Connie Mack was one of the earliest proponents of what would ultimately become the DH rule. (Hulton Archive)
NEW YORK — With the elimination of individual league offices, the consolidation of umpiring crews and the addition of Interleague play over the past decade, there is not much left that distinguishes the American League from the National League.
Except, of course, the designated hitter, a subject of heated debate in the 35 years since the AL adopted and the NL rejected the idea of replacing a pitcher anywhere in the batting order with a ninth hitter. That the acknowledged greatest hitter in the game’s history, Babe Ruth, had originally been a pitcher could not quiet altogether movements to rid lineups of the guy on the mound.
Although the practice has been in place in the AL since 1973 and was officially added to the Rule Book (Rule 6.10) in 1976, the origins of the proposal date back more than 100 years, and along the way the idea was championed at one point more by the NL than the AL.
The AL owners, concerned in the early 1970s over incessantly low-scoring games and dwindling gate receipts, adopted the measure to improve offense and appeal to fans’ desire for more offensive action.
As far back as 1906, the use of an extra hitter to bat instead of a pitcher was brought forth by none other than Connie Mack, the legendary owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack’s concept was more of a designated pinch-hitter, so that the pitcher’s spot in the order could have been taken by any one other hitter not already in the lineup. So, in effect, the DH was then known as the DPH.
Purists within the Major Leagues held firm to the notion that every position player, pitcher included, get a turn at the bat, and the measure wasn’t brought up seriously again until 1928 at the suggestion of John Heydler, then president of the NL.
Heydler pushed for a designated pinch-hitter as a way to speed up the game, although it was never clear how that would be accomplished. Since the DH has been in effect, AL games are usually longer than NL games. The irony 80 years ago is that NL owners approved of it, but AL owners did not. Endorsement was required of both leagues, so it died.
The idea found favor in some amateur leagues in the early 1940s, but it was not used in the professional game until 1969, when it was put into use by the Triple-A International League but lasted for only one season. Former Cubs and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, living in the International League city of Buffalo, N.Y., said he favored the rule.
Declining batting averages and attendance figures in the AL in the early 1970s brought the concept front and center in the Majors, but it was not an easy sell because of its chief endorser of the time. No one stumped more for it than Charles O. Finley, the radical owner of the Oakland A’s, whose other proposed schemes included multi-colored bases and orange baseballs with green stitching.
“The average fan comes to the park too see action, home runs,” Finley said at the time. “He doesn’t come to see a one-, two-, three- or four-hit game. I can’t think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up to the plate when the average pitcher couldn’t hit my grandmother. Let’s have a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher.”
Offensive deterioration hit rock bottom in 1968, when Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 average and was the only player in the league with enough at-bats to qualify for the crown to hit over .290. The overall league average was .237.
“The Year of the Pitcher,” as 1968 became known, prompted a rule change that lowered the mound from 15 to 10 feet. Three years later, however, the overall batting average in the AL had risen only two points, to .239. Despite consistently ignoring Finley’s recommendations, AL owners were desperate to find some way to improve offense and voted 8-4 to establish what would be called the DH on a three-year trial basis.
It is not as well-known that the NL came close to accepting the measure at the same time. With 12 clubs in each league at the time, seven votes were required for passage. The NL vote was 6-4 with two abstentions, the Phillies and Pirates.
Years later, Phillies executive Bill Giles said that his inability to reach then-owner Ruly Carpenter, a proponent of the DH, on the telephone resulted in Philadelphia’s abstention. Pittsburgh’s representatives were instructed by Pirates owner John Galbraith to vote with the Phillies. Carpenter was on a fishing trip.
Think of how baseball might have been different all these years if there had been cellular phones back then. But as Giles remarked in the current book, “Change Up,” an oral history of the modern game, “If [the rule] came up for a vote today, the result would be more likely the elimination of the DH in the American League.”
That remains the time-honored NL position. One of the biggest critics of the DH has been Whitey Herzog, which is ironic considering that, when he was managing the Royals, he had one of the best in the business in Hal McRae, who in 1982 became the first DH to lead the league in runs batted in.
In his years with the Cardinals, however, Herzog persistently put down the DH rule, especially when speaking before large media turnouts at the All-Star Game and postseason events. “I think the only place it belongs is the All-Star Game, and they don’t use it there,” Herzog said at a time before the DH was allowed in All-Star Games when an AL club is the host.
The AL loved the initial results. The league’s overall batting average jumped 20 points in 1973 from ’72, and the AL has consistently outscored the NL since replacing pitchers in the lineup.
What the rule has also done over the years is extend the careers of star players. From the beginning, AL lineups featured former All-Stars whose offensive skills were not compromised by defensive shortcomings due to aging.
