When Gibby Came Of Age and Nearly Carried the Tigers to the Playoffs

Baseball fans had plenty of reasons to be angry in 1981. For nearly two months in the middle of the summer, ballparks were empty as the players went on strike. Every day that passed the players lost paychecks, the owners lost money, and fans grew more frustrated. In Detroit, radio stations fielded calls from angry Tiger fans. Some season ticket holders picketed outside Tiger Stadium. The two daily newspapers had little to report in their sports pages other than labor talks. Every day that passed it seemed more possible that the entire season Kirk would be cancelled.

Finally, on July 31, a settlement was reached between the owners and players, and games began again about a week later. For the first time in major league history, the season was split in two. Teams that were in first place on June 12 when the strike started were declared “first-half” division winners. The final eight weeks of the season would comprise the second half. This meant that every team had a theoretical chance to make the post-season.

Outfielder Kirk Gibson was in his third big league season and had yet to show he could handle pitching at the major league level. A highly touted prospect, the MSU graduate had hit a paltry .235 with little power in the first half of the ’81 season and spent a short stint on the disabled list with a leg injury. But the man who Sparky Anderson once compared to Mickey Mantle would tear it up in the second half, nearly leading Detroit to the playoffs.

The Tigers launched themselves into the thick of the second-half of the 1981 division race with a nine-game winning streak from August 14-23. The streak began with the team winning the final three of a four-game set against the Yankees at Tiger Stadium. In that series, Gibson drove in four runs and collected three hits despite not starting any of the games. He entered as a defensive replacement in the finale and smashed a game-winning, two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Yankees closer Ron Davis to win the game. That hit propelled Gibson on a tear that established him as a bona fide major league hitter.

Gibby would hit safely in 28 out of 31 games from mid-August through September 18 and reached base in 33 straight games as the Tigers moved into a virtual dead heat with the Milwaukee Brewers. In all, Gibson would collect at least one hit in 39 of the 45 games he started in the second half of the 1981 season. He hit a blistering .462 in August and batted .375 overall in the second half. Showing the clutch hitting that would become his trademark, Gibson delivered seven game-winning hits. He also started to kick up dust on the base paths, swiping 13 bases in 16 tries.

Entering the final weekend of the season, Detroit was one game behind the Brewers as they finished the schedule with a three-game series in Milwaukee. The Brewers won on Friday, forcing Detroit to win the next two. But on Saturday, the Brewers eked out a thrilling 2-1 victory, defeating the Tigers and their ace Jack Morris on national television with a late inning rally. Detroit would finish two games back after winning the meaningless game on Sunday.

The young talented Tigers wouldn’t make it to the post-season for three years, but in 1981 they got a taste of pennant race fever, and Kirk Gibson finally matured into a dangerous offensive weapon.