The never-before-told story of the momentous season torn in half by the bitter players strike.
1981 was a watershed moment in American sports, when players turned an oligarchy of owners into a game where they had a real voice. Midway through the season, a game-changing strike ripped baseball apart, the first time a season had ever been stopped in the middle because of a strike. Marvin Miller and the MLB Players Association squared off against Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners in a fight to protect players rights to free agency and defend America's pastime.
Though a time bomb was ticking as the 1981 season began, the game rose to impressive---and now legendary---heights. Pete Rose chased Stan Musial's National League hit record and rookie Fernando Valenzuela was creating a sensation as the best pitcher in the majors when the stadiums went dark and the players went on strike.
For the first time in modern history, there were first- and second-half champions; the two teams with the overall best records in the National League were not awarded play-off berths. When the season resumed after an absence of 712 games, Rose's resumption of his pursuit, the resurgence of Reggie Jackson, the rise of the Montreal Expos, and a Nolan Ryan no-hitter became notable events. The Dodgers bested their longtime rivals in a Yankees-Dodgers World Series, the last classic matchup of those storied opponents.
Sourcing incredible and extensive interviews with almost all of the major participants in the strike, Split Season: 1981 returns us to the on- and off-field drama of an unforgettable baseball year.
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About the Author
Jeff Katz is the Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He is the author of The Kansas City A’s&The Wrong Half of the Yankees. He was a featured speaker during a “New York baseball” program put on by The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is a member of The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
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Split Season: 1981
Fernandonomia, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball
By Jeff Katz
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jeff Katz
All rights reserved.
PRE-PRE-SEASON DECEMBER 1980–FEBRUARY 1981
Nineteen eighty closed on a somber note. John Lennon was dead, brutally gunned down in front of his New York City apartment. But with the martyred Beatle's "(Just Like) Starting Over" topping the charts, fans and nonfans rushing to buy the now-dead Beatle's latest single, January 1981 seemed a bit more hopeful. Though the economy fluctuated from mild recession to weak recovery, Americans hoped that better days were on their way. Ronald Reagan, delivering a smiley, positive message, trounced gloomy Jimmy Carter in the November election. Reagan seemed to be able to deliver immediately; the hostages in Iran, held captive since November 1979, were released hours after his swearing in.
It was a good time to be a conservative and a capitalist. The entire nation loved J. R. Ewing, the conniving, moneygrubbing oilman from the number-one-rated television show, Dallas. While the public worshipped J.R. and envied his rich and famous ways, that was fantasy. In reality, unemployment remained high and workers were under more and more strain. TV viewers watched Dallas, but moviegoers were flocking to see 9 to 5, the box-office smash about everyday stiffs exacting revenge on a tyrannically evil boss. The gap between winners and losers seemed large and ever growing.
Dave Winfield was a winner. There he was, gripping a bat, smiling widely, the picture of content in full Yankee splendor in front of a bloodred backdrop. In 1981, no one made a better fashion leap than Winfield, trading in the visually repugnant yellow-and-brown uniform of the San Diego Padres for Yankee pinstripes.
The first Sports Illustrated of the New Year heralded, "The Man Who Hit the Jackpot." The free-agent prize of 1980, David Mark Winfield, had signed a 10-year, $15 million deal on December 15, a pact that could, with inflation adjustments, climb as high as $22 million. At 6'6", 220 lbs., Winfield was an athletic dream, a former multisport star at the University of Minnesota, drafted by both the NBA Atlanta Hawks and ABA Utah Stars in basketball, the Minnesota Vikings in football, and the Padres, who selected him as a pitcher with the fourth pick in the first round. In 1973, with no minor league experience, he made his major league debut.
It didn't take long for Winfield to make an impact. By 1978, he was a star; by the following year a superstar and Most Valuable Player candidate. With his contract expiring at the end of the 1980 season, talks began between Winfield; his agent, Al Frohman; and Padres president Ballard Smith, son-in-law of Padres owner Ray Kroc, the man who created McDonald's.
The contract talks were brutal, and the negativity affected Winfield in 1980, for him a season of mediocre and, at times, lackadaisical play. He was hurt and felt unappreciated, vilified by Kroc: "I don't want him back. He can't hit with men on base. A dozen times he's come up with men on base and he hasn't done a damn thing."
