Observations From Cooperstown--The Birth of the DH
by Bruce Markusen
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.