The Oakland Athletics' 1981 season saw the A's finish with an overall record of 64 wins and 45 losses. They finished the season with the best record in the American League (and second best in all of baseball). Due to the infamous 1981 players strike, the league resorted to a split-season format; this new format saw the winners of both halves of the season playing in the first divisional playoff in MLB history. The A's qualified by posting the AL West's best record in the first half of the season. While they swept the Kansas City Royals in the AL West playoff, they were themselves swept by the New York Yankees in the 1981 American League Championship Series.
The Athletics' 1981 season ranks among the organization's most interesting. The A's, only two years removed from a disastrous 54-108 finish, won their first AL West crown since 1975 under second-year manager Billy Martin. The "Billyball" A's began the season with a then-AL record 11 consecutive wins (this record was later broken by the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers, who raced out to a 13-0 start). The squad followed its first loss of the season, a tough 3-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners, with six more victories. Their 17-1 start (through 18 games) remains unmatched. The A's starting rotation (consisting of Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, and Brian Kingman) received national attention during the torrid start; the unit was collectively featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated's April 27, 1981, edition. The periodic heroics of Tony Armas and Rickey Henderson also drew notice.
The Athletics, however, slumped badly following the 17-1 start. While they regained some of their swagger during the season's second half, they ultimately played .500 baseball for the rest of the season. Even still, the A's won the AL West's first half with a 37-23 mark; they also led the division in total wins despite losing the second half to the Royals. The A's swept these 50-53 Royals in the ALDS. The A's themselves were humbled in the ALCS, as the Yankees outscored Oakland 20-4 in a humiliating three-game rout. The 1981 ALCS is perhaps best remembered as the purported birthplace of "the wave"; while the phenomenon's origin is disputed, it is most commonly attributed to Krazy George Henderson, who introduced it to the Athletics' crowd during the series' final game.
Despite high expectations, the A's collapsed in 1982. A rash of injuries, among other factors, saw the team plummet to an abysmal 68-94 record. The firing of Billy Martin at seasons' end brought a swift and unceremonious end to the "Billyball" era. All told, the A's would have to wait until 1988 for their next postseason appearance. Only one member of the 1981 team (Rich Bordi) also played on the 1988 team.
|1981 Oakland Athletics|
|1981 AL West Champions|
|Major League affiliations|
|Owner(s)||Walter A. Haas, Jr.|
|General manager(s)||Billy Martin|
(Bill King, Harmon Killebrew)
(Bill King, Lon Simmons, Wayne Hagin)
(Amaury Pi-Gonzalez, Julio Gonzalez)
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Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley's wife sought a divorce and would not accept part of a baseball team in a property settlement. With most of his money tied up in the A's or his insurance empire, Finley had to sell the team. Though Finley found a buyer in businessman Marvin Davis, who would have moved the Athletics to Denver, the tentative deal hit a snag when the Raiders announced their move to Los Angeles. Oakland and Alameda County officials, not wanting to be held responsible for losing Oakland's status as a big-league city in its own right, refused to let Finley break the lease with the Coliseum. Finley then looked to local buyers, selling the A's to San Francisco clothing manufacturer Walter A. Haas, Jr., president of Levi Strauss & Co. prior to the 1981 season.
Haas restored the official name of the club to "Athletics" in 1981, but retained the nickname "A's" for marketing purposes. At first, the word "Athletics" was restored only to the club's logo, underneath the much larger stylized-"A" that had come to represent the team since the early days. Former owner Charlie Finley banned the word "Athletics" from the club's name because he felt that name was too closely associated with former Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack.
During the Finley era, average home attendance from 1968–1980 was 777,000 per season, with 1,075,518 in 1975 being the highest attendance for a Finley-owned team. In marked contrast, during the first year of Haas' ownership, the Athletics drew 1,304,052—in a season shortened by a player strike. Were it not for the strike, the A's were on a pace to draw over 2.2 million in 1981. The A's finished with the second-best overall record in baseball, and the best record in the American League.
The Oakland Athletics held spring training at Rendezvous Park in Mesa, Arizona.
|1981 Regular Season Game Log First Half (37–23) (Home: 22–11; Road: 15–12)|
April (18–3) (Home: 7–3; Road: 11–0)
May (13–17) (Home: 11–6; Road: 2–11)
|1981 Regular Season Game Log Second Half (27–22) (Home: 12–11; Road: 15–12)|
August (10–9) (Home: 7–4; Road: 3–5)
September (15–12) (Home: 5–6; Road: 10–6)
|Athletics win||Athletics loss||All-Star Game||Game postponed|
|Chicago White Sox||54||52||0.509||8½||25–24||29–28|
|Kansas City Royals||50||53||0.485||11||19–28||31–25|
First Half Standings
|Chicago White Sox||31||22||.585|
|Kansas City Royals||20||30||.400|
Second Half Standings
|Kansas City Royals||30||23||.566|
|Chicago White Sox||23||30||.434|
1981 American League Records
Sources:              
Following the team's surprising success in 1980, manager Billy Martin was given the additional title of general manager in 1981. The team won the division title for the first time since 1975, winning the first half of the split season, then defeating the Royals in the divisional playoffs before losing to the Yankees in the ALCS.
While the team was successful, it came at a high price, both for the team and for the pitching staff. Following a season in which the team led the league in complete games with 94—an astonishing number for the time—the Athletics again led the league with 60 complete games out of 109 total games in the strike-shortened season. For the second time, the pitching staff completed more than half their total number of games and more than double the number of the team with the second-highest total (The Indians and Tigers each had 33). The workload of the pitchers over the two seasons was blamed by the team's ownership for the team's fall to fifth place in 1982, which led to Martin's firing from both positions. Many of the pitchers suffered injuries, and none of the four main starting pitchers (Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, Matt Keough) ever duplicated their success of 1980–81.
|1981 Oakland Athletics|
|= Indicates team leader|
Note: Pos = position; G = Games played; AB = At bats; H = Hits; Avg. = Batting average; HR = Home runs; RBI = Runs batted in
Note: G = Games played; IP = Innings Pitched; W = Wins; L = Losses; ERA = Earned Run Average; SO = Strikeouts; BB = Bases on Balls
Oakland wins series, 3-0.
|1||Oakland 4, Kansas City 0||October 6||Royals Stadium||40,592|
|2||Oakland 2, Kansas City 1||October 7||Royals Stadium||40,274|
|3||Oakland 4, Kansas City 1||October 9||Oakland Coliseum||40,002|
Yankees win the Series, 3-0
|1||Oakland – 1, New York – 3||October 13||Yankee Stadium||55,740|
|2||Oakland – 3, New York – 13||October 14||Yankee Stadium||48,497|
|3||New York – 4, Oakland – 0||October 15||Oakland Coliseum||47,302|
|1981 Playoff Game Log|
|Athletics win||Athletics loss|
|AAA||Tacoma Tigers||Pacific Coast League||Ed Nottle|
|AA||West Haven A's||Eastern League||Bob Didier|
|A||Modesto A's||California League||Keith Lieppman|
|A-Short Season||Medford A's||Northwest League||Brad Fischer|
LEAGUE CHAMPIONS: Medford