guidry, became a Brave, in exchange for Seaver.
Catfish Hunter outfueled Seaver 2-1 to win game 1 of the ALCS; the Athletics had won a very poor division. However, Gullett won game 2, New York took Game 4 behind Seaver, and Gullett won the finale in New York on 3-days rest.
With the Yankees using so many pitchers in the last games of the ALCS, they were forced to start Doyle Alexander in Game 1, and he lost, 6-2. This set the tone for the rest of the Series, as the Reds won, 4-3, in 10 innings in Cincinnati. Seaver had had some trouble, and came out in the 7th with the score tied at 3 – Ken Griffey had already had 3 hits. Goose Gossage got them out of a bases loaded jam, and pitched through the 9th, but once he left, the Reds won, with Sparky having used 6 pitchers. Back in Yankee Stadium, they beat Gullett 3-1, then won the finale 6-3.
Come 1977, the Yankees wouldn’t be denied. They beat the Phillies in 6, with Reggie Jackson hitting 3 home runs in the finale, and Seaver won his 4th Cy Young award, becoming the first to win in each league as well as the first with four. Ron Guidry would return, though, as a free agent for 1985, and the Yankees would win the division. He’d win a World Series in ’89, his last year, in the ‘pen with the Athletics after a trade.
The Dodgers had traded for a then-slumping Reggie Smith from the Red Sox in mid-1976, as the slumping Sox traded a few veterans who were doing poorly, like John Curtis. A lot of people worried that L.A. (or the Phillies) and the Yankees would “meet every year.” Thankfully, that wasn’t to be the case. In fact, as Guidry did great for a 78-84, 4th place Braves’ team in ’78, the Yankees slipped, and the Red Sox snuck back into first, despite slumping late. The Yankees didn’t have enough, and the Red Sox regained the division lead, and won by 4 games.
Dennis Eckersley lost the Cy Young to Jim Palmer – Palmer’s third, as he lost to 30-game winner Hunter in ‘75 - in a close vote between them and Gaylord Perry, but the Sox had finally gotten a division title out of the trade of Sparky Lyle, as they acquired Sixto Lezcano and several others in sending Lyle to the Phillies in June of ’76. They needed him to fill the void when they traded Smith. Rice, Lynn, and Evans was the outfield, with Yaz at first, and Lezcano at DH, along with spelling all of them when one was injured or needed a day off at DH. He’d been signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1970. (Note: Since the Brewers aren’t a team yet in 1970, the Phillies could easily do so.)
The Red Sox met a familiar foe in the playoffs, as the Athletics were back. And, the Reds and Brewers had won their divisions. Small-town teams would still be able to contend.
Part 10 - Small Markets Winning; Where Will Awful A’s End Up
The Kansas City Athletics had slipped in ’76, though still managing to win with an 88-74 mark. However, Kansas City’s commitment to younger players paid off. Catfish Hunter started to decline in 1977, finishing below .500, though he was still good. The Athletics fell short, though, as the Rangers won the division for the first time, losing in 4 to New York. Vida Blue was only mediocre. But, they got a new manager – Whitey Herzog – and the Athletics still had quality players to build around.
Most people thought the Rangers – or, if their numerous signees got better, the Angels – would win the division in ’78, but a few picked the Athletics, knowing their history. Kansas City delivered, as Vida Blue and Dennis Leonard became staff aces. Larry Gura was signed as a free agent, as Kauffman had enough money to sign a few. Paul Splitorff pitched well, and Hunter had his last good year as a sport starter; he’d pitched an awful lot of innings. Sal Bando had a good year, but most impressive were the youngsters.
Willie Wilson didn’t get 200 hits like he would next year, but he provided a very good leadoff bat in his second season. Hal McRae, Al Cowens, and others gave the Royals a speedy team that could win with anyone. Rollie Fingers was effective, and when it was all said and done, Kansas City had come back to the top in the West.
They played a Red Sox team that had been 62-28, then drifted downward to a 101-61 mark, not looking like the powerhouse Red Sox of 1974-’75 and ‘77, but good enough to maybe win the pennant.
