- Split Season, 1981 by Jeff Katz
As Jeff Katz delightfully reminds us, 1981 was a special year in baseball for many reasons. We saw the debut of Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson, Pete Rose broke Stan Musial's NL hit record, Nolan Ryan threw his record-setting fifth no-hitter, Len Barker tossed the first perfect game in more than a decade, and the Yankees and Dodgers squared off in a classic [End Page 208] World Series. But the most memorable event of the year was what didn't happen: midseason baseball. More than 700 games were lost to a strike that ran from mid-June through July, leading to MLB's only split-season schedule.
Split Season is a well written, comprehensive review of the 1981 season. Katz covers all the relevant topics from Rose to Reggie to Bowie and Marvin. He delves deeply into the labor relations that led to the mid-season work stoppage but never bogs down in legal quagmires, as it would have been so easy to do. He nicely mixes the important business issues with on field action, and for those of us who lived through the season, he brings back many pleasant memories. For those too young to remember that infamous season, Katz will take you on a wonderful tour through the craziness that was the Bronx zoo, the original Billyball (yes, before Billy Beane, there was another Billy doing maverick things in Oakland), Fernandomania, and the controversial split season that left baseball's winningest team on the sideline for the postseason.
Katz cannot be accused of driving his book down the middle of the road. He lands firmly on the side of Marvin Miller and the players in the labor dispute and passes up no chance to bash the ownership, coming down particularly hard on Bowie Kuhn and Ray Grebey. He paints the owners as obtuse, clinging to antiquated ideas, and badly outmaneuvered by Miller and the players. Kuhn comes off as clueless, hapless, and disrespected by just about everyone involved with the business of baseball. I don't say this as a criticism, since history suggests such castigation is not misplaced. Being a competitive labor market fan myself, I rather enjoyed reading about the owner's gaffes and chuckled at the descriptions of Kuhn, such as "The Dodgers had … only enough time to get from Montreal to New York [which] was enough time for Kuhn to make another poor decision" (261).
Katz sets up the story with a prologue detailing the end of the 1980 season, then takes us into the off season free agent signings, winter meetings, and early labor negotiations. He provides just the right amount of background to set up the story, introducing the issues and foreshadowing the problems that ultimately led to the work stoppage. The opening chapters will assure the reader that this is going to be a pleasant journey focused on baseball, but yet covering the important labor issues that made 1981 a noteworthy year in baseball history.
The book then proceeds in chronological order through the season. It ranges from MLB action to significant minor league issues, but always present in the background are the labor negotiations. As entertaining as the on-field action was, it was the labor negotiations and the resulting split season that make 1981 stand out in baseball history. Katz never lets us forget that, but also never strays far from the exciting baseball action. [End Page 209]
The final chapter serves as a nice epilogue, bringing closure to the major stories Katz followed through 1981, including Valenzuela's career after his dual Cy Young-Rookie of the Year season, Pete Rose and his quest for Ty Cobb's MLB hit record and then sad fall from grace, Reggie Jackson who spent 1981 battling a horrific slump and the mercurial Steinbrenner, and Bowie Kuhn and the Player's Association. It was a satisfying ending for a reader who remembers the season but didn't quite remember every detail, and it will be a perfect wrap up for...