We prefer order to our sporting seasons, sure, but sometimes order is not possible. Most of the time it has been labor stand-offs that have produced truncated schedules, and so that means when the games return there have been hard feelings to accompany the odd number of games.
Here, a look at the history of shortened schedules in the four major sports:
1918 MLB season: President Wilson had urged baseball to stay in business even after the U.S. entered World War I a year earlier, but by the summer of ’18 the war was raging, men were needed for the cause and the War Department issued a “work or fight” order, requiring able-bodied men to either join the military or an “essential” industry for the duration.
On the fly, baseball’s regular season was halted on Labor Day with most teams having played around 126 games. The Red Sox beat the Cubs in six games for their last World Series title for 86 years, the last game played Sept. 11 — fortunate, because a global pandemic was about to overtake Boston, which probably would’ve forced the Series to be canceled.
1972 MLB season: The first-ever players strike was called a few days before the end of spring training and when they settled it was agreed the games wouldn’t be made up. Naturally, the Tigers wound up winning the AL East at 86-70 — and the Red Sox were left in the cold having played one fewer game, finishing 85-70.
1981 MLB season: The first strike to cause widespread damage to the schedule; MLB decided to split the season in two and have the pre-strike first-place teams play the post-strike first-place teams in the first-ever Division Series. The biggest casualty was in Cincinnati, where the Reds had baseball’s best record at 66-42 — but missed the playoffs because they won neither half of the NL West.
1982 NFL season: The players struck for seven games, leaving a nine-week season in the strike’s wake that forced an expanded 16-team playoff format — and the first-ever playoff team with a losing record, the Browns sneaking in at 4-5. The Jets caught fire and won two postseason games for the first time since their Super Bowl year before losing to Miami in the Mud Bowl AFC title game, 14-0.
1987 NFL season: The record book will show that the teams all lost only one game to the second strike in five years, but three of those 15 games were populated by replacement players the NFL teams brought in from all walks of life as well as a steady stream of actual players who broke ranks and crossed picket lines. The defending-champion Giants (who had the worst strike team, by far) started 0-5 and never recovered.
1994 MLB season: The ugliness of the strike overshadowed the sadness of so many lost opportunities: Tony Gwynn was at .394 when the strike hit Aug. 12; Matt Williams (43) and Ken Griffey Jr. (40) were each tracking Roger Maris’ pace; the Yankees and Expos seemed on a collision course for a World Series that never happened.
1994-95 NHL season: The league had generated so much momentum a year earlier with epic playoffs capped by the Rangers’ first Cup win since 1940, then disappeared until January. The resulting 48-game sprint was exhausting and produced a second-straight Cup winner for the area, the Devils winning their first of three.
1995 MLB season: With baseball on the brink of copying football’s replacement-player strategy, a federal court intervened and sent the game back to action for a 144-game season in which the Indians dominated (100-44), the Braves were champs and the Yankees returned to October for the first time in 14 years.
1998-99 NBA season: In the wake of the Bulls dynasty, David Stern went to war with his players and wound up salvaging the season with a 50-game torture show that reintroduced back-to-back-to-backs … and also ended with the Knicks’ last gasp of glory, a run to the ’99 Finals.
2004-05 NHL season: What season? For the first time labor strife wiped a whole year off the books.
2011-12 NBA season: The lockout yielded a 66-game season that culminated with LeBron James’ first championship with the Heat and featured the 2 ½-week MSG joyride known as “Linsanity.”
2012-13 NHL season: The most recent sports lockout reduced the season to 48 games and was salvaged, to a degree, by a fine Cup final between two Original Six teams, the Blackhawks outlasting the Bruins in six games.
I hope you’ll consider joining me in tipping your cap to honor the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. To see more on how this centennial is being celebrated, please check out tippingyourcap.com
Congrats are in order to our old friend Kevin Kernan, who will be inducted into the New York Baseball Hall of Fame this November.
Been spending some free time lately poring through the archives of this newspaper and, not for the first time, I find myself humbled to be able to occupy the same space that once belonged to Jimmy Cannon, Larry Merchant and Milton Gross.
I was sitting in a press tribune seat the night in Sydney in 2000 when Vince Carter, quite literally, soared over Frederic Weis in an Olympic match between the U.S. and France. Twenty years later, Carter was still playing well enough to have one last lap around the NBA this year, before officially saying goodbye this week. I’m not sure my game has held up quite as well.
Whack Back at Vac
Joe DeBrita: MLB could bank some goodwill if they made MLB Network free with no blackouts all season. Wishful thinking I know.
Vac: I’ll see that wish and raise you a fantasy about free access to the MLB app, too.
Jan Allen: You’re not wrong. My baseball love has never left. But this pandemic, along with its isolation/quarantine, would have been a lot easier for me to bear with such distractions as a Mets winning streak (or even a losing streak!).
Vac: It’s come a little late in the game, and there are still so many serious hurdles to clear, but this is why there is still hope for baseball to provide a genuine service for an awful lot of people just by its mere presence. If.
@Bruman18: I have no resentment about the squabbling in baseball — complicated times. Stupid to play. Players will still get sick. No fans. Still a malaise out there. It’s an asterisk season. Wait till next year. And I’m a die-hard.
@MikeVacc: Of course, when you get right down to it, it’s awfully hard to argue with even one of these items.
Bill Miller: No argument with Rick Wise having the best day a pitcher ever had but Tony Cloninger on July 3, 1966 is a solid No. 2: two grand slams and a complete-game win. None too shabby.
Vac: I think of both of these performances whenever anyone tries to tell me the Bartolo Colon home run was some kind of mystical, magical moment.