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Observations From Cooperstown--The Birth of the DH
2008-04-18 09:00
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

What do Don Baylor, Ron Blomberg, Jack Clark, Chili Davis, Jim Ray Hart, Glenallen Hill, Cliff Johnson, Kevin Maas, Ken Phelps, and Danny Tartabull have in common? Aside from being retired major league sluggers, they all spent significant parts of their tenures as Yankees playing the role of the DH. In many ways, it’s easy to forget about them, since some of them passed through the Bronx quickly and quietly, while others were well past their prime by the time they joined the Yankees. Besides, how many designated hitters become beloved figures? If you’re asked to name your favorite Yankee catcher of all time, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada are names that might come immediately to mind. But who’s your favorite Yankee DH? That one is a little tougher to answer.

It seems that with each year we hear more and more disdain for the DH. Some fans don’t like it, because it destroys the symmetry of a game where every player is supposed to bat and play the field. Purists hate it, since it runs contrary to the idea of "nine men on a side." And plenty of owners and general managers don’t like it, because the DH invariably ends up making one of the largest salaries on the team.

It’s now been 30 years since the designated hitter rule first came into play in the American League, but the idea for a DH has origins that date back nearly 80 years. In 1929, a man named John Heydler proposed that pitchers, who carried reputations as weaker hitters, should not be allowed to bat. Although he actually never used the term "designated hitter," Heydler suggested that a "10th man" be allowed to hit in place of the pitcher. Ironically, Heydler was the president of the National League, which historically has maintained staunch opposition to the DH, and remains the only professional league in North America not to employ the rule.

Heydler’s suggestion failed to gain acceptance during his lifetime, and the issue of the DH fell into the background. In the 1960s, at a time when pitchers were beginning to dominate the game, Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley pushed hard for the adoption of a designated hitter, a rule that he felt would increase the amount of "action" in the game by aiding each team’s offensive production.

At first, the other major league owners resisted Finley, whom they considered a brash and unsophisticated maverick. By January of 1973, a sufficient number of major league owners had come to see the potential benefits of the DH. The American League, which had seen its attendance decline in recent years, saw a particular need for the fan interest that the DH might spur. On January 11, the owners agreed to allow the American League to use the DH on an "experimental" three-year basis.

At first, some media outlets referred to the new rule as a "designated pinch-hitter" or "DPH," but soon dropped the "P," shortening the acronym to DH. When the American League saw its attendance jump from 11.4 million in 1972 to 13.4 million in ’73, the "experimental" tag was also dropped. The DH has been in place in the junior circuit ever since—35 years and counting.

The dramatic rules change set the stage for a bit of history on Opening Day of the 1973 season. On that day, April 6, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became the first designated hitter in major league history. The role of DH surprised Blomberg, a first baseman by trade. He sought advice from Yankee coach Elston Howard, whose playing career predated the DH. "I asked Ellie, ‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘The only thing you do is go take batting practice and just hit.’ " Playing in 30-degree weather at venerable Fenway Park, Blomberg made his first plate appearance (with the bases loaded, no less) against Red Sox ace Luis Tiant. The result was somewhat less than dramatic—a base on balls—but it resulted in a first-inning run for the Yankees. At the end of the inning, Blomberg remained at first base, unsure of what to do next. "I was going to stay there because normally that was my position," recalled Blomberg. "Elston said, ‘Come on back to the bench, you aren’t supposed to stay out there… You just sit here with me.’ "

Blomberg made three more plate appearances in the game, picking up one hit in New York’s 15-5 loss to arch-rival Boston. After the game, Yankees public relations director Marty Appel arranged for Blomberg’s bat and jersey to be sent to the Hall of Fame, where it was featured in a prominent exhibit for several years.

In many ways, the DH rule was made to order for a player like Blomberg, who was a poor defensive first baseman and prone to injury. Blomberg was fragile to begin with, and the more often that he had to play the field, the more he found himself susceptible to injuries. In 1975, Blomberg would play in only 34 games. The following two seasons, he would miss all but one game with a severe knee injury. In 1978, Blomberg tried to make a comeback with the White Sox, but ended up retiring after a 61-game struggle.

