The Oakland Athletics started the 1981 season with an 11-game winning streak that saw them outscore their opponents 63-14. The ninth of those contests came against the Seattle Mariners, in front of 50,255, a record for an A’s home opener.1The game essentially ended two batters into the bottom of the first inning, when Dwayne Murphy knocked a two-run homer off Floyd Bannister to give the A’s a lead they would never relinquish en route to a 16-1 rout of visiting Seattle.
Billy Martin, beginning his second season as A’s manager after a successful if turbulent run with the Yankees, had guided Oakland to a surprising 83-79 record in 1980. This marked a significant improvement over the 54-108 mark of 1979. Martin’s success owed much to the strength of his starting pitchers, who completed a record 94 of the 162 games they started.2
Right-hander Steve McCatty, who had completed 11 of his 31 starts a year earlier, got the call on this day and worked the full nine innings. In fact, he completed each of his first six starts of the season and went on to complete 16 of 22 starts en route to a second-place finish in American League Cy Young Award voting, behind only former A’s reliever Rollie Fingers and his 1.04 ERA for the Milwaukee Brewers.3 McCatty, for his part, led the league in wins, ERA, and shutouts in this strike-shortened season.
But on this Friday night in April, the A’s were just getting started. Cliff Johnson followed Murphy’s homer with one of his own. Then, with two outs, Oakland tacked on two more runs to take a 5-0 lead after one inning. Future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who had opened the frame with a single, ended it by striking out.
The Mariners, managed by Maury Wills, had come into the game with a record of 2-4. Right fielder Dave Hendersonhomered off McCatty in the top of the second. It was the only run Seattle scored in the game. McCatty allowed only three other hits – a single in the first, another in the sixth, and a third in the seventh. He walked one, and faced only 32 batters in the game.
Henderson hit a two-run homer in the third to extend the A’s lead to 8-1. The hometown speedster had emerged as a significant offensive force in 1980 at age 21. He would finish second in AL MVP voting in 1981, again behind only Fingers, in one of the tightest races to that point.4
Fellow outfielder Tony Armas, who finished fourth in the MVP race, homered twice in the lopsided victory. The second, a three-run blast in the seventh, ended Oakland’s barrage.
The A’s notched 18 hits; everyone except catcher Mike Heath and first baseman Jeff Newman. had at least one; Heath contributed by squeezing home a run in the second and picking up an RBI, while Newman walked twice and scored a run. Johnson led the way with four hits, while Henderson and Armas each had three. Rookie Mike Patterson, who played in only 27 big-league games, collected his first career hit batting for Murphy in the seventh. Afterward, A’s pitcher Mike Norris indicated that he liked Oakland’s chances in 1981, saying, “We’re going to go down as one of the greatest teams of all time.”5
Although the A’s fell short of Norris’s lofty prediction, they did return to the postseason for the first time since their glory days of the early 1970s. After three straight dismal seasons and dwindling attendance numbers (they averaged fewer than 4,000 per game in 1979) to close the previous decade, Oakland appeared to be on the right track again.
The A’s blanked the Mariners, 8-0, the next day, and took the first game of a Sunday doubleheader the day after that to extend their winning streak to 11 games. This broke the major-league record for most wins to start a season (10) previously held by the 1955 Dodgers, 1962 Pirates, and 1966 Indians.6 The A’s didn’t hold that record for long, however, with the Atlanta Braves winning 13 straight games to start the 1982 season. They clung to the AL record until 1987, when the Milwaukee Brewers won their first 13 games.7
After dropping the second game that Sunday, 3-2, the A’s embarked upon a six-game winning streak that extended their record to 17-1. Despite a 13-17 showing in May, they owned the league’s best record (37-23) when baseball took a two-month break on June 12 due to the players strike. The A’s were declared winners of the AL West for the first half.8
After completing a three-game Division Series sweep of the Kansas City Royals, who won the second half, the A’s were swept by the Yankees in the ALCS. Oakland had to settle for owning the league’s best record, followed by years of disappointment before reemerging in the late 1980s under GM Sandy Alderson and manager Tony La Russa.
Between 1977 and 1986, in perhaps the darkest chapter of Oakland A’s history, the division championship season of 1981 represented a shining light that served as a beacon of hope. And it all began with an unprecedented winning streak that expanded on possibilities only hinted at a year earlier.
Although it would take several more years to reestablish themselves as a perennial contender, the A’s had made a statement. Part of that statement came in the form of a single lopsided victory to open their home schedule in front of a crowd that was more than double the size of the one that witnessed their opener in 1980 (and more than four times the size of 1979’s opening crowd).9
Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of a winning streak, the A’s drew more than 20,000 fans for the season’s second game. That was no small accomplishment given that from 1977 to 1980, they had drawn just over 16,000 combined in the season’s second game.10 The A’s weren’t just winning games again, they were winning fans again.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.
1 “Quotation of the Day,” New York Times, April 18, 1981.
2 Ron Fimrite, “Winning Is Such a Bore,” Sports Illustrated, April 27, 1981, si.com/vault/1981/04/27/825584/winning-is-such-a-bore-while-oakland-was-setting-a-record-by-opening-the-season-with-11-straight-victories-the-relief-pitchers-were-busy-doing-nothing.
3 “Fingers Cy Young Winner,” New York Times, November 4, 1981, nytimes.com/1981/11/04/sports/fingers-cy-young-winner.html.
4 “Fingers adds 2nd award: M.V.P.,” New York Times, November 26, 1981, nytimes.com/1981/11/26/sports/fingers-adds-2d-award-mvp.html.
6 David Adler, “The Hottest Starts in MLB History,” MLB.com, March 11, 2019, mlb.com/news/hottest-team-starts-in-baseball-history-c269855358.
7 Bruce Newman, “A Heady Start,” Sports Illustrated, April 27, 1987, si.com/vault/1987/04/27/115278/a-heady-start-the-milwaukee-brewers-were-hopping-thanks-to-a-record-season-opening-victory-streak-and-a-no-hitter-by-their-embraceable-lefty-juan-nieves.
8 Joseph Durso, “Owners Approve a Plan to Split Baseball Season,” New York Times, August 7, 1981, nytimes.com/1981/08/07/sports/owners-approve-a-plan-to-split-baseball-season.html.
9 Attendance for the A’s 1980 home opener was 24,415. For their 1979 home opener it was 10,387.
10 Attendance for the A’s second home game: 1977, 5,494; 1978, 1,890; 1979: 3,222; 1980: 5,729.