The KC Royals opened up the 1981 season as defending American League Champions, having defeated the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series the season before to earn their first trip to the World Series. The Yankees’ ALCS loss, which the Royals administered in the minimum three games, was enough for the team to fire manager Dick Howser.
Kansas City lost the Series to Philadelphia, but in 1981 returned a solid starting rotation, closer Dan Quisenberry and AL MVP George Brett, who was coming off a season in which he hit .390. Hopes were high for the team to return to the World Series.
Then the season started. The Royals limped out of the gate and fell to last place in the AL West by April 24 with a 2-8 record. By May 25, the Royals were 11-24 and 13.5 games out of first place. All the while, talk continued of labor disagreements between players and management.
Things had gone so bad for Brett by the end of May that he had been involved in an altercation with a UPI photographer and smashed a couple of toilets and a sink in a bathroom in Minnesota.
On June 12, the Royals were scheduled to open a three-game series in Detroit against the Tigers. However, the day had come for the players to go on strike and the season was shut down with Kansas City sitting 20-30, 12 games behind first place Oakland.
For many players, the strike meant a return home and plenty of down time. Royals pitcher Rich Gale took a job at one of the bars in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency and was working July 17 when two walkways collapsed, killing 114 and injuring another 216. As reported by UPI, Gale told Manchester, New Hampshire, radio station WGIR that the scene was the worst thing he’d ever seen and recalled his assisting the injured and helping people stay calm.
As the labor talks continued and an agreement neared, baseball determined the season would be divided into two halves with the first-half division winners taking on the second-half winners in a best-of-five division series. The arrangement meant new life for teams like the Royals that had stumbled through the first half.
The strike ends, play resumes, and the KC Royals qualify for the playoffs.
With the first half rendered meaningless for some clubs, including Kansas City, labor peace was reached and the second half opened with the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and the regular season resumed Aug. 10 with the Royals in Baltimore.
A 10-10 start to the second half led to the dismissal of Kansas City manager Jim Frey. His replacement? None other than Dick Howser, the manager the Yankees fired after their embarrassing loss to the Royals in the 1980 ALCS.
Under Howser, the team finished 20-13 to win the second half title. A three-game sweep at Oakland’s hands ushered the team out of the postseason, but the groundwork was laid and pieces put in place for the team’s return to the playoffs in 1984 and the World Series victory of 1985.
The Royals ended 1981 with a 50-53 record. Brett finished at .314 and hit five home runs in the second half after only slugging one in the first. Willie Wilson was the team’s top all-around hitter with a .303 average, seven triples and 34 stolen bases. On the mound, Dennis Leonard posted a 13-11 record, Quisenberry has 18 saves and Larry Gura threw 12 complete games in his 23 starts while posting an 11-8 record and 2.72 ERA.
After the season, Gale was traded along with pitcher Bill Laskey to San Francisco for outfielder Jerry Martin.
Although we approach the 2022 season under a lockout, this season will likely not turn out with as many ups and downs as the campaign the Royals had in 1981.
The 1981 Royals experienced an odd season. They should hope the 2022 season isn’t as unusual.