Although Blomberg is well remembered for being the first DH, he did not come close to being the first fulltime DH for the Yankees in 1973. Quick now, who was it? Here’s a hint; he wasn’t even on the Yankees’ roster at the start of 1973. It was ex-Giant Jim Ray Hart, a onetime star with San Francisco whose career had been short-circuited by problems with the bottle. Hart put up so-so numbers in 106 games as a Yankee DH, before watching his career come to a complete halt in 1974.

Aside from Blomberg and Hart, a few other notable names took turns at designated hitting in 1973. Amazingly, Celerino Sanchez appeared as a DH 11 times. That’s good-field, no-hit Celerino Sanchez, which makes about as much sense as Jason Giambi playing shortstop. Johnny Callison, winding up a fine career, made 10 appearances as a DH. Then there were four appearances for Ron Swoboda, two games apiece for Bernie Allen, Graig Nettles, and Duke Sims, and one game each for Matty Alou, Jerry Moses, and Thurman Munson.

In that first historic game, the Red Sox’ designated hitter, Orlando Cepeda—who had actually been the first player specifically signed to fill the DH role—did not fare nearly as well as Blomberg. The "Baby Bull" came to bat six times that frigid day at Fenway, coming up empty each time. Still, Cepeda would go on to enjoy a productive season, finishing second in home runs and RBIs among the American League’s designated hitters. Cepeda’s performance as a DH, marking his last productive major league season, padded a career that would eventually land him in the Hall of Fame.

The other Opening Day designated hitters featured a collection of intriguing talents—and stories. Perennial All-Star Tony Oliva, a sore-kneed but skilled batsman, was an obvious DH choice for the Minnesota Twins. Oliva hit a home run in his first at-bat, connecting against future Hall of Famer Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Oliva finished the day 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs. Ed "Spanky" Kirkpatrick (how cannot you not love a guy named Spanky?), the initial DH for the Kansas City Royals, had far worse luck than Oliva, having to face California’s Nolan Ryan. Kirkpatrick went 0-for-3 against Ryan, who struck out 12 Royals in one of his typically dominant performances. In 1981, after his playing days ended, Kirkpatrick would suffer a blood clot in his brain that first left him in cardiac arrest, followed by a coma that lasted five and a half months. Thankfully, Kirkpatrick eventually emerged from the coma.

On the second day of the 1973 season, the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers debuted designated hitters in their opening games. The White Sox used veteran infielder Mike Andrews, who had been the starting second baseman on the Red Sox’ "Impossible Dream" team of 1967. Later in the 1973 season, after being released by Chicago and picked up by the Oakland A’s, Andrews would become involved in one of the largest controversies in World Series history. Charlie Finley tried to "fire" Andrews after he made two errors in a Game Two loss to the New York Mets.

While Andrews served as the DH for the White Sox, the Rangers chose former National League batting champion Rico Carty. Nicknamed the "Beeg Mon," Carty was a fearsome batsman when healthy and one of the best two-strike hitters in the history of the game. Since Carty was an atrocious defensive outfielder and had suffered a series of leg injuries during his career, he seemed like a natural for the DH. Yet, Carty struggled in adjusting to the DH role, and longed for the days when he could play the outfield. By mid-season, with Carty batting a measly .204 as a designated hitter, the Rangers sold him to the Chicago Cubs. Carty quickly clashed with longtime Cubs star Ron Santo, the team’s emotional leader. The personality conflict led to Carty’s hasty departure from the Windy City. The Cubs sold the once-and-future DH back to the American League, where he finished out the season with the World Champion Oakland A’s. Carty would later recapture his hitting stroke, becoming an effective DH for the Indians and Blue Jays before retiring in 1979.

