Losing to win: Tony La Russa & the 1981 split season

The Chicago White Sox have a long and frequently glorious history–with legendary teams, renowned players and memorable moments. But you lose one lousy World Series on purpose, and that’s all anybody talks about. There’s so much more to the White Sox than the fact that a bunch of their players threw the 1919 World Series. How about the fact that they almost threw a key series of the 1981 season, and it was a plot hatched by their future Hall of Fame manager?

The 1981 season is an anomaly in baseball history. The players went on strike on June 12, and before the regular season resumed on August 10, more than one-third of the season was lost. Because of that, the powers that be decided in their infinite wisdom to break the season into two halves, with the division winners of the first half facing the division winners of the second half in the first round of the playoffs. This created a couple of problems. First of all, what motivation did the first-half winners have to play competitive baseball in the second half? Why wear out your pitchers or injure your best hitters in what were ultimately meaningless games for you?

There was an additional problem with the new playoff format. If the same team that won the division in the first half also won the division in the second half, the team with the second-best overall record would get that second playoff spot. Enter Tony La Russa and his plan to have the Chicago White Sox lose their way into the postseason.

The Oakland Athletics won the AL West Division in the first half with a 37-23 record. The Texas Rangers (33-22) were 1.5 games behind them, and the White Sox were 2.5 games behind with a 31-22 record. Way back in the standings, with a 20-30 record, were the Kansas City Royals. For the White Sox to reach the playoffs, one of two things had to happen. One, they could win the AL West outright in the second half. Or two, they could win enough games to have the second-best record in the division, as long as the A’s still finished in first place. And starting on September 25, the A’s and White Sox were going to play a 4-game series in Oakland with all kinds of playoff implications. If Chicago beat Oakland and let another team like the Royals slip into first place, the Sox could theoretically knock themselves out of postseason contention. However, if they lost those games to Oakland but still retained possession of the second-best record in the AL West, they would solidify their playoff chances. So, why not lose four regular-season games if it got you into the playoffs?

Manager La Russa, just 36 years old and in his third season as the White Sox manager, was on board with the concept of throwing games. In an interview with Chicago Tribune writer Robert Markus in the August 14 issue, he said he’d tell his players to lose on purpose, even though “to play a series where you don’t play to win would go against everything in my brain and body.”

La Russa acknowledged that the scenario he proposed was against baseball’s rules. “However, I believe our club and our fans have earned a certain amount of selfishness,” he said. “It’s clear to me that nobody is going to take care of us except ourselves. The league and the commissioner have not proven to me that they are concerned with the White Sox franchise to any great extent.

“If you’re a really rich guy you can talk about principles and how things are supposed to be. But when you’re as poor as we have been as far as winning championships, if we have a chance to win it, it’s not easy to say sacrifice your chances and stick by your principles… The bottom line is that if it gives the fans and our club the best chance to win, I’m going to try to put our club into the playoffs, and if the powers in baseball would criticize that statement, I would criticize those powers for putting us in that position.”

White Sox manager Tony La Russa. Source: Major League Baseball.

The White Sox regulars had some mixed feelings about the scenario, but many of them were in favor of it. They said as much to Markus — anonymously. “I’d throw games to get into the playoffs, sure,” one said. “That’s what it’s all about, and if he asked me, I’d tell Tony to tell us to do that, too.”

A few said they wouldn’t be able to throw games or would beg out of playing in that series. One player suggested that the White Sox just forfeit the games in advance, and another brought up the point that the A’s might want to lose those games too, to get a weaker playoff opponent. That four-game series could therefore devolve into two teams trying their best to play as badly as possible. “You could make a farce of the thing,” he said.

One player, when questioned, made the obvious connection. “Funny you should mention that right now,” he told Markus. “Do you know what I’ve been reading? A book about the Black Sox.”

You may have identified a few problems with the plan. One is that this scheme would require an extremely specific scenario in which the White Sox were far enough ahead of the Rangers and Royals that they could lose 4 games without consequence. Additionally, you would have to assume that the A’s would play competitive baseball when they had no reason to do so — they were already in the playoffs.

Finally, you have the fact that Tony La Russa and the Chicago White Sox, on the front page of the Chicago Tribune sports section, discussed throwing games in September — in August. The Black Sox scandal wasn’t exactly a top-secret affair, but at least Ed Cicotte wasn’t talking to reporters about his strategy for grooving pitches months before the World Series. You don’t announce your intentions to lose on purpose unless you want the entire baseball world to start talking about it, and that’s exactly what happened.

“The new [playoff] formula has some idiosyncrasies,” admitted Roy Eisenhardt, president of the Oakland A’s. He also acknowledged there were multiple playoff formats discussed, and the one the owners settled on was not his personal choice. But they were stuck with it, flaws and all. “Tony rang the bell. Now how do you unring it?” he asked.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, faced with a direct assault on the integrity of the game right after a costly strike, issued a bland statement about ensuring that no team would be put in a position to lose. Meanwhile, people like Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and Tigers pitcher Jack Morris agreed with La Russa’s theory about throwing games to reach the playoffs. Even baseball’s upper management broke ranks to criticize the fatal flaw in the season format. “I know that we’ve got a Mickey Mouse system that the powers in baseball have imposed on us concerning this split season situation,” grumbled Rangers owner Eddie Chiles.

Eventually, Kuhn came out of hiding and announced that if the first-half division winner won in the second half as well, the team with the next-best record in the second half would get the playoff spot. The scenario that La Russa envisioned never came to pass. The White Sox took three out of four games from the A’s in that infamous September series, but the team had slumped in late August and early September to fall out of contention. The Royals and A’s were the only two teams in the AL West to have above-.500 records, so there was never really much doubt that both teams would reach the playoffs. Oakland swept Kansas City in the AL Division Series before being swept in turn by the New York Yankees in the Championship Series.

La Russa was never punished for speaking out, and over his 34-year career (and counting) as a manager, he would establish a reputation as a tactical genius, winning three World Series titles. He’s a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the only one to come out of retirement to go back to managing after his induction. He has managed in six different decades and was named Manager of the Year four times. And he once forced Major League Baseball to change the playoff rules by ringing a bell that couldn’t be unrung.

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