Winfield declared himself a free agent at season's end. At the November 13 reentry draft, when major league clubs selected free agents they hoped to sign, Winfield was picked by 10 of 26 teams, including the Braves, Yankees, and Mets. Then the courting began.
At the winter meetings in Dallas, the buzz in the halls was about a Yankees-Mets bidding war. The Mets, losers for the last several years, were desperately trying to gain some kind, any kind, of leg up on the Yankees, who ruled New York and its press. The new owners at Shea Stadium were doing all they could to make themselves seem the winners of the Winfield sweepstakes, spreading word that they'd inked a deal, but they never had a chance.
Starting in the summer of 1980, Steinbrenner had prepared to make the hard sell. Smarting from his failure to convince erstwhile Dodger and now Houston Astros pitcher Don Sutton to join the Yankees, Steinbrenner, from his newly acquired racetrack, Tampa Bay Downs, told reporters, "We didn't need Sutton, but Dave Winfield is a different matter. He's the piece to fit into the puzzle. Don't count us out on Winfield." As he looked out to the paddock, Steinbrenner grew wistful. "Horses are great. They never complain. They can't talk to sportswriters and tell them what a bum the owner is."
Steinbrenner had had enough of that with Reggie Jackson, his first free-agent prize. George was fed up with Jackson, his controversies, his constant playing of the race card, his conflicts with teammates. The biggest sin was that Reggie let George down in the playoff loss to the Royals. With former Yankees team leader Thurman Munson gone, killed in a 1979 plane crash, a plane he piloted, Steinbrenner didn't want Reggie to be the face of the Yankees. Still, Steinbrenner was willing to toy with Reggie, bringing him close while privately planning to push him away.
Steinbrenner called Jackson to meet him for dinner at Elaine's. Just as George had sought Munson's feelings on bringing in Jackson, now Steinbrenner wanted Jackson's thoughts on Winfield. Jackson arrived in cowboy hat and sweater, the popularity of The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and Urban Cowboy having set off a fashion frenzy of big-brimmed hats and giant belt buckles.
Although Jackson and Winfield shared the same position, right field, Reggie was all for signing the ex-Padre. A healthy dose of self-interest was at work. Reggie himself would be a free agent after the 1981 season. How much would Steinbrenner need to pay his reigning superstar if he was forking over millions to the new guy? "I'm not gonna be around forever," Jackson told Steinbrenner. He had no idea how true that was.
With Jackson on board, Steinbrenner flew to Minneapolis for a University of Minnesota fund-raiser. Amid steaks and drinks with Winfield, Steinbrenner went into his spiel: "It's time you got with a winner."
Early December brought Winfield to New York for last-minute talks with both the Mets and the Yankees. Steinbrenner knew how to flirt, sending flowers, limos, and Broadway tickets to Winfield's hotel room.
"I like you a lot, Dave," Steinbrenner told Winfield in the limo. "I can take you places I could never take Reggie." Like a bored lover, Steinbrenner saw greener and more exciting pastures with Dave Winfield.
Winfield called his mother back in St. Paul on December 14 to tell her he'd made his decision—he was going to sign with the Yankees, a 10-year deal of up to $2 million per year. The next day, in front of a huge Yankee logo and behind a cluster of microphones, Winfield, dressed in an immaculate gray business suit, met the press. Jackson stood near the newest Yankee, smiling, thinking how much he'd be able to command. After the press conference, Steinbrenner invited Jackson up to his suite at the Carlyle Hotel. There, the boom was lowered. There would be no four- or five-year contract between the Yankees and Reggie Jackson; he was too old. Jackson was shaken.
As the New Year began and free-agent signings went on as usual, the baseball world eagerly awaited a report from a joint study committee set up in the agreement that forestalled a strike in May 1980 but left on the table the singularly explosive issue of free-agent compensation. There was no agreement between the parties on what, if anything, constituted a fair return to teams that had lost a player. Instead, an agreed-upon procedure was set in place—Attachment IX. Contained within, the owners had the option of implementing their compensation program, or one more beneficial to the players' association, between February 15 and 19, 1981. In their plan, when a free agent was selected in the postseason reentry draft by eight or more clubs and ranked in the top half of performance in their position (pitchers measured by starts or relief appearances, hitters by plate appearances), then the team who signed the free agent could protect 15 to 18 players on their major league roster, depending on whether the free agent was in the top one-third or one-half of the rankings. The team that lost that free agent could then pluck a major league player from the remainder of the signing team's roster. It was direct compensation, a punishment for teams signing a free agent.
