Designated for change
Back in '73, the DH made the AL a new ball game
Posted: Friday March 21, 2008 12:57PM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 12:57PM
Reprinted from CHANGE UP: An Oral History of 8 Key Events That Shaped Baseball. © 2008 by Larry Burke and Peter Thomas Fornatale. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or wherever books are sold, or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735.
In the tradition of the great baseball classic The Glory of Their Times, Change Up is a compelling oral history that relives turning points in the national pastime as recalled by those at the center of the action. Change Up is a fan's box-seat ticket to a remarkable baseball event: a round-table conversation among the participants themselves about eight pivotal developments that changed the game from the 1960s to today -- vivid and personal accounts of some of the most important happenings in the history of the sport, from the expansion Mets of 1962 to the Asian immigration of the late 20th century.
On the eve of the 2008 baseball season -- the 35th anniversary of the debut of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973 -- SI.com presents an exclusive excerpt from Change Up, in which Ron Blomberg, the first DH, and nine others recount their memories of the new rule, and how it all got started.
Ron Blomberg: The first DH in 1973 while playing for the Yankees, the left-handed swinger's eight-year career was cut short by shoulder and knee injuries. His autobiography, Designated Hebrew, was published in 2006, and he is currently the manager of the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox of the Israel Baseball League.
Thomas Boswell: His baseball writing career began with the Washington Post in 1975, and he has gone on to author such books as How Life Imitates the World Series and Why Time Begins on Opening Day.
Bob Costas: Popular broadcaster and longtime opponent of the designated hitter rule.
Tommy Davis: Eighteen-year major leaguer who excelled as the Orioles' first DH under manager Earl Weaver.
Bill Giles: Phillies executive who voted on the DH rule and later became owner of the club. His autobiography, Pouring Six Beers at a Time and Other Stories from a Lifetime in Baseball, was published in 2007.
Whitey Herzog: Longtime manager who won 1,281 games, mostly at the helm of the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. He won division titles in both leagues and the 1982 World Series with the Cardinals.
Ralph Houk: Manager who won 1,619 games in 20 seasons. As skipper of the '73 Yankees, he was the first manager to ever send a designated hitter to the plate. He later managed the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.
George "Doc" Medich: A DH-era pitcher who was with the Yankees from 1972 to '75 and went on to pitch for six other teams in both leagues.
Bud Selig: Former Milwaukee Brewers owner (he purchased the team in 1970) and current commissioner of baseball.
Luis Tiant: The right-hander won 229 games in a 19-year career with six big-league teams. He was with the Boston Red Sox in '73 and spent all but one season in the American League.
Pitchers have always been a breed apart. Once baseball got organized at the professional level, it didn't take long before the necessities of their role began to take a toll on the quality of their hitting. By 1880, just the fifth year of the National League, the men for whom pitching was a primary responsibility posted a combined OPS of .516, while everyone else in the league was at .595. In the coming decades pitchers' hitting got worse and worse compared to the rest of the league, so much so that, soon after the turn of the next century, the concept of a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher was already in existence.
Some sources suggest that it was Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, who first proposed the DH idea around 1906. It didn't catch on then, but from that point on it became a concept that would be discussed at league meetings when it seemed like a radical change was in order. By some accounts both leagues came very close to implementing it 45 years before the American League ultimately did. Retired Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy told the Sporting News in 1970 that he distinctly remembered National League President John Heydler advocating the DH years before. Not one to shy away from change, the then-82-year-old McCarthy said, "I was intrigued with the idea then and I think it still has possibilities."
So did the American League. In spring training of 1969 the league experimented with the DH in selected games, and the International League adopted the rule for full-time use during the regular season. (DHs were still referred to as "designated pinch hitters" then.) Two things were happening that were driving the junior circuit in this direction: The first was the dominance of pitchers throughout the decade, culminating in the time-machine trip back to the Deadball Era that was the 1968 season. That year Carl Yastrzemski, the American League batting champ, hit only .301, and in the NL Bob Gibson had 13 shutouts and one of the lowest ERAs in history: 1.12. (The following year, under new commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 in order to decrease the pitchers' advantage.) The American League was also being outdrawn by the National by no small amount. From 1968 to '72 nearly 24 million more fans attended National League games than American. In the 1972 season overall attendance dropped by two million fans, owing in part to lost games from the players' strike as well as the subsequent ill will from that work stoppage. People were no longer talking about baseball as the national pastime. Football had usurped the grand old game's position of prominence, and baseball owners were casting their eyes about for solutions.