Split Season 1981, Chicago Style

By Jeff Katz

This article was published in the 2015 The National Pastime.

A possible 1980 players’ strike was narrowly avoided by pushing the issue of free agent compensation down the road for further study. Despite this environment, real estate mogul Jerry Reinsdorf and television executive Eddie Einhorn were undeterred from leading a group to purchase the White Sox from Bill Veeck for $20 million in early 1981.

Mindful of labor discord, Reinsdorf asked other owners about the possibility of a coming strike. There was no way a work stoppage would occur, he was told, because the owners knew that compensation was the only matter at hand and it wasn’t enough to strike over. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time the owners made the mistake of projecting their own beliefs onto the players.

— Jerry Reinsdorf, telephone interview, April 2013

*****

The lead negotiator for the owners since 1978—and a key player during the 1981 midseason strike that chopped the season in two—was Chicago native Ray Grebey. Growing up on the far North Side in Rogers Park during the 1930’s, he worshipped the powerful Cubbies of his youth. Grebey’s mother took him to his first game at Wrigley Field in 1932.

“I knew a lot of the guys, like Charlie Root. I knew Freddie Lindstrom’s son,” Grebey happily recalled. “I once saw Gabby Hartnett bite off the end of his cigar when he missed bowling a 300-game on his last roll.”

Chicago baseball followed Grebey to college, where, at Kenyon, he formed a lifelong friendship with classmate, dropout, and future White Sox owner Bill Veeck, whose father had been President of the Cubs when Grebey was growing up.

Later in his life, Grebey—embittered by his experience in baseball, vilified by Marvin Miller and the players’ union, and cast aside by the owners in 1983—had few baseball items on display in his Connecticut home, but did make room for his beloved Cubs. He had a matted 1990 All-Star Game ticket from Wrigley Field as well as a photo of the outside message board at Clark & Addison welcoming Ray Grebey to the game.

Even at the end, however, baseball was a constant; he watched games often. Grebey saw that rooting for the Chicago Cubs and being a labor relations professional were similar. “In both situations, you suffer immensely.”

— Ray Grebey, in-person interview, May 2009

*****

His departure from Boston and arrival on Chicago’s south side was one of 1981’s big stories.Carlton Fisk was livid. The Red Sox had refused to send him his contract by December 20, 1980, knowing if they did that Fisk would be subject to arbitration. Once they realized they had to mail him his contract, it was too late and Fisk was declared a free agent on February 12, 1981. Instead of buttering up their superstar, Red Sox General Manager Haywood Sullivan criticized Fisk in the press.

Fisk, a seven-time All-Star, former Rookie of the Year and legendary World Series hero, was now on the market, but the absence of courting that usually accompanied a big-time free agent was impossible to miss.

New White Sox owners Reinsdorf and Einhorn watched the scene unfold. As new owners, they were tentative, not wanting to roil the waters, and gave the Red Sox time to re-sign their marquee catcher. Why other owners backed away was unknown. Was there collusion? Reinsdorf thought so. Eventually the White Sox signed Carlton Fisk on March 18 and tickets became a hot item.

Chicago—Fisk in tow—invaded Fenway Park on Opening Day 1981 and the park was buzzing. With the White Sox threatening in the top of the eighth inning, Fisk—who’d caught reliever Bob Stanley over the past four seasons—sat on one of his former batterymate’s sinkers and sent it over the Green Monster for a White Sox win. On Opening Day at Comiskey Park, Fisk hit a grand slam. Four days later, Fisk belted a two-run home run over Jim Rice’s head in left field to beat his former teammates yet again.

Nothing did more to change Chicago’s attitude towards the White Sox in the 1980s than the signing of Carlton Fisk. It was easy for Chicago fans to love Fisk, even in a navy blue SOX cap and pajama uniform.

— Jerry Reinsdorf, telephone interview, April 2013

*****

Sox supporters were an unruly bunch at the time. With Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s in town on June 2, White Sox fans took to their garbage cans, throwing biscuits, cups, and an apple core at left fielder Rickey Henderson. On June 4, the Comiskey switchboard received a death threat for Martin, who responded by donning a bulletproof vest.

