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Designated for change (cont.)

Posted: Friday March 21, 2008 12:57PM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 12:57PM
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By Larry Burke and Peter Thomas Fornatale with Jim Baker

The Idea Gains Momentum

Charles O. Finley
The wild ideas of Oakland owner Charlie Finley (center) didn't prevent Reggie Jackson (left) and the A's from winning three straight World Series' from 1972-74.
AP
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Had Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley conceived of the DH idea himself, instead of merely being one of its loudest proponents, there is a chance it never would have come into being. Finley, who died in 1996, was not a favorite among his fellow owners, to the extent that even his good ideas were often ignored simply because of their source. If he had his heart's desire, Finley would have gone to a complete platoon system with a separate offense and defense and special team players for pinch-running duties. He wanted to have designated hitters for any position, not just for the pitcher. Famously, Finley used sprinter Herb Washington solely as a pinch-runner one season. And for five consecutive games in mid-September of 1972 the A's started Dal Maxvill at second base without his ever getting a chance to hit. He batted eighth in the order, playing a few innings of defense before his first turn to bat came up. Each time it did he was pinch-hit for by Don Mincher.

It was around this time that Howard Cosell made a guest appearance on NBC's Monday Night Baseball, suggesting the very thing that Finley sought: the elimination of two-way players in baseball. Blasphemy though it was, it was an indication of the general mood that surrounded the game at that time -- change of some sort was required.

Bud Selig: I'll tell you, and I'll be very blunt with you. I was in the American League. It was December of 1972. We met at the Plaza Hotel. There had been a lot of conversations. I was never before or after in favor of anything that Charley Finley wanted. If Charley was still alive he'd agree with that, even though we had a pleasant enough personal relationship. But the American League was struggling mightily for offense and a lot of people were pushing [the DH]. My mentor in baseball at that time was John Finch, who owned the Detroit Tigers.

We always flew together to meetings and we talked about it on the way in. We were both "purists," call it whatever you want, but it seemed like this one time that we ought to try this. And so we did. But when I voted for it, I must say it's the only time I ever agreed with Charley.

Whitey Herzog: In 1973 the NL was the most competitive league. They expanded. They were drawing more fans.

Bob Costas: It was a gimmick. But it was a gimmick that at one time at least had a coherent rationale. In the early 1970s, when [the DH] came to the American League, baseball was just coming off a period where offense was as depressed as it had ever been in the modern era. The whole American League hit .237 in 1968, and about a fifth of all games in the major leagues -- a fifth -- were shutouts. There was definitely a perceived need to juice offense. Plus, at that time the American League lagged behind the National League. The Yankee dynasty at that point was in ruins, so the Yankees couldn't carry the American League anymore. And the American League was still paying the price for being relatively slow compared to the National League in signing black and Hispanic players. So they had the less exciting league; what they had to sell was just less than what the National League had to sell. It made sense that they would try this thing and try to sell it as new and exciting. And in some respects it was.

Thomas Boswell: The late '60s and early '70s were a time of action in America. The country was really amped up and needed tons of stimulation. As Bill Veeck said, it was really a time for violent sports, not reflective sports, to catch the public's attention. It was a wonderful time for the NFL. Baseball at that point, in the late '60s, just didn't have enough offense and it was really getting boring. And talk about a bad time to be boring: 1968 -- when everybody's hair is really on fire over one tragedy or political event or controversy after another and here's baseball with one 2-1, 1-0 game after another. The need to add the DH seemed screamingly obvious at the time, unlike the recent changes with interleague play and the addition of the wild card that a lot of sensible people -- like me -- resisted, only to find out we were wrong.

The Designated Hitter's Debut

Say this about the advent of the DH, it got people talking. Its merits and demerits made for a lively hot stove league in the 1972-73 off-season. Once it was passed, its debut was very much anticipated. On April 5, 1973, the NL's Reds hosted the then-traditional season opener, but it was the Red Sox's opener the next day that got everyone's attention. Boston and the visiting Yankees would be the first clubs to employ DHs. In this role, Ralph Houk had Ron Blomberg, a part-time first baseman and occasional outfielder who was nursing a hamstring injury, in the number-six spot and Boston manager Eddie Kasko had Orlando Cepeda batting fifth. Cepeda was more in the mold of what people thought DHs were going to be: a veteran player (he was 35) in the last leg of his career. Blomberg, however, was just 23.

It could have fallen to either Cepeda or Blomberg to be the first man to bat as a designated hitter, but a three-run first at the expense of Boston starter Luis Tiant meant that it was the Yankee who became the Neil Armstrong of this particular endeavor. (Though one observer that day remembers a funny twist to that piece of history, at least as it is recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Tiant and the Red Sox would win the war that day, 15--5, but Blomberg won the first battle of the DHs, driving in a run with a walk in his first at bat and singling in his second. Cepeda, meanwhile, was hitless in six at bats. In spite of playing only about half the time, Blomberg was one of the Yankees' three most productive players in 1973, notching career highs in batting average (.329) and RBIs (57). Cepeda went on to have a solid season as well (.289, 20 homers, 86 RBIs) and was one of the mainstays of the Boston offense.

Ron Blomberg: They already had me as a platoon player, so I rarely got to play against left-handers, and the Yankees back then faced a lot of left-handers. But what was I going to do, tell them to play me or trade me? Hold out? Where was I going to go, what was I going to do? [Yankees general manager] Gabe Paul would have laughed at me. So that limited how many games I had to learn the [first-base] position. So as far as I was concerned I was still learning first base, but I believed I could play the position once I had experience, and I played it through most of spring training in '73. It's simple: In order to be a good fielder, you have to play in game situations until the position becomes second nature for you. I didn't get much chance to do that. In 1973 I played first base early on but I made some mistakes like anyone learning a position would, and next thing I know, they brought in Mike Hegan and he was one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. So I'm DH-ing, and you can't improve your defense doing that. A year later, Chris Chambliss came over in a trade, and I said to someone, "I could just give my glove to some charity."

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