Boston won game 1, but the Athletics stormed back to win game 2 behind Vida Blue. Larry Gura won game 3, with help from a big home run by Sal Bando, and relief help from Hunter and the man who would replace Fingers after ’79, but who for now was a middle reliever – Dan Quisenberry. The Red Sox won game 4, but Dennis Leonard shut them down in game 5 in Boston, winning 4-1 to take the pennant. Some said that Game 3 was the key, and that if the Sox had kept Sparky Lyle after May of ’76, they wouldn’t have lost. Others said the Sox had finally broken the 58-year jinx, only to find themselves hamstrung by the Athletics now.
The N.L. pennant winner was the Milwaukee Brewers, who beat the Dodgers by 2 games, and beat the Reds in 4 in the NLCS. The Brewers boasted an incredible offense, with Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas, Larry Hisle, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Don Money, and Darrell Porter – like Thomas, from the expansion draft when the Brewers entered the league - behind the plate. Mike Caldwell won 22, and a Cy Young, barely beating Ron Guidry’s 23 wins for an awful club. A small market team won in ‘79, too, as the Pirates beat the Brewers in the NLCS, then won the World Series.
Kansas City won the World Series in 5, as the Brewers were to young and inexperienced; their offense was very good, but beyond Caldwell, their pitching wasn’t that great. Doug Bird, who had gone to the Mets in the Otis deal, wound up pitching for them in ’78.
One small market team that didn’t do well was the A’s. Finley’s antics meant the team –drew a respectable 840,000 their first year, slipped to 800,000 their second, then to just over 600,000 their third, as the Giants were in a great pennant race, too. Then, they drew over 900,000, but lost a lot of good will from their good 1974 season. He didn’t sell season tickets, didn’t have radio or TV deals, and suffered from good pennant races across the Bay. He kept bugging Horace Stoneham to let his club move to the N.L., and always got a flat “no.” He hoped the rivalry would help A’s attendance.
As the A’s began their ‘75 “fire sale,” trying to trade good players who he knew would be free agents, fans grew frustrated. He sent Billy Williams to K.C. in June for a few players, and tried to convince fans an aging Santo and Allen could bring them a pennant when they quickly fell out of contention.
George Brett could not be salvaged. Brett hadn’t wanted to stay in Oakland after ’75, even if they’d stayed in his native California. He signed with the Angels as a free agent for 1976. This made Carney Lansford expendable when he came up, though Brett was tried some in the outfield in ‘77. Lansford and Dickie Thon wound up going to the woeful Mets for Craig Swan, with a few other players on both sides thrown in. The Mets had traded Nolan Ryan (Reds) in ’77, and sent Tommy John to the Giants in ‘76 ago, fearing both would sign as free agents with other teams, which they did, Ryan with the Astros, John with the Yankees.. By the time 1980 rolled around, and they were bought by Doubleday, they’d be in full rebuilding mode, only slowly winning back fans.
Oakland attendance was bad by the end of ’75, and promised to be awful in ‘76. Finley tried every gimmick. He let pinch-runner Herb Washington – the sprinter signed the year before – play outfield to see how he’d do. Washingtonbroke a thumb trying to bunt, came back, and hurt his shoulder when he crashed against the wall, and couldn’t play any more. The attempt to sign Oakland Raiders football players to play baseball also fizzled. Bowie Kuhn had to get on Finley a few times about how he handled players, too.
Finley was blocked from moving to New Orleans after ’75. Oakland wouldn’t let Finley out of his lease, and A.L. owners were also concerned about the region’s size. Finley had threatened to move the club since 1973, though a winning season in ’74 eased that a little. As 1975 turned into 1976, he threatened to move them to New Orleans, Seattle, Toronto, Denver, and a few other places. Attendance plummeted for the last place A’s as 1976 continued. At times, it was in the hundreds, despite the Giants doing poorly.
It dragged on for months. Kuhn eventually said Finley could go to one, and the league would buy out the lease, which they were ready to do. Kuhn envisioned 4 new teams – Washington, New Orleans, and two of Denver, Seattle, or Toronto. Finley had actually had verbal agreements with the last three, just as he had New Orleans.
The N.L. wouldn’t expand, but the A.L. liked the idea of joining the N.L. in Canada. (Note – this happened in OTL, with Seattle having sued over loss of the Brewers, as did Kuhn’s idea of 4 new teams, which the N.L. rejected.) D.C. was considered, but again investors couldn’t be found. Meanwhile, Seattle had been promised a team when their Kingdome arrived; it had.
