For many, MLB in the 80s is remembered for negative events such as the 1981 players strike, the earthquake during the 1989 World Series, the banning of Pete Rose from baseball and one of the most famous errors in baseball history. But the decade saw many amazing moments and positive trends, including a Golden Age of baseball movies, Kirk Gibson’s one-armed World Series homerun, an end to dynasties and “Fernandomania.”
Here’s an overview of the best baseball moments in the 1980s, a decade of extreme highs and extreme lows. So, break out your Members Only jacket, set aside your Rubix Cube and consider the following trends and moments from MLB in the 80s.
The End of Dynasties
This is one of the better aspects of the 1980s: you felt more teams had a chance. The Oakland Athletics, Cincinnati Red and New York Yankees dominated the 1970s, winning seven of 10 World Series titles. In the 1980s, nine different teams won it all. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers won two, and the 1981 and 1988 clubs were completely different teams. Interestingly, they haven’t won a World Series since.
Kirk Gibson’s Home Run
In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, an injured Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers came off the bench to hit a game-winning home run on a 3-2 count off the then-best reliever in baseball, Dennis Eckersley. Gibson’s accomplishment resulted from both brains and brawn. The injured Gibson used upper body strength to drive the ball because of his injured leg. And he knew to sit on a backdoor slider because he had studied the scouting report on how Eckersley pitched on a full count against a left handed batter. His gimpy, celebratory hobble around the bases is one of the most iconic videos in baseball history.
Bill Buckner’s Error
No discussion of MLB in the 80s is complete without mentioning one of the most famous errors in baseball history made by Boston Red Sox Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. A dribbler up the line off the bat of Mookie Wilson rolled between Buckner’s legs, allowing Ray Knight to score from third base, completing a Game 6 Mets rally. The Red Sox had been one out away from winning the series. They went on to lose Game 7. That certainly wasn’t Buckner’s fault, but frustrated Red Sox made him the scapegoat. The derision continued for decades. Fortunately, that changed in later years. After the Red Sox won the championship in 2004, the vitriol aimed at Buckner seemed to decrease. The team eventually invited him back to Fenway Park in 2008 to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, welcoming him with a standing ovation.
Buckner died in 2019. Before his death, an interviewer asked him if people would ever talk about his stellar career without mentioning the error. Buckner said, “You know what, it’s so ingrained, it’s not going to happen. It’s just the way it is. Hopefully, it’s Bill Buckner and the ‘86 World Series, but he was a pretty good player. Leave it at that.”
Golden Age of Baseball Movies
The 1980s became a Golden Age of baseball movies. The decade saw the release of many movies considered classics of the genre: “The Natural” (1984), “Bull Durham” (1988), “Eight Men Out” (1988), “Field of Dreams” (1989) and the comedy “Major League” (1989). It also saw the release, in 1985, of one of the most-played songs about baseball, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty.
Pete Rose Gets Banned
In the 1970s, Rose became one of the most celebrated players in the game. But in the 1980s,”Charlie Hustle” became the focus of an MLB investigation into alleging betting on baseball. Rose denied the claims, and the legal back-in-forth dragged on for years. On Aug. 24, 1989, Rose accepted a permanent place on baseball’s ineligible list. The commissioner at the time, Bart Giamatti, died of a heart attack eight days after announcing Rose’s suspension from baseball.
Having pitched out of the bullpen after a callup in 1980, Los Angeles Dodger Fernando Valenzuela became a starter in 1981. He also became a sensation. The left-hander started the season 8-0, with five of those victories coming in shutouts. He remains the only player in baseball history to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award in the same season. He became a media superstar, and “Fernandomania” gripped Los Angeles and fans nationwide. It culminated with the Dodgers, who also had Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker and Mike Scioscia, winning the World Series against the New York Yankees. Valenzuela pitched a complete game victory in Game 3, one of the best baseball moments of the 1980s.
1981 Players Strike
The 1981 players’ strike seems almost quaint compared to what was to come in the 1990s. The strike wiped out the middle third of the 1981 season, lasting from June 12 until games resumed Aug. 9. While it cost the league millions in revenue, it has largely been overshadowed in baseball history by the 1994-1995 strike that cost the league a World Series.
The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that rocked the San Francisco area happened just before the start of Game 3 of the Bay Series between the two MLB teams from that area – the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. Those watching the pregame on ABC, which was showing a highlight video just as the quake hit, could hear Al Michaels say “I tell you what, we’re having an earth…” in the seconds before the feed cut out. This resulted in a five-day delay of the series. The Athletics eventually won in a four-game sweep and never trailed in any game.
These are some of the highlights from MLB in the 80s, a decade of contrasts. While the best moments of the 1980s were certainly great, it also has its share of negative memories. But if you want to watch a movie about baseball, it’s one of the best baseball decades ever.