The Yankees were in town on August 28. Reggie Jackson, slowly emerging from a season-long slump, singled and scored on a Bucky Dent hit. When Jackson headed to his position in right field for the bottom of the seventh inning, Sox fans showered him with money. Jackson, slated to become a free agent after the season, chuckled as he picked up every last coin and bill—$31.27 worth.

— “Major League Flashes,” The Sporting News, June 20, 1981; Steve Wulf, “The Bounce, The Bench and The Boo-Birds,” Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1981

*****

When the strike was called after midnight on June 12, the Yankees were in Chicago. Teams were instructed by the commissioner’s office to offer no help to their players—no travel reservations, no meals, and no way home. Complicating things in Chicago was a taxi strike.

Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, stranded outside Comiskey Park hours after Steve Trout and the Sox had beaten the Yankees 3-2, couldn’t find a ride. Luckily, a friendly police officer came driving by and gave the two players a lift to the Continental Plaza Hotel on North Michigan Ave. At the hotel bar, Murcer and Piniella saw players and executives sitting at separate ends of the bar, unwilling even to drink together.

— Graig Nettles and Peter Golenbock, Balls (New York: Pocket Books, 1985)

*****

“Joey, I’m selling the team. Tell your coaches.”

On June 16, just four days into the strike, Cubs manager Joey Amalfitano received a call from team owner William Wrigley. After more than six decades of family ownership, Wrigley had sold the club for some $20.5 million to the Tribune Company.

In the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, word began to spread. There wasn’t enough advance notice for the White Sox fans in the room to take down their Comiskey Park posters. Some staffers found Cubs caps and quickly donned them.

Though Cubs General Manager Herman Franks gave the Wrigleys credit for being less interested in money and more in keeping the team in Chicago, the Tribune saw dollar signs: big ones. It was clear that a media giant had much value in owning a baseball team. The Cubs, already instant programming for WGN radio and television, could quickly be shifted into a national cable phenomenon. Much untapped revenue rested in a major league franchise no longer run as a hobby by archaic family ownership.

“It’s the end of an era, but hopefully the beginning of another era,” said Cubs fan and new President Ronald Reagan.

— Neil Amdur, “Chicago Cubs Are Sold by Wrigley to Tribune Co. for $20.5 Million,” New York Times, June 17, 1981

*****

When settlement talks fell apart in late July, representatives from the Major League Baseball Player’s Association decided to go on the road to keep their forces united. The first stop, on July 27, was the O’Hare Hilton, where, after an appearance on The Phil Donohue Show, the reps met with more than 50 players. Cubs’ Mike Krukow and Bill Buckner had been outspokenly impatient with the union and tired of sitting around. They wanted to play.

Bob Boone (NL Player Representative) and Doug DeCinces (AL Player Representative) gave a recap of where the talks stood and Marvin Miller, Executive Director of the MLBPA, explained the owners’ plan on compensation for teams losing free agents.

“If you had to take a team vote today,” Miller asked the 26 team reps, “do you think the clubs’ proposal would get majority support?” 24 of them voted no, and all pledged support to Miller and his team. After over five hours, the meeting adjourned. Players met with the press and Krukow and Buckner were clearly back on board.

“I’m behind the negotiating team 100 percent. Now I can sit out the season and not feel quite as bad,” said Buckner.

— Joe Durso, “Owners’ Session Called; Players on Coast to Meet,” New York Times, July 29, 1981

*****

Once the two sides came to an agreement to end the strike, the players and owners held individual meetings to ratify the settlement. On August 6, three days after the air traffic controllers’ (PATCO) strike that paralyzed American air travel, the owners met at the O’Hare Hilton, the barely-used runaways visible from their conference room windows.

Though ratification was a foregone conclusion, the crack of “Gussie” Busch’s cane rapping on the floor brought the gathering to attention. The Cardinals chairman of the board had a few things to say.

“I have never been more disgusted, angry, and ashamed of a situation in which I was involved,” he berated his colleagues. Busch was apoplectic at the proposal of a pool of players, created with contributions from all teams, from which a team losing a free agent could select a replacement as compensation.

“What did we end up with? If the Cubs lose a player to the Phillies through free agency, then possibly I have the honor of giving the Cubs my 27th best player. Marvelous compensation. I have been in baseball in good times and in bad, but none so shameful. If you have any courage left, I urge the men of integrity here today to vote ‘no’ on this contract. If nothing else it will show that the entire ownership of baseball is not insane.” The new generation of owners— George Steinbrenner, Jerry Reinsdorf, and others—watched in amazement as the old guard made one last stand.

