Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: Split Season: 1981 (2015)

By Jeff Katz

The author of the book "Split Season: 1981," has another job. Jeff Katz, it seems, is the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y. If that doesn't put a smile on your face for a moment, you're on the wrong blog.

Hizzoner already has one book to his credit, the story of the Kansas City Athletics in the days when they traded the stars to the New York Yankees for basically the Yankees' leftover scraps from the dinner table. The former day trader has raised the stakes here by taking on the story of an entire calendar year, and he covers it nicely.

For those older than, say, 45, the 1981 season was unique. It was the first "mid-course correction" from the path of free agency that the sport entered after the 1976 season with the Peter Seitz decision and the ensuing collective agreement between players and owners. The players saw their salaries go up in the years after free agency, while the owners and their representatives complained about increased costs.

The players were ready to strike in 1980 over a proposal to introduce compensation into the system, something that would have restricted movement from team to team. The two sides agreed on everything but compensation in talks about a collective bargaining agreement in the summer of that year, and agreed to study the matter together for a while. Sadly, the two sides remained entrenched in those decisions, with little actual bargain taking place for months.

By 1981, a walkout seemed likely, and the players used a tactic that hadn't been unveiled before - the midseason strike. That way, the players already had some paychecks in the bank, and the owners were looking at missing games in the summer when crowds were bigger. The Summer Game took much of that summer off. There were the usual legal moves that comes with the territory, as well as a variety of combinations of negotiators as everyone searched for a solution. Finally, the two sides came up with a settlement - a compensation plan that was so bad and ineffective for reducing costs that the owners dropped it the first chance they had.

Katz does his best work here on the strike, having talked to many of the principals involved and doing good research. The settlement really did mean that free agency was here to stay, and thus the story has some historical impact. It's valuable to have the tale all in one place. One warning for what it's worth: Katz is decidedly on the side of the players, as owners' negotiator Ray Grebey and commissioner Bowie Kuhn get pounded here. They probably deserve it. It's difficult for anyone to be on the owners' side in this one, especially because they had been so arrogant in the past and didn't handle the new relationship with the players well. Still, the author's point of view does come across loud and clear, which is worth noting if you prefer your history to be a little more even-handed.

The rest of the coverage of the year features the unusual season, split into two parts. The story has a little trouble generating much momentum, in part because the season never did have much momentum. Fernando Valenzuela really got off to a remarkable start with the Dodgers; it's easy to wonder what might have happened to him had the season been played in its entirety.

However, Katz's tale gets back on track with the postseason, which features fewer moving parts and no distractions. The Yankees contributed with their usual hijinks of the era; the stories of disharmony mixed with victory remain as astonishing now as they were then. We even got a good World Series between two very high-profile teams.

Most of the value of "Split Season" will come from the strike coverage, but those looking for a quick lesson in the season itself will find this satisfying. Let's hope there's more to come from this author, assuming he can get away from village board meetings every so often.

And, by the way - if Katz has higher political aspirations, he'll be happy to know that the prime minister of Canada wrote a very good hockey history book last year. Maybe sports books have become a launching pad for political hopes.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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