Oakland Athletics: The Forgotten Champion – The 1981 A’s

The 1981 Oakland A's were a one-hit wonder sandwiched by non-post season years of 1976-1980 and 1982-1987 Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The 1981 Oakland A's were a one-hit wonder sandwiched by non-post season years of 1976-1980 and 1982-1987 Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Athletics: Billy Ball Brings Back Winning Ways

After years of losing seasons, sparse attendance, and even reprieves of moves to New Orleans in 1979 and Denver in 1980, the 1981 Oakland Athletics brought baseball enthusiasm back to the East Bay with “Billy Ball,” a winning team, and new ownership committed to staying in Oakland.

After a disastrous 54-108 1979 season that saw only 306,763 paying customers and the team nearly moving to New Orleans that year, owner Charlie Finley hired fireball Billy Martin to manage a young team rich with starting pitchers that included Mike Norris, Matt Keough, and Rick Langford, along with the brilliant play of rookie Rickey Henderson.

Energized by the new Levi-Straus Haas family ownership in 1981 and fired up by Martin, the A’s stormed out of spring training to go 11-0 at the start of the season and after their first loss (by one run), they marched out with six more straight wins to a 17-1 mark. Their April record was 19-1.

The starting rotation of Langford, Keough and Norris, along with Steve McCatty and Brian Kingmandrew national attention during April and is remembered still for a group photo on the cover of the April 27 Sports Illustrated that year. The starting staff had finished what they started with lots of complete games – lots and lots of complete games – as the A’s pitching staff went the distance 60 times in the strike-shortened 109 game season, nearly double of any other team. Langford finished 18 of 24 games, McCatty 16 of 22, Norris 12 of 23, and Keough contributed 10.

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The team was said to have the best outfield in baseball with Tony Armas (who led the AL in HRs in 1981) in right field, Dwayne Murphy in center field, and Henderson in left field. Murphy and Henderson would go on to win the 1981 Gold Glove for their positions. Henderson would also win a Silver Slugger award while finishing second in the AL MVP vote to Milwaukee closer Rollie Fingers.

Veteran Cliff Johnson, discarded by the Yankees and Indians, provided power from the DH spot as he hit 17 home runs and put up an OPS of .805.

Under Billy Martin, the play of the A’s was known as “Billy Ball” – where a high-flying, aggressive, take-your-chances style of play was the strategy of the game. There were also other Billy Martin styles of play to aggravate the opposition, with accusations of spitballs being thrown by the A’s staff, or the pitchers wearing white sleeves under the white uniform to throw off batters.

It was a time of green lights on the base paths with double steals (and a triple steal in 1980), steals of home, squeeze plays and even the hidden ball trick. Young left fielder Rickey Henderson latched on to Martin’s full-bore style, swiping 56 bases to follow up on his 100 the previous year to break Ty Cobb’s longstanding AL record.

Unfortunately the red-hot A’s flat-lined in May, going 13-17, which included a 1-9 East Coast road trip. On June 10, they were in first place, but only by one game with a 37-23 record. The Players’ Association had decided to strike on June 11, interrupting the season. As part of the strike resolution, the season was split into two halves; the pre-strike segment and a post-strike portion. The teams leading their divisions at the time of the strike were deemed first half winners with bids to the postseason and the first Division Championship Series.

Despite a strike shortened season, the Athletics drew 1,304,052 fans and were on a pace to draw over 2.2 million in 1981.

Forgotten Dynassty
Forgotten Dynassty /

The A’s went 27-22 the second half to finish second two games behind the Royals, and their combined 64-45 record was the best in the AL that season. In the ALDS, the Athletics pitching staff did almost all the work, holding the Royals to just two runs in a three-game sweep – two of which were, of course, complete games.

In the 1981 ALCS, the A’s were swept by the New York Yankees. The only thing good that came out of that series was the introduction of “The Wave” at the Coliseum and receiveing national attention.

The Athletics’ success subsided in 1982. Injuries to key players and worn out pitchers from so many complete games the previous two seasons, among other factors, saw the A’s record drop to a dreadful 68-94. Martin was let go at seasons’ end, bringing an unceremonious end to the “Billy Ball” era. The Athletics’ next postseason would not be until 1988.

This season, on Saturday, Aug. 6 vs. the Cubs, the A‘s are planning a turn-back-the-clock day to remember Billy Ball.

Next: Five Factors for a Successful 2016 Season

Final Pop Culture Notes: 1981 also saw the A’s adopt Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”, played in the stadium after each win. The tune still stands today. Additionally, because of the popularity of Billy Ball, the Coasters’ hit “Charlie Brown” was morphed into the A’s own rendition of “Billy Ball.”

(To the tune of “Charlie Brown” by the Coasters)

He walks off of first base
Cool and slow
Everybody in the park knows he’s gonna go

Billy Ball
Billy Ball
Billy Ball
A’s baseball
He’s gonna steal home, just you wait and see
[Umpire’s voice yells “You’re outta here!” followed by Billy Martin’s spoken verse]  “Why is everybody always picking on me?”

Pulling double steals
Playing hit-and-run
Decoying the catcher is tricky but it’s fun

Billy Ball
Billy Ball
Billy Ball
A’s baseball  He’s gonna steal home, just you wait and see
(“You’re outta here!”)  “Why is everybody always picking on me?”