Review: Split Season 1981

The Yankees postseason ended with a loss to Houston in the Wild Card game but Jeff Katz’s book “Split Season: 1981” takes a look back at a Yankees team that made the World Series during one of the strangest seasons in baseball history.

“I was 18 going on 19. The ’81 strike is the pivotal strike of my life,” said Katz, the Mayor of Cooperstown. “When the ’94 strike happened I was married with kids and had a full-time job. It was not as gut-wrenching as ’81. That always lingered. Nobody wrote a book about it, even in 1982 or 1983. I was looking for a book project. It ends up being up to me to write the book.”

In 1980 the Yankees were swept in the ALCS leading to the firing of manager Dick Howser and the free agent signing of Dave Winfield. “In 1981 Steinbrenner was at his most Steinbrennery,” Katz said. “I’m 53. For us, George Steinbrenner is an insane, sadistic maniac. In the late-90s he was owner of a less dramatic team and he was parodied on Seinfeld. It glossed over the Steinbrenner of 73 to 93. I was kind of happy to bring that back. The revisionist history is kind of crazy to me.”

Winfield’s first season as a Yankee was Reggie Jackson’s last in the Bronx. “Steinbrenner really tortured Reggie quite publicly. In the first half he was saying how great Winfield was and that Winfield should be MVP while Reggie was killing them. Steinbrenner kept poking at him. He tried to humiliate him by making him get an eye exam and a physical. The strike may have been good for Reggie.”

A player strike interrupted the season and led owners to declaring the split season. The Yankees led the AL East at the time of the strike and were automatically in the playoffs. Gene Michael led the team in the first half but George was unhappy with a lackluster second half and fired Michael in favor of Bob Lemon , who had managed the team to the 1978 World Series title. It was part of the revolving door at manager which ended once Joe Torre came to the Bronx. Torre was still managing the Mets in 1981, his fifth and last season with the team.

“Michael blew up in September at Comiskey in Chicago. He ripped into George. George said he felt like a father scorned. He had a paternalistic relationship with a guy close to his age.”

After defeating the Brewers in the ALDS, the Yankees faced the Billy Martin managed Oakland A’s. Oakland had defeated Dick Howser’s Royals in the other ALDS. The ALCS drama came off the field after the Yankees swept Oakland.

“At a restaurant in Oakland, Graig Nettles and his wife sat down and then got up and came back. By that time Reggie’s party had taken their table and Ginger Nettles couldn’t find her purse. Reggie saw Graig had a beer bottle and flashed back to Oakland fight where somebody was cut with a beer bottle so he snatched it out of his hands. That started a fight with everybody climbing over tables. It was one of Reggie’s final Yankee moments.”

The Yankees met the Dodgers in the World Series and took the first two games at Yankee Stadium. It looked like it would be a repeat of 1977 and 1978 when New York beat Los Angeles. The Dodgers fought back and won all three games in LA, with Reggie not starting Game three.

The scene shifted back to Yankee Stadium for Game six with Tommy John on the mound for the Yankees. With the game tied at one in the fourth inning, Lemon made one of the worst moves in World Series history. John, a Dodger in ’77 and ’78, was due up with two on and two out. Lemon used Bobby Murcer as a pinch-hitter for the southpaw.

“Steinbrenner told Lemon to pull his starters earlier. He thought they were staying in too long. John was a great pitcher, a great competitor but not emotive. Lemon told him he was going to be pinch-hit for and the cameras picked up John in the dugout screaming.”

Murcer flew out and George Frazier was smacked around by the Dodgers. LA won 9-2 as Frazier picked up his third loss of the series. It was the last World Series game at Yankee Stadium for 15 years. “Steinbrenner let Reggie go and announced they would rebuild as a speed team so he acquired guys like Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Collins. It was the beginning of a very long drought.”

There was one last bit of Steinbrenner madness in 1981. The owner issued an apology for the Yankees performance in the World Series. “Why do people think he should be in the Hall of Fame? He was convicted of a felony, suspended on two occasions, hired a private detective to dig up on a player. As Mayor of Cooperstown have no pull, but that’s a bizarre conclusion to reach.”

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