As it was, after threatening to “just put the team at some dock on the Bay,” Finley got his wish. However, there was a flaw. The White Sox were concerned about attendance, but at least they had the Yankees and Red Sox in 9 games a year. They didn’t want to move to the West, if Finley went East. So, they also pushed for expansion if Finley moved East, though Finley preferred New Orleans. He realized he wasn’t going to get approval; and Houston might kick up a fuss in the N.L., anyway; like the Reds had worried about his attempted move to Louisville a dozen years earlier.
The epitaph on Finley’s years in baseball was written a few years later. “Having him as owner meant having to keep a lot of promises that he made. He was a force behind expansion, and would have forced earlier expansion had he moved the Athletics.”
Eventually, it was solved. In the July, 1976 A.L. meetings – when it was realized if baseball expanded, it would be by 2 clubs – one owner was heard to shout, “Bill Veeck is the voice of reason; what has this world come to!”
Veeck would have bought the White Sox in late 1975 without a second thought, if free agency hadn’t been in effect. Since it had been, however, he was concerned. Because he held off for a time, the White Sox tried to move to Toronto; Seattle had also courted them, but the Labatts people had bid a little higher. League owners were concerned about cities filing suit if they blocked too many moves. They couldn’t easily say the A’s – or, perhaps, the White Sox - were viable where they were.
A.L. owners wanted a team in the large media market of Chicago. They didn’t want it to have to be an expansion club, either.
Commissioner Kuhn began pushing for expansion to four cities. Soon, however, it was clear that the N.L. wasn’t interested; they’d had to be prodded a little to expand in 1971, though there had clearly been 3 cities ready by then. They’d also had to be prodded into going to divisions; one story has it that if Montreal hadn’t been ready with Jarry Park, they would have expanded to Milwaukee and San Diego in ’71, and had one league of 12, just like in the 1890s. Gene Autry, of course, had wanted a team out West with him, and other things had forced the N.L.’s hand.
Now, in 1976, the N.L. could easily say “no” to any further expansion.
The A.L., on the other hand, saw Seattle and Toronto ready for teams, and Toronto having been promised one, or one of two. They had Chicago and Oakland bleeding red ink; in a desperate bid to draw fans, the previous White Sox owners had already traded young talent in Dent and Gossage to the Yankees for Gamble and cash, and in early March, sent Brian Downing – a native Californian who they feared would leave someday for the Angels – and others to California for Bobby Bonds, who had a good ’76 and great ’77 for the Sox and who seemed willing to come to Chicago.
When Veeck finally decided he had to buy the team – which was lowering in value and ready to move for ’77 – he signed a few players. However, the Sox were without stars in their prime, save for Gamble and Bonds. They looked bad. Richie Zisk would have been a good pick-up, Veeck said, but he’d be a free agent at the end of the year, and go to Texas as a free agent, where he won a division title in ’77. Veeck admitted privately to other owners that his, too, was like an expansion club. “Free agency coming when it did, then my having to delay for a few months, caused this team to be bled dry.” Still, he was trying to run the Sox and entertain. And, in 1977, his White Sox, behind Bobby Bonds and others, would contend till late, before ending up 10 game behind the Yankees.
As fans wondered if two, or any, teams would be added, Charlie Finley approached Veeck as he’d approached the previous owners, about moving to Chicago while they moved. A.L. owners had rejected it a few months ago – they were afraid of having Finley ruin what should be a lucrative market.
Veeck had an idea, though. Let Finley sell a large share to the Labatts family, and write in the contract that he can only run management and player deals – and that he needed some kind of GM besides himself. He could entertain some, but he’d have help running a baseball team, instead of just trying to market it like he was selling insurance.
Veeck insisted that Chicago had to stay in the A.L. East. Since Toronto would move there, Seattle and either New Orleans or Denver could be added in the N.L. West; Seattle because they’d finally gotten their stadium, te other because Finley had looked close to moving there, too, and it was also new territory. The Toronto club would be called the Blue Jays. Exhibition Stadium was nice for baseball, though very snowy. Finley could market with crazy stunts all he wanted off the snow.
Owners agreed that idea was good; Veeck had talked to Finley about how he was forced out of baseball in ’53, and that the same thing could happen to Finley. Pat Gillick would be hired by the Labatts people, eventually, as Finley allowed them to run the business side of things, and he would run promotions. I it was here that the owner had proclaimed Veeck a “voice of reason.”
