1981: Split Season Playoffs

The terrible reason that the 1981 Reds missed the playoffs.

On Wednesday, September 8, 2021, Marvin Miller was finally given a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Forty years ago, he a central figure in the 1981 baseball strike. The strike had a lasting impact on the game and created a unique playoff season for baseball.

In 1980 the MLBPA and MLB had agreed to a new four-year Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Well. Mostly. They had failed to agree to free agency compensation. With the removal of the reserve clause and the advent of free agency, players were not tied to teams after their service time was up and a contract expired. Players were free to negotiate with any team. The teams losing free agents wanted compensation for the assets they could no longer force to remain with the team. Both sides agreed to continue negotiations for a year. The players retained a right to strike if there was no resolution on free-agent compensation.


No Baseball in July? For What?


So sure MLB was, they obtained insurance in case of a strike. The $2 Million policy included a 153 game deductable. After those games, MLB would receive $100,000 per game up to a limit of 500 games. On June 12, 1981, the players struck. The players remained on strike until August 9, 1981, after 713 canceled games. Oddly, 50 games past the insured 653 games. What a coincidence.

What did over a year of additional discussions create?

What new plan was worthy of 50 days without baseball?

What victory came out of an entire month of July without baseball?

A plan so brilliant the next CBA scrapped it!

The veteran free agency compensation plan divided players into Type-A and Type-B free agents using a complex formula.

A complex formula would divide free agents into two groups requiring compensation. Type-A free agents were the top 20% of free agents, Type-B were the top 21%-30% of free agents. Losing a Type-A free agent would allow a team to receive an amateur draft pick and a player from a player pool. The loss of a Type-B free agent earned a team two amateur draft picks. Any other type of player would be a single amateur draft pick. Losing a Type-A free agent would get the team $150,000 as compensation.

Any team participating in free agency had to submit a list of protected players to exclude from the player pool for Type-A free agent compensation. If you lost a Type-A free agent you could only exclude 24 players otherwise you could protect 26 players. Up to five teams could not participate in free agency. Those teams did not have to add players to the compensation player pool. Players added to the roster after submission of the protected list would be unprotected.


Stupid is as Stupid Does


In the 1983 off-season, the Blue Jays signed Dennis Lamb from the White Sox. Chicago then selected Tom Seaver for the Mets. The Mets had a stable of young players, hoping that Tom Seavers’s age and contract would keep other teams from drafting him.

Also during the 1983 off-season, The O’s signed Tom Underwood from Oakland, allowing Oakland to draft Tim Belcher from the Yankees. The Yankees had selected Belcher as the number one pick in the amateur draft. The problem was that he didn’t sign until five days after the deadline for the protected list. Belcher could not be on the protected list before he signed. At least the $150,000 cash compensation covered the cost of Belcher’s $120,000 reported signing bonus.

The playoff plans for the 1981 split season are equally as bad. Why? The teams with the first and third-best records in baseball did not make the playoffs. Yet, the teams with the 10th and 17th best records in baseball DID make the playoffs.

Complaining about the lost revenue MLB decided that splitting the season into two half would increase playoff revenue. The additional playoff races would help bring back fans.


Baseball is Back


Starting the second half of the season on August 9th with the All-Star game proved to be a great idea. The game had difficulties, players had not played in 50 days and were rusty. Some players didn’t arrive in Cleveland until hours before the game due to President Reagan firing striking air traffic controllers making travel difficult. But it was a close game with Gary Carter winning MVP and the National League winning 5-4 in late an inning comeback.

After a successful All-Star game, baseball wasted no time. Started playing the second half-season on August 10th. Pete Rose and the Phillies immediately gained national attention. On June 10th, before the strike, Pete Rose singled on Nolan Ryan to tie Stan Musial’s National League record of 3,160 hits. August 10th’s ABC Monday night game had Rose attempting to beat the record. Rose reached base in the first inning on an error. Leading off the eighth inning, Rose hit a single to break Musial’s record. Stan the Man was in attendance. Rose’s son was the batboy for the game and quickly hugged his father. Musial entered the field and congratulated Rose. After the game, President Reagan called Rose to offer his congratulations. Baseball was back!

The playoff plans had a few issues.

The winners of the first half east and west divisions of both leagues were in the playoffs. The 34-22 Yankees and 37-23 Oakland A’s were in from the American League. In the National League, the 34-21 Phillies and 36-21 Dodgers already had playoff plans. They would face the second-half divisional winners. The winners of the Divisional Playoffs would play in the Championship Series to go to the World Series. If the same team won both halves they would play the team with the second-best overall record.

That was a sticky point. Imagine this. In the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox are without percentage points of each other in the second half of the season. Baltimore has the second-best overall record going to the final series against New York. It would benefit the O’s to lose every game against the Yankees. The Yankees would win both halves. The Baltimore would assure themselves the playoffs with the second-best record.


Lose Your Way Into the Playoffs?


Whitey Herzog, manager to the Cardinals, said he would lose a game or two if it meant making the playoffs. White Sox manager Tony LaRussa said he wouldn’t play to lose but instead he would forfeit the game. MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a problem.

To fix the problem, Kuhn changes the playoff rules. If a team won both halves of a division they would play the second-place finisher of the second half of the season, making about zero people happy. The Yankees advocated for a bye. Teams that finished second in the first half didn’t appreciate out of the equation. Several teams point out that it would be impossible for teams to play the same number of games and a team that was 1/2 out of the playoffs would be unfairly left with the opportunity to force a one-game playoff.

The loss for the playoff scenario never came up. The Expos won the NL East with a 30-23 record. The Astros 33-20 record won the second half NL West race. The AL East was topped by the Brewers and their 31-22 record. The AL West was won by the 30-23 Royals. The Divisional Series in the AL would pit the Yankees against the Brewers and the A’s against the Royals. In the NL the Expos took on the Phillies and the Dodgers and Astros battled faced off.

In the AL East, the Brewers had the best overall record at 62-47. Oakland and the best record in the AL West with an overall 64-45 record. The best overall record in the NL East was the St. Louis Cardinals with a 59-43 record. The Reds had the best overall record in the NL West at 66-42. Both were left out of the playoff picture.


The Best Team in Baseball Misses The Playoffs


The Reds finished 1/2 game behind the Dodgers in the first half. They finished 1 1/2 games behind the Astros in the second half. They had the best overall record in baseball. They did not play a single playoff game. The Cardinals finished 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies in the first half. In the second half, they finished 1/2 games behind Expos and had the third-best record in baseball. They also played zero playoff games. (Small rant, how can St. Louis be in the East and Cinncinati be in the West?)

The overall records of playoff teams (with winning percentage):

The NLCS was the Dodgers facing the Expos. The ALCS would have the Yankees facing the Brewers. The World Series ended with the Dodgers beating the Yankees in six games.

The team with the 17th best record in a 26 team league made the playoffs. Two teams, with the first and third-best records in baseball, were left out because of a 1/2 game because teams didn’t play the same number of games. One of those teams, the Phillies, was the defending World Series Champions. MLB had plenty of time to make sure teams played the same number of games. MLB dropped the ball and created the split season. Next, they swung on missed on the playoffs format.

The Divisional Series would not return until 1995. In 1994 a work stoppage would affect baseball, this time canceling the playoffs and World Series. The leagues would realign into three divisions, and a wild card team was added to compete with the three divisional winners.

As we enter an off-season where a new CBA will be worked out please remember to never underestimate MLB’s ability to make a bad situation worse.


Photo by Drew Beamer/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login