Reflecting On The Phillies' Strike-Shortened 1981 Season

Phillies legend Steve CarltonUnknown author

By Russ Walsh

Since early December when the Major League Baseball owners declared a lockout against the players due to the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), no new negotiations have been held. As I write this piece, I am hearing reports  that new sessions may begin in mid-January. If no agreement is reached, there will be one sure loser in all these machinations: the fans. The fans always lose during these strikes/lockouts. Players continue to gain more control over their careers, owners continue to line their pockets, and fans lose a chance to see their favorite players and teams play.

For me, and for many Philadelphia Phillies fans, the most devastating work stoppage was the one that occurred in the middle of the 1981 season. In 1981, the Phillies were coming off the first World Series championship in team history. Most of the pieces that carried them to victory in 1980 seemed to be in place again for 1981, and the team was off to a good start.

When the strike hit after the games played on June 10, the Phillies were 34-21 and in first place in the National League East, two games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. The team was hot. That night, when they scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to come from behind and beat the Houston Astros, 5-4, they had won five games in a row and nine out of the last 11. Garry Maddox’s three-run homer was the difference in the game, which ace Steve Carlton won, and World Series hero Tug McGraw picked up the save.

On June 10, Mike Schmidt was on his way to his second straight NL MVP Award. Pete Rose was having his best season as a Phillie, hitting .330. New left fielder Gary Mathews, acquired from Atlanta for pitcher Bob Walk, was hitting a powerful .317. Bake McBride was injured, but Dick Davis, acquired from Milwaukee, was filling in capably and hitting .379. The pitching had sputtered a bit, but Carlton was 9-1 and Dick Ruthven was 8-3. Veterans McGraw, Sparky Lyle, Ron Reed, and Mike Profy were holding down the bullpen capably. Blustery Dallas Green was still barking orders from the dugout.

The Phillies seemed poised to take another run at the World Series. Then the games stopped, the players went home, and the Phils’ momentum died. 

Why the strike? Jim Palmer, future Hall of Fame pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, summed it up very well: “The players said it was about freedom. The owners said it was about fairness. The bottom line was, it was about the bottom line.” 

The strike dragged on for six weeks. When it was over, the owners won a level of compensation for premium free agents that chose to leave their club. The players maintained most of the freedom free agency promised. The fans lost one-third of the season.

Once play resumed on Aug. 10, the Phillies had lost their mojo. Because of the six-week layoff, the owners decided to split the season in two, with the division winners of the first half squaring off in a five-game playoff series with the winners of the second half. The Phillies, therefore, knew they were in the playoffs no matter what happened in the second half of the season. Whether this had any influence on Philadelphia’s poor play in August and September is hard to say, but it certainly didn’t help.

The Phillies went 25-27 in the second half, finishing third in the division behind the Montreal Expos and Cardinals. Ironically, the Cardinals finished with the overall best record in the division but did not make the playoffs. The first-half champion Phillies were set to meet the second-half winners, the Expos, in the postseason.

In the first ever Division Series, the Phillies ran into an Expo buzzsaw named Steve Rogers. Rogers beat Carlton twice, 3-1 in Game 1 in Montreal and 3-0 in the clinching Game 5 in Philadelphia. A Keith Moreland home run was the only counter the Phillies could muster against Rogers in two games and 17 2/3 innings. Mike Schmidt had only two RBIs in the series; Gary Mathews just one. Carlton pitched fairly well but was no match for Rogers. The Phillies limped away to the offseason, while the Expos’ run ended in a 3-2 National League Championship Series loss to Fernando Valenzuela and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The strike left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Attendance and TV viewership were down. In Philadelphia, the high quality of play fans had been accustomed to over the past half-decade was down.

The current lockout has not yet, of course, led to any games being canceled. It has left fans of the Hot Stove League drumming their fingers with little to do for the past month, but anticipation for a strike-free season remains high. If games are lost, owners will find ways to recover from the financial hit and Major League players will get very decent take-home pay, but the fans will again pile up the losses. These losses can’t be made up. They are gone forever.

World Wars have shortened seasons. Worldwide pandemics have shortened seasons. Labor strife has shortened seasons. The first two were beyond owners’ and players’ control. The third is not. Let us hope the two sides can come to an agreement before Opening Day. Anything less is a slap in the face to the fans who, after all, sustain the sport. On March 31, we fans don’t want to hear more arguments about arbitration rules or time-to-free-agency. All we want to hear is an umpire cry, “Play Ball.”

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, diehard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog, The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.

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