If the owners adopted this direct compensation plan, the players had their own set of options. They could accept it, unlikely as that was, or ask the clubs whether the union might strike prior to the 1981 season or take one year under the clubs' plan and strike prior to the 1982 season. If the clubs elected for the players to strike in 1981, the players had to give notice by March 1 of their intent to strike and provide a date of no later than June 1.
But first, a joint study committee would be established to investigate the merits of compensation. There was always the outside chance that the committee would come up with something palatable to both parties. A 30-day period of bargaining would ensue between their findings and the playing out of the procedure.
The misrepresentation of this process had set Ray Grebey, the owners' lead negotiator, and Marvin Miller apart. On May 23, 1980, the day the new Basic Agreement was signed, Miller received a press release from Grebey that said that the players had agreed to the owners' compensation plan. Miller was irate; it was patently untrue. A procedure had been agreed to, that was all. Miller wondered whether Grebey, to soothe the owners, had told them he'd actually got the compensation terms they were after.
Announcing the plan the way Grebey did was purposefully misleading, to the public and the press, creating a situation where, if Grebey was to be believed, the players had already accepted something and any pushback was a betrayal. "They are lying," Miller said strongly.
In a matter-of-fact tone, Grebey said the players "knew compensation was important to us. They knew we cared because we didn't drop it."
Miller quickly countered, "It's not an agreed-upon proposal. It's an agreed-upon procedure."
The owners wanted a strike in 1981; it was, as they saw it, a way to force the players to give back on their free-agent rights. Kuhn admitted as much to himself as he scanned the 1980 Memorandum of Agreement. On the right-side margin of the section that gave players the right to strike, but only one time (if they did not choose to strike they could have "no further strike on this subject during the term of the Basic Agreement"), Kuhn wrote in pencil "one bite theory," and management was going to force the players to take it. Grebey, as Kuhn's proxy, became Marvin Miller's bête noire, an untrustworthy figure who made any kind of negotiations from here on out problematic.
Still, the joint study committee, composed of union representatives, Phillies catcher Bob Boone and Brewers third baseman Sal Bando, and management appointees, Brewers general manager Harry Dalton and Mets GM Frank Cashen, set out to work in good faith.
The players brought specifics—charts on increased attendance, tighter pennant races, club-by-club analyses of who gained free agents and who lost them, the changes in those teams' positions in the standings. Bando and Boone thought that thoughtful discussion would ensue, but since Grebey had expressed zero interest in a study committee before he ultimately agreed, the commitment wasn't there. At a Player Relations Committee meeting (the PRC being the designated bargaining arm of the owners) of Cashen, Dalton, Grebey, and American League president Lee MacPhail, when no players were around to hear the truth, Grebey convinced the others in plain language. "We don't have to prove need for compensation—it's already in the contract. We are not making the argument based on competitive balance. Our starting point should be that we now have compensation, and now we are here to discuss how we can make the system as good as possible."
As January came around, the joint study committee was obviously in tatters, going nowhere. At a PRC meeting on the 21st, the day after Reagan's inauguration, Cashen gave his assessment of what was to come.
"Miller will go to the brink but wants a settlement." Further, Cashen reported that counsel James Garner "feels it is not imperative that we make concessions in the two-week period of negotiation." It was the very definition of bad-faith negotiating, but with Reagan in office, the owners felt the wind was at their back. The new president was pro-business, antiunion, and the country, after the Carter years, was with him.
To no one's surprise, two reports were issued, one from Dalton and Cashen, and another from Boone and Bando (written by Fehr). Player members knew compensation "would adversely affect the bargaining power of not only free agents, but also other players whose salaries are related to free agent salaries." In other words, everyone. Reagan's proposed trickle-down economics, unproven nationally, proved true in baseball. The big bucks commanded by free agents affected each and every player's contract. With no agreement on hand, the bargaining period was set to begin.