So it was that baseball chose to buy the A’s out of their lease, and let them move to Toronto. Finley was forced to give a partial share to someone who would act with some sanity, and provide financial backing. The owners of Labatts got more of a share, till Finley finally was forced to sell it all to them because of his divorce.
Denver received the other team. New Orleans drew a huge cry from Houston, which was doing poorly, even though it would be in the other league. Also, Denver’s stadium would be less of a problem, and their ownership, led by oil man Mike Davies, was wealthier.
Finley hired Billy Martin as manager, over GM Pat Gillick’s objections. However, team president Finley scouted well, and overrode Gillick at times, though Gillick’s trade after 1979 season vaulted the Blue Jays into instant contender status. Rollie Fingers was acquired. He’d be “pretty much the whole bullpen” to Martin in ’80 and ’81, the latter of which saw him win the Cy Young Award. This was after Finley sold his remaining shares. Finley kept Gillick on till he told his majority, partly because there were some good deals, mostly because the other owners were footing the bill.
Three out of four division winners were again small markets in ’79, as the Pirates downed the Brewers, and the Orioles downed the Angels, who greatly reaped the benefits of the trade of Lansford and Thon for Swan, as well as George Brett’s historic season, with over 20 doubles, triples, and home runs. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in the Series.
As the 1980s dawned, baseball faced problems, though. And, Bowie Kuhn, despite the fact owners were upset at him for convincing them to stop the lockout in ’75, would have to deal with them in his 2nd term, as the owners really didn’t know who else to pick. Kuhn would serve through the end of 1986. And, he’d have his hands full the first year of that 2nd term, as the 5 year deal with players led to a strike in 1980. (Note: Things are earlier here, too, with the Supreme Court decision and the free agency ruling a year earlier.)
Part 11 - 1980-3: Strike Problems, Resurgence, then more Problems
The Brewers had two very good years, finishing with the most wins in the N.L. in ’78 and 2nd most in ’79, winning the first NLCS and losing the 2nd. Their third place in ’80 wasn’t just due to overconfidence, or the Dodgers’ determination, or the Astros’ signing Nolan Ryan. It was also due to something that struck down one of their pitchers, and one of their better hitters in the next few years. The problem of drugs in baseball.
Owners and players alike had responded to Curtis LeMay’s harsh talk. Informational pre-season meetings, warnings, and so on caused a few to clean up during the “amnesty period” the LeMay had offered, that only due to the insistence of the players’ union.
By 1980, however, a new group of players had come up, and drug use was again on the rise. It seemed to be more prevalent in the N.L., in certain places. There was reportedly quite a bit of activity there and in Philadelphia. Los Angeles had a pitcher who would eventually get busted for drugs a few times. And, the Brewers, being in the same league, and Cardinals to some extent, also saw it. Some in the A.L. were also aware of them, of course, but the fall of the ’81 Brewers - and the Pirates in the 2nd half of the season – were especially telling. Pittsburgh had finished. 500, but 5th, in 1980, just below Atlanta and their tandem of Niekro and Guidry, when both halves of 1980 are considered.
Yes, both halves. From the last game on June 11th, to the All-Star Game at the start of the first full week of August, there was no major league baseball. Players were on strike, and the Yankees, Athletics, Expos (by 1.5 games over the Pirates, and 3 over the Reds and Phillies) and Dodgers were division leaders. It left George Brett of the Angels on a hot streak, one which he’d resume August 8th on his way to .377. (Note: While Anaheim Stadium was more of a pitchers’ park then Royals’ Stadium, he’d also have a bit more protection in the lineup, and the ability to focus on only getting hits on a woeful team, thus evening it out. The addition of Denver gives him a few more hits.) Rod Carew, who hit .390 in 1977, hit .337, then .316 and .319 before .342 in ’83, his last big year. He and Brett seemed to teach each other about hitting. The strike left Blue Jays’ 2nd year star Rickey Henderson without a chance to steal 100+ bases in 4 straight seasons; he did it the next 3 years, 1981-3. Henderson hit .308 with 65 steals in 1980. the strike also left Steve Carlton 17-5 in 2/3 of a season.
One player not impacted much by it was Mike Schmidt. He hit 38 home runs and had 102 RBIs despite playing only about 100 games, like all the others, along with a .302 average. (Note: the time missed actually eliminates a big slump.) He’d hit .310 with 48 home runs in ’81, en route to his 2nd straight MVP Award, but he’d had such a good year in ’80, some said he’d have challenged Maris’ mark if he’d gotten hit in those 50-odd games.
