The 1981 Half-Champs: The Forgotten Brewers Playoff Team

Jan. 9, 2017
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clinch
A screen cap of the moment just after the Brewers clinched the first playoff birth in franchise history.

Like many kids my age in this area, I was raised on stories of the great 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, the only team in franchise history (back then) that had ever made the playoffs, let alone the World Series. At least that’s what I thought. One day when I was about ten years old, however, I was flipping through a team media guide and came to the “Playoff Games” entry. And there I found a five-game series against the Yankees in 1981… something called the “Division Playoffs.” I took the evidence to my dad and presented it like it was proof like of a bastard half-sibling I’d never been told about. Yeah, he confirmed, the Brewers were in the playoffs in ’81… kinda. 

The Brewers had come into their own by the time the 1981 season rolled around. They had been competitive since 1978 in a very tough AL East and hoped that ’81 might see them finally move into the class of the Yankees and Orioles – both of whom had won 100 games in 1980. But there was also labor trouble brewing that year. With free agency now driving up player salaries, team owners wanted to install a compensation system for players lost, essentially allowing a team to chose a player (aside from 12 protected players) from a team that signed away one of its free agents. The players were adamantly opposed to anything that would, as this was designed to do, artificially depress salaries. Deadlocked with the owners, the players voted on May 29, 1981 to strike and walked off the job two weeks later.

The strike lasted seven weeks, with the players and owners eventually coming to terms on a compensation draft that would use a pool of lesser players from each team in the league (this draft itself was disbanded in 1985). In order to revive interest in the season, and to help make up for the large gap in the schedule, baseball implemented a literal “bush league” idea. Like many minor leagues, the Major League season would be split into two halves. All teams in first place at the time of the strike were given a birth in the postseason and the standings would be reset to determine who each of these four clubs would face in a “division playoff” for the right to advance to the league championship round.

Yankees manager Gene Michael gets the news as the strike ends. Michael’s team was automatically given a playoff spot as the strike was resolved, giving them nothing to play for in the second half.


The concept was profoundly stupid. Since a team winning both halves of the season would still have to play the second-place team from the second half, it gave the four first-half winners (Yankees, A’s, Phillies, and Dodgers) nothing to play for over the season’s final two months. It also created a mess in the National League, where the Cardinals and Reds had the best overall records in each division, but won neither half, missing out on the postseason (the Reds actually posted the best record in baseball in ’81, but came away with nothing to show for it). Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals surged in the second half to make the playoffs, but posted a losing record overall.

Thanks to a 13-9 August, and a great Yankees team with nothing to play for, the Brewers played at the top of the second-half standings throughout the mini-season and welcomed the Detroit Tigers to Milwaukee for the final three games of the season, needing to win two of three to claim the title. After an 8-2 win on Friday, the Brewers went into the eighth inning of the Saturday game trailing 1-0. After a fielder’s choice tied the game, Gorman Thomas worked a bases-loaded sac fly that scored Robin Yount. With a 1-2-3 Rollie Fingers ninth, the Brewers clinched.

County Stadium was a little more than half-full that afternoon, with many people kept away from the park by the Wisconsin-Purdue football game (interest in the Badgers spiked in 1981 after they upset #1 Michigan in the first game of the season). In fact, the Journal noted that the second-biggest cheer from the County Stadium crowd during the game was when they posted the Badgers’ score (they won) on the board. The entire scene was a little surreal that day. After storming the field, fans danced and whooped it up a bit, but then just drifted back to their cars. The Journal noted that there were no celebrations downtown, the bars didn’t burst forth with happy fans, and no one sounded their car horn in triumph. The Brewers had won, but no one was really sure what that was worth. Their final record for the second half (after a loss the next day), was 31-22. It was hard to get too worked about less than two months of good baseball (it is worth noting that the Brewers also ended up with the best overall record in the AL East).

The team, however, held no such reservations. They drenched each other with beer and champagne in the clubhouse. Charlie Moore did a striptease. Mike Caldwell snuck booze to the team’s batboys. In his private box, Bud Selig broke down in tears as he watched the final out, yelling “We did it! We did it!”

Ted Simmons slugs a home run in game three of the ALDS in New York.


Four days later, the Yankees came to town, winners of the AL East four of the last five years and the 1977-78 world champions. For the first post-season game in Brewers history, and the first in Milwaukee since the Braves hosted the Dodgers in a tiebreaker to determine the 1959 pennant, interest was surprisingly mild. Bitterness still lingered over the strike and, when it was announced the game would be shown on national television, many people preferred not to attend the expanded playoff in person. Only 35,00 people were on hand for game one of the series, as the Yankees beat Milwaukee 5-3. For game two, as rookie Dave Righetti led a 3-0 shutout of the Crew, just over 26,000 were in attendance.* The Brewers won the next two games in New York to force a decisive game five (also held in New York under the 2-3 format). In this game, the Brewers cycled through five pitchers as the Yankees relentless offense pounded out 13 hits and three homers on the way to a 7-3 victory.

Of course, the next year, with their high-powered offense in full swing and Harvey Kuenn (eventually) bringing fun vibes to the clubhouse, the Brewers belted their way atop the AL East again and came within a few innings of a world title. That year brought the downtown parties and the honking horns and the wild celebrations. That year’s banner needed no explanation.

* Oddly enough, games three and four of the 1982 ALCS against the Angels also had empty seats. It was not until the decisive game five of that series that the Brewers sold out a home playoff game

 

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