By Sam McPherson
In 1979, the Oakland Athletics hit rock bottom, winning only 54 games and at one point drawing a mere 653 fans to a midsummer game. The team responded by hiring fiery field manager Billy Martin in 1980 and the team improved 29 wins in one year under Martin’s leadership.
By the time 1981 rolled around, Martin was at the apex of his powers in Oakland and the A’s were the talk of the Bay Area, as well as the national baseball scene. It began with a record 11-game winning streak to start the season, it ended with the American League West division title.
Martin’s act would eventually wear thin, as it always did, but the 1981 season pure magic. “Billy Ball” was a breathing, living thing that would have broken the Internet (as we know it) if it had existed at the time. It was, by far, the A’s best season between the 1975 and 1988 AL West championship squads.
The offense started with 22-year-old left fielder Rickey Henderson, who hit .319 and stole 56 bases. He won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award while finishing second in the AL MVP vote to Milwaukee closer Rollie Fingers, one of those votes that time and advanced analysis has not been kind to in retrospect.
Right fielder Tony Armas finished fourth in the MVP race by hitting 22 home runs and driving in 76 runs in only 109 games (remember, 1981 was the strike season, split in halves by the midsummer labor strife). Center fielder Dwayne Murphy added 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, while designated hitter Cliff Johnson contributed 17 home runs and 59 RBIs.
The pitching staff was memorable, Martin really rode his pitchers’ arms hard. The top four starters completed 56 games in the shortened 109-game season in 1981. Steve McCatty (14-7, 2.33 ERA, 16 complete games), Rick Langford (12-10, 2.99, 18 complete gamess), Matt Keough (10-6, 3.40, 10 complete games) and Mike Norris (12-9, 3.75, 12 complete games) carried the team all season. The bullpen, therefore, was an afterthought; with two relievers (Jeff Jones and Dave Beard) tied for the team lead in saves with three apiece. In total, the A’s staff compiled 60 complete games and 10 saves.
When the strike hit after 60 games, Oakland was in first place in the AL West with a 37-23 record. Two months later, play resumed, and the A’s went 27-22 to finish second in the latter part of the season. Oakland’s combined 64-45 record was the best in the AL that season. However, the A’s had to play the Kansas City Royals—who finished the second half two games ahead of Oakland—for the AL West title in a five-game series. The pitching staff did almost all the work, holding the Royals to just two runs in a three-game sweep.
Norris went the distance in Game One for a four-hit shutout, and McCatty threw a six-hit, one-run complete game in the second contest. Both games were on the road in Kansas City. Game Three at the Coliseum featured two relievers combining with Langford on a 10-hit, one-run effort, and the A’s were on to the AL Championship Series against the New York Yankees.
In that ALCS, it was the Oakland lineup’s turn to get stifled. The A’s scored just four runs in three games, as New York swept Oakland right out of a chance at the World Series. Norris lost, 3-1, in Game One against Tommy John, and the Yanks scored eight runs in the first four innings to knock McCatty out of Game Two. Both of those games were played in the Bronx.
Back at the Coliseum, Keough hung tough with Dave Righetti through eight innings, trailing just 1-0. But the Yankees offense scored three more times in the ninth inning to clinch the game, thus the series. New York would go on to lose the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.
The next year, Oakland dropped to 68-94, as Henderson stole his 130 bases to set a single-season record that still stands today. It’s been said that Martin’s “overuse” of the starters in 1981 killed their careers, as every one of the top four starters saw their ERAs rise big time the following season. Martin was gone as both General Manager and Manager after the 1982 season and the A’s would disappear in the AL West until they hired Tony LaRussa in late 1986 as the field manager.
In the end, the A’s only division-title season between 1975 and 1988 will be remembered for the strike, as well as for “Billy Ball.”
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball and fantasy sports for many online sites, including CBS, AXS and Examiner.