The 2nd half division winners were all different, but not for lack of trying. The Twins somehow managed to win the 2nd half in the A.L. West, though the Athletics swept them easily. The Orioles were down by 4 to the Yankees in early September before roaring back. The Astros won the N.L. West. And the Phillies, thanks to Schmidt’s hot bat, staved off the Expos and the shocking Braves. Atlanta finished only a game back in the 2nd half, causing them to rise ahead of the Pirates when the full season is considered. The Reds wound up tied for 2nd to the Phillies, 1.5 games back, for the whole season, with Mario Soto going into 1981 as the ace.
The Orioles continued their mastery of the Yankees, winning the division series in 4, but losing to the Athletics in the ALCS. The Phillies beat the Astros in 5 great games to capture the N.L. flag. They went on to win their first World Series ever over Kansas City.
Cecil Cooper’s league leading batting carried the Brewers to 3rd in each half of the 1980 season. Milwaukee looked like they might still compete and even with the division in ’81.
However, they started slightly below .500, tied for 3rd with the Astros and just ahead of the Giants, in June. They were already 9 games behind the streaking Dodgers, with the Cardinals well ahead of them in 2nd. So, they made a trade.
Milwaukee and St. Louis had discussed trades all offseason; the Brewers didn’t want to let David Green go to a team in their division, not without real relief help. The Cardinals had been talking trade with the Padres, as well. St. Louis swung a deal to send a veteran to New York for minor leaguer Willie McGee, in case they couldn’t get Green, though McGee didn’t come up till 1982.
With Ted Simmons slumping, the Cardinals were reluctant to let go of Terry Kennedy now. Still, they knew the Padres were looking for a good young catcher. They began talks with the Brewers and Padres about a 3-way deal. It was completed in mid-June, just before the trading deadline.
St. Louis got defensive wizard Ozzie Smith, and Luis Salazar, who had very good ofeensive years in ’80 and ’81, and could play many positions, especially in the infield, from San Diego, They also got pitcher Dave LaPoint from the Brewers. The Padres got Cardinal shortstop Gary Templeton, Terry Kennedy, and relievers from both sides, as they looked to start a youth movement. The Brewers got Steve Mura, Gene Tenace – acquired by the Padres after the 1979 season - from San Diego, along with a couple pichers from each. They then sent Larry Hisle to the Blue Jays for more pitching; he ended up as mostly a full-time DH for the Jays in their pennant run. Minor leaguers changed hands, but the most important thing was the relief and veteran help the Brewers tried to get. Ironically, while they’d discussed exchanged hurlers Lary Sorensen and Pete Vuckovich, the Brewers’ Sorensen would end up with the slightly better ’81. And, Vuckovich would be hurt most of 1983 and all of ’84.
The attempt to acquire all the veteran help was unsuccessful, as they finished 82-80. They rebounded to go 86-76 in ’82, but that was only good enough for a tie for 3rd with the Giants. St. Louis won the World Series in ’82, while the Padres – with Tony Gwynn playing quite a bit after a September call-up the year before – were 83-79, in 3rd.
A key part of St. Louis’ World Series win was their trade of Sixto Lezcano – acquired by the Red Sox from the Phillies in the Sparky Lyle trade. They’d gotten him for the 2nd half of 1980, when despite finishing last they thought they could contend. They couldn’t, and he was hurt a fair amount in 1981, so they sent him as veteran help to the Phillies for Lonnie Smith, who was poorer defensively but who fit the Cards’ offensive style better. Other players changed hands, too.
Toronto’s Rickey Henderson was compared to Al Kaline, especially in later years. 1981 was his only 200-hit season, as he got there on the dot, just as Kaline had in 1955; Henderson missed a fair amount of time later due to injuries, though he came close. He his in the .340s, as Kaline had, with his next best season almost 20 points below that, in 1990, whereas Kaline’s next best was 1961. Henderson showed blazing speed throughout his career, if course, and 1981 with his 100 steals – marked the first of 3 straight years he’d accomplish that feat. He was helped by the fact Exhibition Stadium was one of the top hitters’ parks in baseball, but he also had a lot of pitchers watching for him.