There were also some tough characters among the "first-day" DHs. The Indians employed former Yankee John Ellis, one of the true "rough and tumble" figures of that era, as their first DH. The Tigers, who played the Indians in the opener, used the venerable Gates Brown in the DH role. Brown, who went 0-for-4 against future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, was one of the game’s best pinch-hitters in the late sixties and early seventies, and a major contributor to the Tigers’ 1968 world championship. Brown was also an ex-convict, having spent 22 months in prison on breaking-and-entering charges.

One of the best designated hitters in 1973 didn’t even play in his team’s opening game. Tommy Davis started the season platooning with Terry Crowley, but soon became the Baltimore Orioles’ everyday DH. Davis batted .306, the best figure among full-time designated hitters, and drove in 83 runs while playing as a DH, third behind Oliva (91 RBIs) and Cepeda (86 RBIs).

The class of 1973 designated hitters also included a member of baseball’s exclusive 500-home run club—and one of its most underrated superstars. Frank Robinson started the season in the California Angels’ outfield, but ended up playing most of the time as a DH. F. Robby led all of the first-year designated hitters in home runs with 26. From 1974 to ’76, Robinson would play almost exclusively as a DH, finishing out a Hall of Fame career.

Before giving in completely to the notion of eliminating the designated hitter, some current-day major league owners might want to consider the full—and non-economic—consequences. If there had never been a DH, how many of the players listed above would have seen their careers ended by 1973, or shortly thereafter? Orlando Cepeda? With his ravaged knees, almost certainly. Oliva? Very likely—for the same reason as Cepeda. Rico Carty? Ditto. Tommy Davis? Quite possibly, once again because of bad legs. If there had never been a DH, some baseball fans might have been denied the opportunity of watching these skilled hitters over the last four or five years of their extended careers. In other words, a generation of baseball fans, including this writer, might never have seen these men play.

As a fan who was just becoming rabid about the game in 1973, I would have completely missed out on Carty, Cepeda, Davis, Hart, and Oliva. Even though I saw these onetime standouts only at the tail end of their careers, at least I can say that I saw them play a little. Now that’s certainly not the only consideration we should make in determining whether the DH should stay or go. But it is something to think about.

Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for MLB.com at at http://bruce.mlblogs.com.

Comments
2008-04-18 09:10:43
1.   rsmith51
I don't really like the DH as that is all he does in a game. It is also quite painful to watch pitchers bat.

I propose that we keep the DH, but require that the only available DHs are those who have fielded a minimum of 1/2 the team's total innings played(or at least 5 or 6 innings in 1/2 the games). Therefore, players like Ortiz and Hafner are required to field in 1/2 their team's games. It would require a variety of players to DH and the pitcher would have to bat in at least game one of the season.

2008-04-18 09:18:00
2.   rsmith51
Chili Davis was my favorite Yankee DH.
2008-04-18 09:51:51
3.   wsporter
Gonna see the Franchise tonight in Charm City and IPK tomorrow night. Looking forward to it, hope there be other Banterers in the house.

Watching Heathcliff Johnson screw himself into the ground on a swing and a miss and wondering what would have happened to something so frail and insignificant as a mere baseball had he actually hit it are my fondest DH memories.

2008-04-18 10:22:12
4.   Shaun P
IIRC, Hank Aaron spent most of his time with the Brewers as a DH. So there's another guy who's career was likely extended thanks to the DH.

My favorite Yankee DH? Strawberry.

2008-04-18 10:38:10
5.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
1 The point of eliminating the DH rule is not to get rid of the players who are all-hit, no field, but to return to the notion of the offense being tied to the defense, requiring sacrifices to be made (literally and figuratively) when making certain in-game decisions.

Also, to the point in the post of "not getting a chance to see" so and so play... Well, if you can only play half of the game, do you really belong in the game? How many all-field, no-hit guys do you lament not seeing? Who is the present Mark Belanger who we don't get to see play the game? The logic you are using there suggests that perhaps we should have two or three DH's, just so we get to see more players who excel at a single dimension of the game play that one dimension well.

Okay: let's institute a designated free-throw shooter in the NBA so that I don't ever have to see Shaq boff a free-throw again, and so I can see that freak-show college guy who can't dribble or play defense, but can sink 99/100 free throws...

