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Designated for Assignment

Yankees’ Blomberg Brought DH to Life 40 Years Ago

  • A youthful Ron Bloomberg with his bat in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MCT)<br/>

    A youthful Ron Bloomberg with his bat in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MCT)

  • Detroit Tigers designated hitter Prince Fielder bats during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

    Detroit Tigers designated hitter Prince Fielder bats during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  • A youthful Ron Bloomberg with his bat in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MCT)<br/>
  • Detroit Tigers designated hitter Prince Fielder bats during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Mention the words “designated hitter” in a room full of baseball fans, and the reactions will be split. Younger folks will shrug and say, “Yeah, what’s your point?” The older crowd will make spitting sounds and use words like “purity” and “mistake.” My friend Gene Laporta, the manager of the local hardware store, speaks for the designated hitter haters: “The DH takes a lot of strategy out of the game. Besides, if a pitcher plunks a hitter, he should have to step in the box and take his lumps as well.”

Forty years ago this week, the American League began a three-year test of sending a “regular” player to the plate to bat for the pitcher. Unlike a traditional pinch hitter who replaced the pitcher in the lineup, at least until his team took the field again, the designated hitter would return to the bench and wait until he went to bat for the pitcher again.

On April 6, 1973, the Boston Red Sox hosted the New York Yankees in an Opening Day game at Fenway Park.

The Boston fans packed the park on a cold day with the temperature in the 40s, but things started badly for them. Red Sox ace Luis Tiant’s corkscrew, back-to-the-batter windup let him down in the top of the first. He gave up a two-out double to Matty Alou and switched to his stretch delivery, one highlighted by an annoying series of hesitant drops and twitches of his glove. Those distractions didn’t help much, as he walked Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles to load the bases.

At 1:53 p.m., New York’s Ron Blomberg became Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter when he took ball one. Hundreds of camera shutters clicked in unison. The sprinkling of Yankees fans present must have hoped that Blomberg would hit his way into the record books.

Alas, Tiant’s wildness continued, and he walked Blomberg on four pitches, and the Yankees went up 1-0. Tiant laughed last, though likely with his back to the batter, when he got the win in a Red Sox rout, 15-5. Blomberg, in his other at-bats that day, he singled, flied to left and lined out.

Three other players had a realistic chance that day to be the first DH. Boston’s Orlando Cepeda had a shot, but Blomberg, batting sixth in the long top of the first, edged him out. Two other DHs in an Eastern time-zone game in Baltimore were in the running — the Orioles’ Terry Crowley and Milwaukee’s Ollie Brown — but the clock designated Blomberg that day. The DHs in the two West Coast games, Royals-Angels and Twins-Athletics, didn’t have a chance.

The Rule Change

The idea of sending a substitute hitter to the plate when a team was in a pinch has been around baseball for a while. John Montgomery Ward became the first pinch hitter when he batted for a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher on June 16, 1892. A few years later, Connie Mack proposed allowing a player not already in the lineup to bat regularly for the pitcher. The Hall of Fame manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, however, failed to interest many others in the concept.

National League president John Heydler broached the DH idea again in 1928. NL owners approved the proposal, but the junior circuit rejected it. Since both leagues then had to agree on major rule changes, the DH idea went back to the bench.

The baseball hierarchy resurrected the DH concept after the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. Legendary hurlers — Denny McLain, Bob Gibson, and Don Drysdale, to name but three — smoked the big leagues that year. As a result, each league’s overall batting average was the lowest in the 20th century — .243 in the NL and .230 in the AL.

The MLB rules people snapped into action and quickly sent help to the hitters. Among other changes, they lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches and shrunk the strike zone back to the 1950 limits.

The Playing Rules Committee also proposed using designated pinch-hitters in spring training games and in four minor leagues during the season. The Triple-A International League’s approach was the simplest and essentially the same as the AL’s procedure today. The NL chose not to participate, and the minor league experiment lasted only one year.

During the 1969 International League season, the DHs hit .261 collectively, up from the pitchers’ average of .160 the year before. Home run production rose similarly, 24 to 108. The games were six minutes shorter.

The overall AL batting average in 1971, despite the more hitter-friendly rule changes, had risen only to .247. Influential people lamented the offensive drought, and lagging attendance in AL parks confirmed the fans’ reaction. The colorful Charlie O. Finley, the Oakland Athletics owner, captured the mood with this widely quoted view: “The average fan comes to the park to see action, home runs. I can’t think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up, when the average pitcher can’t hit my grandmother. Let’s have a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher.”

AL owners voted unanimously in December 1972 to support a rule change allowing a designated hitter. The rules committee, with representatives from each league, disapproved the change by a 5-3 vote, with one abstention. Cleveland Indians general manager Gabe Paul bemoaned the decision: “The game has got to be offensive. The stadiums and the pitchers are getting bigger. Maybe we even ought to juice up the ball.”

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn showed his disappointment when he called owners from both leagues to a special meeting in Chicago on January 11, 1973. He pointed to the overall AL batting average of .239 during the strike-shortened 1972 season, only nine points up from the 1968 low point. Kuhn urged the owners to reconsider the DH rule proposal.

With seven yeas required for passage, the AL voted 8-4 to try out the DH for three years. The proposal failed in the NL, 6-4 with two abstentions, the Phillies and the Pirates. According to Jack O’Connell in a 2008 Baseball Digest article, Philadelphia’s Bill Giles abstained because he couldn’t reach Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter, who was on a fishing trip. Pittsburgh’s owner, John Galbraith, had told his representative at the meeting to vote with the Phillies. For want of a cellphone, NL passed on the designated hitter.

