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75 Years and Counting: The Story of the 1981 Cleveland Indians

Tribe shows signs of life in strike shortened ‘81 season

Cleveland Indians Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Coming off the 1980 season things were looking up in Cleveland. The Indians had been selected to host the 1981 MLB All Star Game, Super Joe Charboneau was the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, and they’d just swung a trade that landed them future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven to bolster a struggling pitching staff. It seemed like everything was finally starting to come together. Unfortunately a decades long struggle between players and owners would come to its climax, resulting in a players strike that wiped out a good portion of the 1981 season.

The Indians got off to a scorching hot start going 18-9 in their first 27 and finding themselves in uncharted territory, 1st place in the American League Eastern Division. They’d continue to battle despite surrendering first place, sitting at 26-20 before a 4 game losing streak led them to a 26-24 record as the picket line formed and games were cancelled.

The highlight of the season is a fairly obvious one. On May 15th against the Toronto Blue Jays the first place Indians sent Len Barker to the mound in front of the entire city of Cleveland who swears they were at that game (despite attendance records showing only 7,000 fans attended). He faced 27 batters, retiring them all while striking out 11 for the 10th perfect game in MLB history. To this day it’s the last no-hitter thrown by a Cleveland pitcher. I think the part that stuck out to me was that I didn’t know they were in first place at the time, I think back to the 2011 season when we got off to that 30-15 start and were in first after a few years of terrible baseball and I try to imagine what it would be like if you threw a perfect game in there as well. Cleveland fans had to feel like they were on top of the world for a bit there.

Unfortunately once the strike hit Cleveland lost their momentum finishing just a touch above .500 at 52-51.

It’s remarkable that they finished so well considering how many players from the previous year faltered, especially Charboneau who found himself sent back down to the minor leagues and finished the season with a .210 batting average.

One thing that I think is worth mentioning, however, is the change in philosophy in the decade. The 1980s get unfairly lumped in with the 60’s and 70’s in the lore surrounding the “slump.” But, I don’t think people fully realize how much better managed the player personnel side of things was during the 80’s. It was still far from perfect, but much of the groundwork for the 1990s run was laid during the 80’s. As an example, the Joe Carter trade. Everyone remembers Joe Carter for Alomar and Baerga in 1989, the trade is often given credit for kickstarting the rebuild that led to the dominance of the mid 90’s, but people forget that we traded away Rick Sutcliffe, who was up and down for the remainder of his career, for Joe Carter and Mel Hall in 1984, a really good trade. That’s not to mention trading Jack Fimple, Jorge Orta, and Larry White for Sutcliffe in the first place. The sheer ineptitude of the 60s and 70s was starting to turn into some sound baseball decision making. That doesn’t mean there weren’t bad years of course, ‘85 and ‘87 were particularly awful, but much of the decision making was far more sound than it had been in years past.

With every entry we’re inching closer and closer to good baseball, only 14 to go before the Jacobs Field era begins and we can start really having some fun.

Join us tomorrow for the ‘82 season.