The ’81 Yankees: Reggie’s Animosity, The Second Half Collapse, and The Only Pennant.

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Definitely the most polarizing team in sports history, the dreaded Bronx Bombers history of success is well documented. With some of the biggest names in the history of the sport putting on the iconic pinstripes (Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio, Catfish Hunter, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, etc), the New York Yankees are going for their 10th consecutive decade with a World Series appearance. However, that unprecedented run of Yankee success nearly ended in the 1980s, as the Yankee Dynasty fell into obscurity for a majority of the decade.

Their sole World Series appearance in the ’80s came in 1981, as a fourth place team in bizarre fashion. Following the 103-win 1980 season where Superstar Slugger Reggie Jackson hit .300 with 41 homeruns, the 34-year old was looking for a contract extension, but legendary owner George Steinbrenner had a better idea in mind for the slugger heading into Reggie’s walk year.

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Jackson and Willie Randolph pose with new teammate, Dave Winfield. (SI)
Steinbrenner, fed up with an older Reggie Jackson, went out and signed the hottest free agent on the market, Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield to a 10-year, 23-million dollar contract, making Winfield the highest paid player in the game. Steinbrenner followed the signing by calling Reggie up to his office, claiming that there would be no 4 or 5 year deal; Jackson was in fact, too old. Angered at Steinbrenner, Jackson would attempt to not let this change his play, and prove why he’s still the franchise cornerstone.

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Reggie Jackson during his final season in the Bronx. (SI)
Meeting with “The Boss” one final time prior to Spring Training, Reggie had a 90 minute conversation with George, wanting to be locked up so he only had to focus on baseball. Steinbrenner proceeded to tell Jackson that he wanted Reggie as “a Yankee for life”, as Jackson left and Steinbrenner, as the puppet master, continued to pull the strings. Deceiving Reggie, Steinbrenner used this as a plot to finally gain his revenge on Jackson for years of animosity behind the scenes and off of the field. Though there wasn’t any animosity on the field between Winfield and Reggie, there was definitely controversy behind the scenes, as Jackson had asked if he could report to camp a few days late. Steinbrenner, upset with the fact that Mr. October drove in zero runs in the MLB Postseason, declined and fined him an undisclosed sum of money.

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Jackson and Reggie, Hall of Fame duo. 1981. (Courtesy of the New York Yankees)
After Winfield had a down spring training, he broke out and started playing like the Hall of Fame player that we all know and love. Meanwhile on the bench, Reggie Jackson didn’t even play a game until the 8th game of the season. It took Winfield a month to hit his first homerun, giving himself a press conference as a humorous joke. Reggie didn’t have one either, but was hitting .250 to Winfield’s .300.

Jackson soon thereafter went 0-20…as the team’s designated hitter. After having his glove determined in adequate by Steinbrenner, he was designated to the DH spot (terrible pun intended). Jackson was ripped into by Steinbrenner, while Steinbrenner praised Winfield’s productivity publicly and controversially. On June 12th, with the Yankees first in a stacked AL East (that then included Milwaukee and Detroit), baseball had the first mid season strike in the history of professional sports. Reggie finally had a break from Steinbrenner’s antics, before the 1981 Opening Day Part II against the Texas Rangers on August 10th. With everyone, except for Steinbrenner, taking notice that Reggie had been forming back into his old self again, Jackson had a lot to prove in the second half of the season, the same second half where the New York dynasty would completely crumble.

Again getting paid less than he deserved, whenever he did something huge, any and every crowd would shower him with coins and bills; a trend started at the iconic Comiskey Field. After getting $31 and some change by the appreciative White Sox crowd, he hit his first homerun in 94 at-bats, ending the longest homerun drought of his career. An enraged Steinbrenner saw Reggie’s success as he demanded manager Gene Michael to bench Reggie. When Michael wouldn’t? He was replaced with Bob Lemon. Building his average up to .240 (from under .200), Reggie was on fire as the rest of the Yankees were in a terrible slump. They finished 6th in the second half in East standings, only in front of the Blue Jays, and had a record under .500.

After a brawl that made his season fun again, a fight with both Steinbrenner and teammate Graig Nettles in a bar, among other things, Reggie went into the postseason enjoying his final ride as a New York Yankee. Though they finished the second half 6th in the AL East, per strike-rules, each division winner from the first half and second half made the playoffs. This means that, much like the 2016 San Francisco Giants, they made the post-season following a historic second half collapse. Making the playoffs in bizarre fashion, Reggie made most of his last playoff run with a franchise that brought him his final two rings. With Winfield, Reggie, Bobby Murcur, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry and1981 Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti, The Yankees entered the playoffs with a star studded roster, hoping for the best and to bring it all home. After edging out the Brewers, who won the East in the 2nd half. It was Game 5, win or game home, where Reggie transformed back into the Reggie we all knew and loved, leading the Yankee team to the ALCS. With a hot bat and nice productivity around Reggie (from everyone except Winfield) the Yankees swept the Athletics in the ALCS, punching NYYs ticket to the World Series.

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George Frazier, 1981 World Series. (NYTimes)
Even with Winfield’s failures, Jackson didn’t play in the first 2 games. With fantastic pitching, the Yankees found their way to a 2-0 lead in a best of 7 series. Reggie, eager to face NL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award winner Fernando Valenzuela, was to sit out, according to Hall of Fame skipper Bob Lemon. Entering Game 5 without a hit, Winfield finally got one, a bloop, and asked for the game ball to the chagrin of George Steinbrenner. Reggie, still livid as he was NYYs most productive hitter, was in the lineup for Game 4. In Game 4, he hit a homerun in the 8th inning, his 10th World Series homerun. With that being Reggie’s only game, the Yankees lost it all in Game 6, 9-2, with George Frazier being the losing pitcher in all of the final three games.

The Yankees became an afterthought following the 1981 World Series; until 1996 when a group of likable young superstars by the names of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams led them to the World Series Championship. The Dodgers have yet to even appear in a World Series since 1988, though they’ve won 5 straight NL West crowns. Reggie enjoyed a bounceback year in 1982 with the Angels (39 homeruns, .275 avg) while Steinbrenner and Winfield began their infamous rivalry.  Steinbrenner claimed that he needed another Mr. October, not a “Mr. May”, a comment which sprouted a decade long war.

Jameus Mooney, Editor at The Athlete’s Hub
Follow me on Twitter: @TheJameus 

(Image Credit: SI)

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