Its not a good argument.

2008-04-18 10:56:00
6.   ny2ca2dc
I like the DH, mostly because it's nice to get older guys a place to keep playing (so we'll be able to see Po, for instance, keep playing after he can't catch), and because watching a pitcher hit is so sad.

So Bruce, or any other historian types, did any league ever consider just doing away with the ninth slot in the batting order? So, instead of having a designated hitter for the pitcher, the pitcher just doesn't ever hit - the lineup wraps back around to the leadoff guy after the #8 hitter. Maybe something of a compromise (though maybe one that's worse than either pure alternative).

2008-04-18 11:02:33
7.   williamnyy23
I like the DH too. The confrontation between batter and pitcher is at the heart of the game, so removing the formality of pitcher versus pitcher means 4 more interesting confrontations per game (unless the SF Giants are playing, in which you might be lucky to have 4 in total for the game).

It's not like MLB has never used designated type positions anyway. Back the early part of the century, teams would on occassion use "courtesy runners" for one reason or another. Maybe Girardi can petition the league so we don't have to watch Molina/Posada/Giambi trudge around the bases anymore!

2008-04-18 11:17:33
8.   rbj
I've got no problem with the DH. What's so special about seeing a .129 hitter get up to the plate 2-3 times a game, to be lifted along with another position player (oooh, wow, look at that thar double switch, did the manager do it correctly) late in the game.

Do AL starters go longer in a game than their NL counterparts?

Consider Wang's recent gem. If there were no DH, don't peole think he'd have been pulled from the game late by a PH?

2008-04-18 11:21:14
9.   williamnyy23
8 Joe Girardi was recently quoted as saying there is much more strategy managing in the AL because pitching changes are not dictated by the score, and pinch hitters are not generally saved for pitchers and other dead weight usually found in NL lineups. I happen to agree with him.
2008-04-18 11:21:58
10.   rsmith51
5 I think you are missing my point. I was trying to think of a way for a team to be more creative with the DH, by forcing the guys who only hit to play the field half the time. That way there is a connection between the offense and defense, yet still allows for a hitter instead of a pitcher.

I guess I don't fall into the pro-DH, anti-DH group, but somewhere in between. I can't stand watching a pitcher bat and the DH only plays one side of the ball, though I guess you could say the same thing about the pitcher. It is probably too complicated of a solution, but I was trying to figure out a way that I would like the DH.

2008-04-18 11:43:40
11.   JL25and3
9 As do I. The DH also takes away the automatic man-on-base-pitcher-bunts and replaces it with a more complex situation - that is, more strategy.
2008-04-18 11:49:08
12.   monkeypants
5 I am somewhat in sympathy for the arguments in 1 . Intellectually, or maybe ideal(ologicall)y, I really dislike the DH rule. It just doesn't make good, clean, elegant sense to have one play at one position alone not be able to bat. Maybe if they broadened the rule so that you could DH for any position, that would bother me less, because it would generalize the rule (we allow you to make one offensive upgrade) rather than make it a specialized rule.

On the other hand, I do appreciate that watching pitchers bat is mostly dead dull. The game has evolved to the point where almost no team would consider carrying a bad pitcher for his bad. Therefore, the notion of offense tied to defense and tradeoffs is greatly skewed. Basically, a team would a #5 starter even if he hit .000 for the season, and the only tradeoff would be whether you PH for him in the 5th or the 7th.

That said, I think that few things are more exciting than the pitcher helping his own cause, and for that reason alone I would eliminate the DH for those few occasions. Also, if there is one thing that I have grown to detest from an aesthetic standpoint, it is the 12, 13, or 14 man pitching staffs inhabited by LOOGYs, 7th inning guys, 8th inning guys, and so forth. Eliminating the DH would almost certainly force more to teams to carry an additional bat, which would eliminate the nearly useless additional pitcher. And that could only be a good thing.

2008-04-18 11:50:22
13.   Raf
10 In the Yankees' case, I would say their recent DHs spent significant time in the field.

