Baseball Short Story
The Strike-Shortened 1981 Season
Tom Verducci, "Show Stoppers," Sports Illustrated (June 2020)
After a two-month strike in 1981 anger was up, crowds were down and chaos (not to men­tion Pete Rose) reigned.
Baseball had suffered work stoppages in 1972, '73, '76 and '80 - three of them confined to spring training - but they were brushfires doused in eight to 17 days. An inferno broke out in 1981.
Owners wanted to reclaim ground they had lost with the advent of free agency in 1975. Players thought owners were trying to break their union. The headline on the June 22 cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED agreed: STRIKE! THE WALKOUT THE OWNERS PROVOKED.
Fan reaction was split. Respondents to a New York Times-CBS News poll in July were evenly divided on whether the owners or players were right, though even greater numbers had no opinion or didn't care.
The owners settled with the players in the early morning of July 31, just as their strike insurance ran out. Yet trust was lacking even upon agreement. The lead negotiators, Ray Grebey for the owners and Marvin Miller for the players, refused to pose together at the news conference in New York City.
In a last-minute deal, the owners granted players service time for the days they were on stroke. In return players agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement by one year. So eager were the two sides to salvage what was left of the season that they agreed to play the All-Star Game in just nine days, with the regular-season schedule resuming the next night.
Angels manager Gene Mauch and Orioles general manager Hank Peters were among the old baseball souls who argued for expanded rosters to ward against arm injuries from pitchers throwing in games so soon. No such accommodations were made, other than allowing a 30-man roster and a reentry rule - permitting players taken out of games to return later - only for each team's two exhibition games. The season would restart with the usual 25-man rosters and substitution rules.

L-R: Ron Grebey and Marvin Miller, Gene Mauch, Marty Bystrom
Pitchers came back to work in various states of arm health. Some continued to throw during the strike, some didn't. Phillies right hander Marty Bystrom, a second-year player with a new house, a new car and no income, took a job as a car salesman during the strike. He said it left no time for physical conditioning. He did no throwing.
When Bystrom showed up at the Vet out of shape, Philadelphia shipped him to Double A. ... In Cleveland, after watching Bert Blyleven throw for 20 minutes, Indians manager Dave Garcia said, "Blyleven's been working out several days a week, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him go nine innings his first time out." (Blyleven, 30, threw nine innings in his first start after the strike, facing 35 batters and giving up nine hits.)
The "training camps" were typically morning workouts and afternoon simulated games. Some teams had to find other fields because their home ballparks had been booked for events to help owners recover lost income. The Mariners relocated to the University of Washington, the Angels to Fullerton Junior College and the Reds, who had rented Riverfront Stadium to a jazz festival, to the University of Michigan.
Most clubs played home-and-home exhibition games. The Cubs and White Sox went nine innings without either team scoring, convincing Sox manager Tony La Russa that he was right when after one day of workouts he decided the pitchers would be ahead of hitters. ...
A's manager Billy Martin let righty Steve McCatty throw a 10-inning complete game in his first start in two months; he delivered 148 pitches. "McCatty," Martin said, "was the guy who showed me after the layoff he worked harder, pitched more often than the other guys." ...

L-R: Bert Blyleven, Dave Garcia, Tony La Russa, Billy Martin
On his lineup card for the NL All-Stars, Phillies manager Dallas Green had Dodgers 2B Davey Lopes batting leadoff with Rose behind him. Rose saw that and made a beeline for Green. "Who would the fans rather see as the first batter after a seven-week strike? A guy hitting in the .100s or a guy who will break Stan Musial's record with his next hit?"
So Green wrote a new lineup with Rose atop it. He would be the first batter in the first game of the second coming. ...
When the strike ended, Kuhn proposed a split-second format rather than simply play out the season as one. Teams in first place at the time of the strike were declared "first half" champions, with more playoff spots up for grabs in the second half. Dick Young of the New York Daily News sagely predicted what would happen in 14 years: "It is a version of the NFL wild card and could hasten the day that baseball adopts the wild card system."
Kuhn's plan allowed teams that otherwise would be out of the race to compete anew for a playoff spot (and sell tickets). The split season also created another layer of playoff games, the division series, which offered a chance for MLB to recoup some of the financial losses from the strike.
Under Kuhn's plan, if the same team finished first in both halves, the club with the second-best overall record would be allowed into the postseason. The reaction was scathing. People hated it. Never before in baseball could a second-place team get the chance to win the World Series.

L-R: Dallas Green, Davey Lopes, Pete Rose, Whitey Herzog
"The entire concept is so stupid I can't believe we're going to ask the American public to buy it," said Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog.
Cardinals executive assistant Joe McDonald called it "the most unjust, irrational concept ever perpetrated in baseball. To go into a season with one thought - to win your division - then change mid-season is unthinkable."
The Reds lost the first half to the Dodgers retroactively by a half-game. They played one fewer game than Los Angeles. ...
Sharp thinkers such as La Russa and Herzog quickly figured out that Kuhn's plan could create a finish in which a team lost games on purpose to allow the first-half winner to win the second half, opening a back door to the postseason for the club with second-best record combined between the first and second halves. Both managers said they would do that if it meant qualifying for the playoffs. "I'll activate myself," Herzog said. "I'd be the catcher and I'd have players throw with the other hand."
The owners called for a meeting on Aug. 4 to ratify Kuhn's split-season plan, but it had to be postponed. The air traffic controllers were on strike.
On Aug. 20 the players association approved the plan with one change to the original proposal. If the same team won both halves, it would play the second place team of the second half, closing he loophole to incentivize losing.
Cincinnati and St. Louis finished with the two best overall records in the NL. Neither made the playoffs.