Unlike in 1929, both leagues did not have to approve the new rule, so the AL pressed forward with the DH on its own. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley assessed the split in February 1973: “As of the moment, only the American League will use the artificial stimulation of the designated hitter, while the National League remains aloof in it arrogant self-sufficiency.” The DH rule became permanent in the 1976 season.

The DH had an impact on offense. The overall AL batting average in 1976 had risen to .266, up from .247 five years before. In the NL during the same period, the collective average rose only from .252 to .255. In overall league attendance, the AL drew 11.87 million in 1971, and 14.66 million in 1976. On the other hand, NL totals fell during the same period from 17.32 million to 16.66 million. From 1977 until 1992, the AL had 14 teams, the NL, only12; comparisons thus became more complicated during that period. However, in 1995, when the NL had 14 teams, both leagues drew 25 million fans.

Of course, as in all things baseball, everyone has opinions, especially in sports bars. Among insider baseball experts, many lament the DH. Baseball writer Tim Wendel, author of High Heat, Summer of ‘68 and other baseball books, is an exception.

“I may pride myself on being a baseball purist, but I’ve warmed up to the designated hitter,” Tim told me recently. “I know, where did I go wrong?”

Wendel bases his opinion on the benefits the DH opportunity has provided to great, but aging or hurting players. “This rule, no matter how problematic, kept guys like Edgar Martinez, Chili Davis, David Ortiz and certainly Paul Molitor in the game longer, and that’s good enough for me.”

Blomberg

Yankees manager Ralph Houk talked to the media the day before the Hall of Fame collected Blomberg’s bat. He said that his choice for the DH that season would depend on the park and the pitcher. For the opener, he had the right-hand hitting Felipe Alou playing first because of his hot hitting during spring training. Houk inserted the left-handed hitting Blomberg in the lineup as the DH against right-hander Tiant. “I don’t intend to do this all year against right-handed pitching,” Houk told the media. “I expect Blomberg to play a lot of first base.”

Houk, though, had another consideration — Blomberg’s leg. “I had a hamstring problem on Opening Day,” Blomberg told me last month. “So the skipper made me the DH, and I walked into the record book.”

Blomberg also recalled that he was a bit confused after the first inning ended: “I stood there on the field and waited for someone to throw me my glove. I had forgotten that I wasn’t playing first. Finally, Ellie Howard, the first base coach, told me to go to the dugout.”

Blomberg, an Atlanta native, was a four-sport letterman at Druid Hills School. He has said that he turned down more than 100 college scholarship offers and entered the 1967 amateur baseball draft. The Yankees picked him first overall. After a stint in the minors, he came up to the big show for a cup of coffee late in the 1969 season. He played Triple-A ball in 1970, and in 64 games with the Yankees in 1971, hit .322. New York City welcomed the Jewish Blomberg, who styled himself as the “Yiddish Yankee.”

After Blomberg opened the 1973 season as the DH in Boston, he went on to a good year, batting .329 while both playing first base and designating. By 1975, injuries had slowed him, with his batting average falling to .255. He missed the 1976 season with a knee injury, and played his final year with the White Sox in 1978.

Blomberg seems to have carved out a cottage industry as MLB’s first designated hitter. He has done radio and TV work, given motivational speeches, helped with charity events and fundraisers, taught youth baseball, sponsored camps for Jewish kids and coached an Israeli baseball team for a year. He is married with two grown children, and lives in the Atlanta area. His book, written with Dan Schlossberg, is titled Designated Hebrew. Blomberg was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

“It’s been a great ride,” Blomberg said, “and great to have been part of a new era in baseball.”

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DH TRIVIA

Minnesota’s Tony Oliva hit the first home run by a designated hitter in the 1973 Opening Day game in Oakland. Boston’s Cepeda won the inaugural Outstanding Designated Hitter Award for the 1973 season, hitting .289, with 20 HR and 86 RBI. MLB changed the name of the award in 2004 to the Edgar Martinez Award in honor of the Seattle DH who won it five times during the period 1995-2001. Martinez won the batting title as a DH in 1995, hitting .356. He had won the 1992 title, while playing 103 games at third, and DHing in 28.

Kansas City’s Hal McRae won the first RBI title as a DH in 1982 with 133. Boston’s David Ortiz was the first DH to win a home run crown in 2006 with 54 dingers. Ortiz won the Martinez Award five straight times, 2003-07 and again in 2011.

Here’s an oxymoron stumper for your next sports bar trivia contest. What designated hitter has won a Gold Glove? . . . . Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers in 1999. He played only 28 games at first, but with great skill, while DHing in 128 games. A bit of obvious controversy surrounded Palmeiro’s selection, a result of voting by managers and coaches.

A number of aging players, as Tim Wendel noted, have enjoyed productive seasons in their golden years. The best example is Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who played his final year, 1974, as a DH. Kaline gained his 3,000th hit late that season while sitting between at-bats.

Cepeda, who had a great career at first base with the Giants, Cardinals and Braves, suffered knee problems late in his career. But in 1973, Boston made him the first player to be signed specifically as a DH. Cepeda joined the Hall of Fame in 1999.

The Times’ Arthur Daley wrote about a few woeful glove men who might have extended their careers as a DH. Among them were Babe Herman, Showboat Fisher, Dale Alexander, Deke Bonura and Smead “Smudge” Jolley, who hit .357 for the White Sox in 1932. Jolley once made three errors on the same batted ball - through his legs, through his legs again after it bounced off the fence and on his throw to the dugout.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Michael K. Bohn is the author of Money Golf, a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.

Bohn also wrote The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism (2004) and Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president’s alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968-88.