In the summer of 1981, Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton was putting up All-Star numbers in the season’s first half. Then he spent a month wondering if the season would be completed.
Singleton was hitting .408 on May 9 after getting three hits for the Orioles in a game at Texas. He was on a streak of getting hits in 13 of 16 games when the players decided to go on strike June 12.
Singleton was averaging .340 with a .433 on-base percentage, a .978 OPS and nine home runs when the strike started.
In the past, owners and players had disagreements that cost a few days of work here and there, but Singleton could feel this labor battle was for real. There were several issues between the two sides, but the major one was free-agency compensation.
“This was very serious,” Singleton said. “I didn’t think we were going to play the rest of the year.
“You could seeing it come to a head,” Singleton says. “If we had agreed to what the owners wanted, it would have basically killed free agency. They wanted more compensation for players that left (via free agency) for other teams.
“We weren’t having any of it.”
The strike started on June 12, and after lengthy negotiations the season resumed with the All-Star Game Aug. 9 in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
This year’s will be Cleveland’s fifth All-Star Game, but none of the others had the historic significance of the 1981 game.
The strike affected 650 players, who lost an estimated $28 million in salaries, according to the New York Times. Today, that would be equal to a front-line starting pitcher.
The strike meant that Major League Baseball had to cancel 713 games at a cost of $116 million. The teams had insurance that paid them $44 million, so the net loss was $72 million, the Times reported.
During the strike, Singleton, now 72 and doing Yankees telecasts, stayed at home in Timonium and enjoyed time with his kids.
“I got to do things with them that I usually don’t get to do, like read them bedtime stories and do things during the day,” Singleton said. “In a way, it was fun. In a way, it wasn’t.
“We knew what we should have been doing at the time: playing baseball and trying to win a division.”
A few days before the All-Star Game, Singleton got a call from either Mark Belanger or Doug DeCinces - the two infielders were the Orioles’ union representatives - who told him to get ready for the All-Star Game.
“I knew we were going to have to get in shape quickly,” Singleton said. “I knew the players were doing their best to stay in shape, but after a while, you’d say, ‘Why am I doing this? We aren’t going to play any more.’
“I was fairly ready, but not completely ready.”
Apparently, Singleton was ready enough - to be in the American League starting lineup in left field and to get booed.
“The booing was mostly before the game, but when the action started, the fans got into the game.”
Singleton gave the American League a 1-0 lead in the second inning when he hit a home run to right-center field against the Mets’ Tom Seaver. Singleton was 2-for-31 against Seaver lifetime going into the game.
Singleton was down 0-2 when he connected.
In the sixth inning, when the AL scored three runs, Singleton hit a single against the Dodgers’ Burt Hooten and scored when Fred Lynn of Boston hit an RBI pinch-hit single.
After that, Singleton left for a substitution, but as he sat in the AL clubhouse and listened to the end of the game on the radio, he decided to keep his uniform on. He thought he had a chance to be the MVP.
So, he walked back into the AL dugout with the NL batting in the top of the eighth, down 4-3.
“I had one foot in the dugout and Mike Schmidt hit a home run off Rollie Fingers,” Singleton said. “I killed the vibe. I went right back into the clubhouse.”
Schmidt’s home run to center field scored Pittsburgh’s Mike Easler and gave the NL a 5-4 victory.
Montreal catcher Gary Carter, with two home runs, was the MVP. Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker also hit a home run for the NL.
Attendance was 72,086.
The season was split into two halves.
The Orioles (31-23) were second to the Yankees (34-22) in the first half.
Baltimore (28-23) finished fourth in the second half behind the Milwaukee Brewers (31-21), then in the AL East.
The Brewers lost to the Yankees in an AL East playoff. The Yankees went on to the World Series against the Dodgers, who beat the Expos three games to two in the National League championship series.
“I was just happy we were playing again, back in the atmosphere of baseball,” Singleton said. “I know the fans were not happy about missing a third of the season.”
He appreciates his generation of players.
“That generation of players was great because they were willing to sit out and sacrifice for the players of the future,” Singleton said. “They knew how to stick together.”