Monday, March 28, 2011

'Twas Thirty Years Ago: Chicago Sports Memories of 1981

     In 1981, the Chicago Sting (remember?) won the North American Soccer League title, becoming Chicago's first championship team since the 1963 Bears. Coached by Willy Roy, the Sting went 23-9 on the season and defeated the New York Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl for the championship. The title game was scoreless for 90 minutes of regulation and 15 minutes of overtime before the Sting prevailed 2-1 in a shootout. Rudy Glenn booted the game winner for the Sting. Other prominent players included Karl-Heinz Granitza, Pato Margetic, Franz Mathieu, Ingo Peter, and Arno Steffenhagen.
     Founded and run by the ebullient Lee Stern, the Sting played outdoor soccer from 1975 through 1984 (when they won a second championship) and indoors from 1980 through 1988.

     By the latter part of the 1980-81 season, Bulls head coach Jerry Sloan had seen enough of Larry Kenon, a silky 6-foot-9 scorer who was not interested in playing defense. Kenon went onto the bench, and off came Dwight Jones, a blue-collar type who was Sloan's kind of guy. With Jones and David Greenwood at forward, Artis Gilmore at center, Reggie Theus and Ricky Sobers at guard, and guard/forward Bob Wilkerson as sixth man, the Bulls won 12 of their last 14 games to finish 45-37 and qualify for the playoffs. They swept the New York Knicks in a best-of-three opening round series before bowing in four straight games to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, who went on to capture the championship.

     For the Blackhawks, head coach Keith Magnuson was just one year removed from the conclusion of his 11-year playing career. The rookie coach welcomed another rookie, 19-year-old center Denis Savard, who was destined to join him among the most beloved Hawks of all time. Having come to Chicago from his native Quebec hardly knowing a word of English, Savard was initially bashful off the ice. On the ice, he was a dazzling skater and electrifying playmaker who proved he belonged from day one. With 28 goals and 47 assists for 75 points, Savard was second to veteran center Tom Lysiak for the team scoring lead. Better yet, he compiled a superb plus/minus of plus-27. He was headed for the Hall of Fame.
     Another future Hall of Famer, Tony Esposito, led the league in minutes played by a goalie for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. He was between the pipes for all but two of the Hawks' wins, but (not coincidentally) missed ten of their losses. The Hawks went 31-33-16 for the regular season and made a quick exit from the playoffs, swept by Calgary in the first round.

     The White Sox were in the first year of ownership by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, while the Cubs were in the last year of ownership by the Wrigley family. A work stoppage sliced two months out of the season, from mid-June to mid-August. Standings were kept separately for both "halves," with the unfortunate result that the Cincinnati Reds missed the playoffs despite having the best overall record in either league.
     For the White Sox, newly acquired catcher Carlton Fisk made a big splash on Opening Day against the Red Sox, the team he had just left acrimoniously. The White Sox were trailing 2-0 in the top of the eighth when Fisk cracked a three-run homer, stunning the Fenway Park crowd and leading to a 5-3 victory. The future Hall of Famer remained with the White Sox for the rest of his career, retiring in 1993.
     The Sox were 31-22 before the players' strike, but they slid to 23-30 after the strike to finish at 54-52. Twenty-two-year-old southpaw Britt Burns was a bright spot, going 10-6 with a sparkling 2.64 ERA. The 1981 season marked the end of broadcaster Harry Caray's 11-year run on the South Side.
     The Cubs were an abysmal 15-37 before the strike, a less atrocious 23-28 afterwards, and finished at 38-65 overall. First baseman Bill Buckner had a solid season, hitting .311 and knocking in 75 runs (more than twice as many as any teammate). Starting pitcher Rick Reuschel was traded away in June, depriving the team of its heart and soul.
     After 60 years of ownership by three generations of Wrigleys, the franchise and ballpark were sold to Tribune Company for a reported $19.5 million. The new owners appointed ex-Phillies skipper Dallas Green as general manager after the season. Broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, a fixture for some 35 years, retired and was replaced by Caray. In Green and Caray, the Cubs had hired the two people who would do more than anyone else to ignite the coming explosion in the franchise's popularity.

     The Bears lost six of their first seven games and ten of the first 13. They won the last three games to finish at 6-10, but it was too little and too late to save head coach Neill Armstrong, who was fired after four years at the helm that featured a 30-34 record and one playoff appearance. The Bears ranked 27th out of the NFL's 28 teams on offense and 14th on defense.
     Running back Walter Payton had what was for him a sub-par season, gaining "only" 1,222 yards on 339 rushing attempts for a middling average of 3.6 yards per carry. He scored just eight touchdowns (six rushing and two receiving) and was left out of the Pro Bowl after five consecutive appearances. Fortunately, those who thought the 27-year-old Payton was on his last legs proved to be sorely mistaken. Safety Gary Fencik was the Bears' only Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro to boot.
     When Armstrong was let go, Bears owner George Halas made a surprising and controversial move by giving the job to Mike Ditka, a Dallas assistant coach who had starred for the Bears at tight end during the 1960s. As Bears head coach, "Iron Mike" soon became an iconic figure.

     The inaugural Arlington Million, the first million-dollar horse race in history, was won by six-year-old gelding John Henry. Ridden by the legendary Bill Shoemaker, John Henry was well off the pace for most of the running, then launched a stirring stretch drive that saw him nip The Bart by a nose at the wire. John Henry was voted Horse of the Year for 1981, and he won the award again in 1984 after capturing the Million for a second time.

     They passed away in 1981: Freddie Lindstrom, 75, Cubs outfielder 1935, Hall of Famer; Joe Louis, 66, won world heavyweight championship at Comiskey Park in 1937 and retained it until 1949; Steve Macko, 27, Cubs infielder 1979-1980.

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