Frank Robinson was signed by the Angels and led all DHs that year in home runs (30) and RBIs (97). Instead of having pitchers swing aimlessly when not dropping down sacrifice bunts, AL fans could watch their replacements put up impressive offensive figures. The Twins’ Tony Oliva, slowed by aching knees, drove in 92 runs; the White Sox’s Carlos May 96; the Orioles’ Tommy Davis 89 and the Red Sox’s Orlando Cepeda 88. The Rangers’ Alex Johnson and Rico Carty combined for 101 RBIs.
Cepeda, who otherwise likely might have had to retire because of knee injuries, was signed by Boston specifically for the DH role. But the first DH to bat was the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg, a distinction he has always treasured and one that came about partially by accident.
The Yankees opened the 1973 season April 6 at Fenway Park with temperatures in the 40s. Yankees manager Ralph Houk, who at first was not in favor of the DH, wanted to get another left-handed batter in the lineup against Red Sox right-hander Luis Tiant and went with Blomberg, who was unable to play in the field because of sore hamstrings.
Blomberg batted sixth in the order but got up in the first inning because of wildness by Tiant, who yielded a two-out double to Matty Alou and walked Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles, which loaded the bases. Blomberg walked, too, on four pitches, to force in a run and take his place in the record books. The Red Sox ended up winning, 15-5, so Blomberg was surprised to see so many reporters at his locker after the game.
“There was also a guy there from the Hall of Fame to ask for my bat,” Blomberg recalled at a recent Yankees Old-Timers Day. “That’s when it hit me what this was about. It’s weird. After the first inning ended, I stood there on the field and waited for someone to throw me my glove. Elston Howard was coaching first base and told me, ‘Go into the dugout.’ That was the best thing about being the DH. It was freezing that day, and I could go into the clubhouse and get a hot chocolate.”
Blomberg, who eventually shared the Yankees’ DH duties that year with former Giants third baseman Jim Ray Hart, went on to bat .329 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs in 301 at-bats. Knee and shoulder injuries limited Blomberg’s career to eight big league seasons, but the .293 career hitter enjoys his special status.
He even used the initials DH in the title of his autobiography, “Designated Hebrew.” A Jewish player from Georgia, Blomberg is now a manager in the Israeli Baseball League.
“It’s not everyone who can say they were the first to do something,” Blomberg said. “I was once the answer to a $125,000 question on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ How cool is that!”
There have been other DH firsts, in addition to Blomberg’s at-bat and McRae’s RBI title. Oliva hit the first home run by a DH, in 1973; the Mariners’ Edgar Martinez, for whom the DH of the Year Trophy is now named, was the first to win a batting title, in 1995; the Red Sox’s David Ortiz was the first to win a home run crown, in 2006; the Reds’ Dan Driessen was the first NL player to DH in a World Series, in 1976, which marked the position’s entry into the Fall Classic.
The DH was used in alternate years in the World Series from 1976-85. Since 1986, the DH has been used in World Series games in AL cities, which is also the case since Interleague play began in 1997.
There has even been a DH to win a Gold Glove for fielding. Rafael Palmeiro won the AL Gold Glove at first base for the Rangers in 1999 when he played only 28 games at the position, as opposed to 135 games in which he was Texas’ DH.
Another first occurred in 1988, when Yankees manager Billy Martin used as his DH a pitcher, Rick Rhoden, who spent most of his career in the NL and had a .238 career batting average. Slotted seventh in the order, Rhoden was 0-for-1 with a sacrifice fly.
Paul Molitor’s election to the Hall of Fame in 2004 was a positive for the DH in balloting. Molitor was a DH in 44 percent of his career games. Technically, the first DH to reach the Hall was Al Kaline, elected in 1980. He was the Tigers’ full-time DH in his final season, 1974, when he eclipsed the 3,000-hit plateau, a good example of how a career was extended because of the DH.
Over the years, the DH has become so popular that it is in use virtually everywhere in baseball except for the NL and Japan’s Central League.
Yet arguments persist between its defenders who wince at the sight of a pitcher swinging the bat and its detractors who believe game strategy is affected negatively.
At the 2006 World Series, Jim Leyland, then in his first season as Tigers manager after 14 years in the NL with the Pirates, Marlins and Rockies, said: “Everyone in the world disagrees with me, including some managers, but I think managing in the American League is much more difficult for [having the DH]. In the National League, my situation is dictated for me. If I’m behind in the game, I’ve got to pinch-hit. I’ve got to take my pitcher out. In the American League, you have to zero in. You have to know exactly when to take [pitchers] out of there. In the National League, that is done for you.”
Let the debate continue.