I don't think the Yanks have had a "fulltime DH" a player signed specifically for the role since Chili Davis.

I don't mind the DH one way or the other, but I do like that it allows a day of "rest" or that it's a good place to hide a fielding deficient or maybe an injury-prone player

2008-04-18 11:56:32
14.   monkeypants
11 How is it more complex? Different, yes. But more complex, I am not so sure. It is just, I think, that the locus of difficult strategic decisions shifts depending on the DH.

Sure, with the pitcher and a man on you almost always bunt, but with the DH in that same situation you are facing the Chad Moeller--so there is the choice to bunt or swing away. On the other hand, having the pitcher bat also means that managers have to face the decision sooner in the game whether to PH or not.

No DH means that making pitching changes can be made exlusively in terms of pitching. That is, does Wang start the 8th or do I pull him now? Do I want him facing the RH next inning? Is he out of gas yet? Do I pull him one batter too soon or one batter too late.

But without the DH a similar challenge is presented when tactical decisions consider both pitching and hitting: do I PH for Peavy with 2 out bases juiced in the 6th, or is it worth it for me to keep him in the game even if it means practically sacrificing this scoring opportunity? Is he almost out of gas? How many more batters is it worth to not have him bat? How is the other pitcher doing, do I need to PH no matter what?

In the end, I have never bought into the old-timer rhetoric that NL managing is more difficult. Rather, I see both Al and NL managing as equally difficult, but different rules so different sets of tactical concerns.

2008-04-18 12:24:36
15.   JL25and3
12 There's no excuse for the bloated, overly segmented pitching staffs of today, DH or no DH. An extra position player would always provide more options than that 12th or 13th pitcher.

There's a sizable contingent that says: either have the DH or abolish it, but have it the same for both leagues. I think that would be foolish. After all, this has been a running argument for 35 years, and every year partisans argue it with the same passion. Baseball fans thrive on that sort of argument, and this one's got real legs. Why take it away?

2008-04-18 12:35:33
16.   Raf
15 There's no excuse for the bloated, overly segmented pitching staffs of today, DH or no DH. An extra position player would always provide more options than that 12th or 13th pitcher.

I'm a bit surprised that there haven't been many more "Brooks Kieschnick" types out there. I cannot think of a reason for not having a player that can pitch in a pinch as well as play the field. We had them in college, why not in the pros?

2008-04-18 12:52:00
17.   monkeypants
15 I'm not sure I agree with your argument that an extra position player will always provide more value than a 13th pitcher. You are probably right, but with good hitting teams there is little reason ever to PH in the AL. Since you have to carry 25 guys, it makes more sense to just fill up the BP (you can't have too much pitching, right?).

That the two leagues play by different rules and this creates discussion so they should keep the status quo, is not (IMO) the strongest argument. From a marketing perspective, ok I guess. Indeed, one could fathom a making a whole series of rules changes and differences b/t the leagues simply to contrive passion and discussion. I'm not sure that's a good thing. From a philosophical perspective, 1] the keeping/eliminating the DH could/should be discussed on its own merits and 2] there is a value to having the two leagues play by the same rules.

If I ruled the universe, I would eliminate the DH. But as I am always reminded, I do not rule the universe.

2008-04-18 12:58:32
18.   monkeypants
16 It relates to what I was saying in 12 . The value of even of marginal pitcher's ability to pitch almost infinitely outweighs his ability to hit. Therefore, anyone with any pitching potential is coached almost entirely in that art. Moreover, since the pitching staffs have grown, there would be little use for a guy to toss a few innings and play marginal defense at another position (or hit marginally). Really, when was the last time the BUC threw an inning in a blow out? Instead, Brian Bruney (or whoever) throws an extra two innings and get sent down to AAA for ten days.

The only way you would see such players is if the MLB adopted some sort of rules like they have in the NFL, where you can only carry a certain number of designated pitchers. This might force teams to carry an "emergency pitcher," a sort of baseball version of Slash.

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