With Rollie Fingers tossing 127 innings, his most since 1977, and saving a then-record 40 games, the Blue Jays engaged in a spirited race with the Yankees and he surprising Orioles and Tigers, with the clubs finishing in that order. Detroit was only 7 back when it was all finished, the White Sox and Red Sox tied for 5th at 10 back. Cleveland, despite a 78-84 mark, finished in last; they would make it to .500 the following year, and still only be in 5th. Fingers edged Seaver for the Cy Young Award, and his Blue jays edged the Yankees by 2 games in a bit of a surprise; Toronto had finished 3rd, a fair deal back of the leaders and in 4th in one of the halves, in 1980.
Once in the playoffs, the Blue Jays handled the Rangers easily, as their pitching was far better than Texas’. However, the National League winners had much better hurlers.
The Braves couldn’t quite keep up their surprising 2nd half of 1980, as they sank to around .500, and .4th place. The Reds kept looking just good enough to contend, as they finished with 90 wins, thanks to Mario Soto’s 16 wins leading their staff. Still, Johnny Bench got hurt for a couple months, and the Phillies, with Schmidt’s awesome year, and Expos, with Andre Dawson’s 30-30 campaign (30 home runs, 30 steals) and tim raines’ amazing rookie year (111 steals), were too much. Over in the N.L. West, the trade didn’t quite vault the Cardinals to the top, as the Dodgers bet them in a by a game very good pennant race, the first really great race between the rivals.
Los Angeles then captured the pennant, and won the World Series in 6, despite the excellent play of league MVP Rickey Henderson.
He said they’d be back; they weren’t. Fingers was injured in mid-’82, and the wear on the pitchers – even with Brian Kingman spelling Luis Leal and the others more – took its toll. Steve McCatty – 2nd in the Cy Young voting in ’81 – and Mike Norris tried to hold their own, but the Jays never quite got it going. By the end of ’82, Henderson was running like crazy every time; he stole 130 bases that year, as the Blue Jays finished 77-85, in 6th place. Ironically, the only team worse was their main challenger from 1981, as the New York Yankees sank to last at 75-87, partly because of Seaver’s poor year. They traded Tommy John to the Angels later in the year.
Still, Rickey Henderson’s incredible play, Schmidt chasing a Triple Crown for a time, and some very good pennant races in both leagues – the Athletics tried to mount a furious comeback against the Rangers, who wilted a little in the August heat, before coming up short, in addition to the three mentioned – meant 1981 was a very successful year for baseball. Fernandomania – the Dodgers’ young Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards – Wade Boggs’ sweet hitting (.285 in half of 1981, .324 over a full 1982), Pete Rose’s .316 at an advanced baseball age, the Mets nearly sneaking into fifth as the Pirates slumped horribly – and, other things drew lots of interest.
1982 saw more fun. Toronto’s Dave Stieb, in his first full season as a starter, won 17 with an excellent ERA. Jim Palmer nearly tied Seaver with 4 Cy youngs, going 16-4 and losing because he hadn’t had as many decisions. Baltimore roared past the Tigers, White Sox, then the Red Sox after being 10 games back in 4th in early August, thanks to MVP Eddie Murray, runner-up Doug DeCinces, and Rookie of the Year Cal Ripken, Jr., who was moved to shortstop but also backed up DeCinces when he first came up at 3rd. The Braves nearly fell to the Phillies in the N.L. East, after having a big lead, while the Angels held off the Athletics by a few games.
The ALCS lived up to the hype, as Jim Palmer, who had done poorly in Game 1, lost for the 2nd time in a pitchers’ duel to the Angels, who made their first World Series. George Brett had 3 home runs in one gam, and Fred Lynn was the Series MVP. The Cardinals swept the Braves. Pete Vuckovich and the Cardinals were beaten in game 1 of the Series, 3-1, but the Cardinals won the next 2, as their opponents’ pitching faltered. Despite George Brett’s excellent Series, St. Louis won games 6 and 7 back home in St. Louis for their first World Series title since 1967.
It had been a good World Series. However, an incident in Milwaukee during the playoffs led to some extra scrutiny, and eventually, federal investigators honed in on a number of drug dealers in a case in Pittsburgh. By the Winter Meetings, the talk was not of trades, or the promising new ’83 season – all the talk was of drugs in baseball. The scandal reached as high as the World Series winners themselves.