The first negotiating session took place at the PRC offices on January 29. Kuhn and the owners thought Miller's acceptance of the Attachment IX process was a tacit acknowledgment that compensation in some form was acceptable. Boy, were they wrong.
The owners' team included National League president Chub Feeney, attorneys Barry Rona and Lou Hoynes, and Grebey. The players were represented by Rangers pitcher Jon Matlack, Expos pitcher and National League pension rep Steve Rogers, Orioles shortstop and American League pension rep Mark Belanger, Angels pitcher Steve Renko, Fehr, and Miller. Miller and Grebey sat across from each other at the table. The only topic was compensation.
"You know why we're seeking it," began Grebey. "Not all free agents are of equal quality."
"We never said they were equal," replied Miller.
"Marv, we have a proposal on the table." Miller hated to be called Marv and Grebey knew it. "It forms a framework for negotiations. We think it is a good proposal, but the owners have no intention of doing nothing. It is a negotiable item. But they will not take it off the table as a settlement. If the Players Association has an alternative, we'd be glad to discuss it."
This contentious beginning was exacerbated by the players interjecting as they saw fit. Grebey had never seen anything like it in his corporate history.
"How has the present system failed to work?" asked Matlack.
Grebey grimaced, his displeasure clear. "I'll refer you to my November 1979 statement that free agency has worked," he answered with some formality, and though he must have known what he'd said in that statement, he pushed Matlack away. "I need time to respond to you."
Feeney joined in. "What about the trades of Lynn and Carew and Blue?" The owners believed that these three blockbuster trades—pitcher Vida Blue from the A's to the Giants in 1978, first baseman Rod Carew from the Twins to the Angels in 1979, and, only six days before, Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn to the Angels—proved their point that compensation would not hinder salaries. In those deals, a marquee player was prepared to play out his option year and go on the free agent market. Instead, his club, rather than get nothing once he left, received bunches of players and the receiving team signed the superstar to a huge deal.
The union didn't buy it. If Blue, Carew, and Lynn commanded big-dollar deals in the context of a player swap, they would undoubtedly have garnered more money if the teams that signed them didn't have to give up any players in the deal.
"This is what it's all about? You want to strengthen Kansas City for losing Darrell Porter [signed by the Cardinals], Los Angeles for the loss of Don Sutton [signed by the Astros], and San Diego for the loss of Dave Winfield?" Miller asked. "All of this is only about these three?"
Grebey and Feeney both nodded. "Yes." They saw, or pretended to see, this in a limited way. The terms they pushed for would affect only a select few.
Miller saw it more broadly. Anything that hurt the salaries of the select few had repercussions on everyone's salary. "What about the effects on Fisk and Cerone once Porter signed?"
Yankee catcher Rick Cerone had a great year in 1980, taking over the fulltime job from Munson. For that he was paid $120,000. Heading into 1981, he asked for a huge raise up to $440,000. Steinbrenner offered his new star $350,000. Instead of agreeing with Steinbrenner, Cerone decided to take the club to arbitration for the first time since 1974. Steinbrenner was insulted and furious.
Salary arbitration was one in a series of huge Miller victories over management. When it began in 1973, it was the first time players could preach the merits of their cases to an unbiased arbiter. The owners would present their case as well. The decision was made, using comparative players and their salaries as a guide. The high price paid to free agents was crucial for non–free agents who hoped to score in arbitration. And they always scored. Look at the Cerone case—win or lose, he was bound to get a serious hike in pay. So when the Cardinals signed Porter to a five-year/$3.5 million deal in December 1980, it had repercussions beyond St. Louis and Kansas City.
Excerpted from Split Season: 1981 by Jeff Katz. Copyright © 2015 Jeff Katz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: October–December 1980,
Chapter 1: Pre-pre-season, December 1980–February 1981,
Chapter 2: Spring Training, February–April,
Chapter 3: Opening Day, April–June,
Chapter 4: Life During Striketime, June,
Chapter 5: "It's Getting Very Nasty in There," July,
Chapter 6: Start Me Up, July 31–August 9,
Chapter 7: Reopening Day, August 10–October 5,
Chapter 8: Postseason, October 6–19,
Chapter 9: World Series, October 20–28,
Chapter 10: Beyond the Split Season, November 1981–Present,
About the Author,