1981 Split Season Schedule

From BR Bullpen

The 1981 Split Season Schedule was a one-time decision to play the regular season in two halves, with the winner of the first half in all four divisions meeting the winner of the second half in a best-of-five Division Series to determine who would play in the League Championship Series. The schedule was adopted following the resolution of the 1981 strike. It was the only time a split season was used in Major League Baseball in the 20th century.

A meeting was held in Chicago, IL six days after the strike ended to figure out the scheduling logistics. In his autobiography, Bowie Kuhn says that initially, 15 teams favored the idea of a split season, five favored picking up the season where they had left off, four had their own systems to propose, and two were undecided. The benefit of the split season, according to Kuhn, was that "it put some marketing spice into the balance of the schedule," as well as adding an extra round of postseason play. When the matter was put to a vote, it carried easily. Among the "nay" voters were Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Baltimore - all of whom had had a strong first half, and all of whom ended up out of the expanded playoffs even though the Cardinals and Reds finished with the best overall records in their respective divisions. Kuhn concluded: "notwithstanding criticism of the split season, the fans supported it with good attendance through Labor Day and record attendance thereafter."

Among the twists of the revised schedule, all teams did not play the same number of games. Thus, the Cardinals ended up losing the second-half title in the NL East to the Montreal Expos by half a game, as the two did not have the same number of scheduled games to play. Another twist was that if a team were to win both halves of the season, it would not receive a bye into the League Championship Series, but instead would have to play the team with the second-best overall record in the division for the entire season. In an early indication of his genius, Tony LaRussa, quickly found a flaw in that system, as he explained that this could potentially lead to a situation where a team found it advantageous to lose games in the second half in order to make the postseason. As his logic was correct, the owners quickly decided to amend their original decision by ruling that in such a situation, a team winning both halves would play the team that finished second in the division in the second half of the season, removing the possible incentive for a team to lose on purpose. The scenario almost came to pass, as the Oakland Athletics, first-half winners in the AL West, finished second to the Kansas City Royals by only one game in the second half. For the record, LaRussa stated that had he been in a situation where losing would have been advantageous to his team (the Chicago White Sox), he would have forfeited the game and not played to lose. In any case, the revision of the rule avoided such potential embarrassment.

In practice three of the four first-half winners, Oakland being the exception, did not overly exert themselves during the second half in order to focus on the postseason series they were guaranteed to play in. And indeed, three of the four first-half winners, the Philadelphia Phillies being the exception, won their Division Series.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Chris Bumbaca: "Explaining the 1981 MLB season: How baseball survived shortened year", USA Today, March 15, 2020. [1]
  • Jeff Katz: Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, NY, 2015. ISBN 978-1-2500-4521-8
  • Jeff Katz: "Split Season 1981, Chicago Style", in Stuart Shea, ed.: North Side, South Side, All Around Town, The National Pastime, SABR, 2015. ISBN 978-1-93359987-8
  • Will Leitch: "A season split in two: Revisiting '81 in baseball", mlb.com, June 24, 2020. [2]