— August Busch, statement to owners August 6, 1981, from Marvin and Theresa (Terry) Miller Papers WAG.165, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries; Jerry Reinsdorf, telephone interview, April 2013

*****

The split-season plan, agreed on at the O’Hare Hilton owners’ meeting on August 6, mandated a second pennant race in all four divisions, followed with a best of five mini-playoff between the two half-winners, should they be different teams. If the two half-winners were the same club, that team would play the team with the second-best overall record.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa cried foul. The White Sox, only 2½ games out of first in the AL West, saw their solid first half erased. La Russa remarked that if the Yankees and Dodgers hadn’t already finished in first place, the owners would never have considered locking in the first-half winners. Once again, he felt, the big media markets ruled.

Worse to La Russa was that the split-season plan left room for a team to lose on purpose to guarantee a playoff spot. A number two team overall could lose on purpose to the first-half winner, guaranteeing the latter a second-half title as well and ensuring themselves of a playoff position. On an ABC Sunday afternoon baseball telecast, he made it clear that his team would never lose on purpose, but rather would choose to not take the field. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, outraged, wrote to La Russa seeking clarification.

La Russa and Kuhn met and the skipper reaffirmed his stance that his team would forfeit if that’s what it took to make the post-season. Kuhn dashed off a note to White Sox owners Reinsdorf and Einhorn reminding them that Rule 21 stated that a team needed to try its best.

La Russa’s intelligence and outspokenness forced a change in plans. The split season was revised. If the two half-winners were the same, then they would face the second-half, second-place team. This was a simple fix to the situation of which Tony La Russa had warned.

— Bowie Kuhn and Tony La Russa, on Sunday afternoon ABC game, August 16, 1981, from Bowie K. Kuhn Collection, BA MSS 100, National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, Cooperstown, New York

 *****

Having a statue outside Wrigley Field is an honor reserved for only the most beloved figures in Cubs history. Harry Caray deserves his immortalization in bronze, but if you think Harry was always the darling of Cubs fans, think again.

Following the 1981 season, the White Sox announced they were moving their games from free television to SportsVision, a team-owned cable operation. No longer were they willing to pour money into WGN now that the Tribune Company owned their TV station AND their rivals. It was time, Einhorn and Reinsdorf thought, to bring on the future. For $21.95 per month, Sox fans could watch their South Siders, along with the Sting soccer team, the NHL Blackhawks, and the NBA Bulls (who, in the pre-Michael Jordan days, were far from enticing).

Harry Caray, for 11 years the voice of the White Sox, wouldn’t stand for it. His people, the working class, Falstaff-swilling masses, would be shut out of his broadcasts. Rather than sign for another year with the White Sox, Caray bolted north to the Cubs.

Cubs fans lit up the Wrigley switchboard with complaints. While 77 percent of callers were initially irate that they’d have to listen to Caray’s individualistic style, he soon became a national hero via WGN’s long reach. By 1998, he had his statue.

— Joe Goddard, “Caray Shifted for ‘My People,’” The Sporting News, December 5, 1981; Bob Markus, “White Sox Will Put Games on Pay TV,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1981

*****

The compensation agreement hashed out in the 1981 strike settlement paid big dividends for the White Sox in January 1984, when their pitcher Dennis Lamp signed with Toronto as a free agent. Owners Reinsdorf and Einhorn, alongside General Manager Roland Hemond, read a list of unprotected compensation players sent via teletype. They couldn’t believe when they saw Tom Seaver on the list. Lamp for Seaver? They couldn’t make a trade that good!

Mets’ president Fred Wilpon was angry at Reinsdorf for picking Seaver, but who had left Seaver unprotected in the first place? Tom Terrific, still effective, won 15 games for the White Sox in 1984 and another 16 in 1985, one of which was his 300th major league win—at Yankee Stadium.

— Jerry Reinsdorf, telephone interview, April 2013

JEFF KATZ is the author of "Split Season: 1981–Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball" (Thomas Dunne Books). After 16 years in Chicago trading options at the CBOE, Katz and his family moved to Cooperstown, where he currently is mayor. You can reach him at jkkatz@stny.rr.com and follow Split Season on Twitter @SplitSeason1981.