There are some who will say that the American League merely has a brand-new rope with which to hang itself, because the DPH will be allowed in neither the World Series nor the All-Star Game, prime events by which the public tends to evaluate the strengths of the two leagues. The American League has managed to win three of the last five World Series, but has lost nine of the past 10 All-Star Games. People have been saying nasty things about the American League. With reason. Since 1963 the National has outdrawn the American by more than 30 million paying customers and has been either fortunate or farsighted enough to build seven new stadiums with vast parking areas. In 1972 only three National League teams—Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco—failed to reach one million in attendance, but only three American League franchises—Detroit, Boston and Chicago—hit that total, and there have been reports of red ink here and there. The Oakland A's drew 921,323, becoming the first world champions to fall below a million in more than a quarter of a century. The New York Yankees (966,328) dropped below the million mark for the first time since 1945. The Texas Rangers played to only 662,974 in their first year in Arlington. The Minnesota Twins, one of the league's brighter franchises, drew a paltry 797,901, which compares very poorly with their 1,483,547 in 1967. In Baltimore, where Oriole management had felt a good divisional race would improve attendance, the good race came but the fans did not. Baltimore's attendance dropped to 899,950 after three consecutive million-plus years with runaway winners in the AL East.
Feeling the pinch, the American League has designated a pinch hitter as a gate attraction. Although the well-off National League declined to go along, it may elect to do so as early as 1974 if the DPH is a hit. There is no disputing the National's superiority at the plate—a league average of .248 to the American's .239 in 1972. It is in run scoring that the difference suddenly has widened to a shocking degree. The Nationals, who scored 129 more runs than the Americans in 1971, amassed 824 more last season.
The main trouble with the American League has not been in itself but in its stars. There were 17 players who drove in 80 or more runs in the NL in 1972 but only six in the AL, and of those Dick Allen of the White Sox and John Mayberry of Kansas City had just switched leagues.
Will the designated hitter increase scoring in the American League? Absolutely. How much? Maybe two runs a game, maybe more. And because the American League is utilizing the DPH while the National League is not, the rule will attract much more attention than if both leagues had adopted it simultaneously. Imagine that you are a devout Chicago Cub fan just returned from a year in Afghanistan, and you are wondering at the wisdom of the trade sending Starting Pitcher Bill Hands to Minnesota for Reliever Dave LaRoche. You have just come from Wrigley Field and seen LaRoche belted around in the late innings by the Pittsburgh Pirates. You turn on the television set to discover that the Twins and Angels are tied at 5-5. Bill Hands is still pitching for the Twins. Well, wonders never cease in baseball, but it crosses your mind that a starting pitcher is not usually around when the score is 5-5. Especially Bill Hands. "Who manages the Twins?" you ask the friend who went to the Cub game with you. " Frank Quilici," he answers. " Frank Quilici," you say, "is an idiot."
Hands gets the final out of the inning and walks from the mound. The ninth man in the batting order is due to lead off for Minnesota in the bottom of the eighth. In your dear little Cub heart you know that Bill Hands gets about one hit every season and that he ruins so many rallies the CIA is considering him for permanent employment. But of course you never see Bill Hands. It is Harmon Killebrew who steps up to the plate to start the bottom of the eighth, and Killebrew homers. You think now that Quilici is no dummy at all because he has kept Harmon for the right pinch-hitting spot in the game.
"That's the third homer of the day for Killebrew," says Announcer Curt Gowdy. Obviously he meant "year." It is only when you see Hands back on the mound in the ninth that your head starts to whirl. "How is he still in the game? I just saw them hit for him," you react in puzzlement. And then you remember something vaguely from an old letter about the American League having gone daffy.
In less than a month baseball teams will be going to spring training (barring a players' strike), and the new rule will be tested for the first time on March 3 at Tinker Field in Orlando. Minnesota will be playing the Detroit Tigers and that game, as well as one played the following day between the same clubs in Lakeland, is certain to draw a lot of both fans and reporters.
Since the new rule does not apply to inter-league exhibition games, managers are going to have to learn quickly what they want to do with their DPH and how they want to shape their clubs in relation to him. The Boston Red Sox have splendid options in Tommy Harper, a hitter with speed and power, and a superior defensive outfielder named Rick Miller whom they could play in center field when they want to use Harper as the DPH.
The rule gives Billy Martin much more maneuverability with his Detroit Tigers. For several seasons Detroit has had an oversupply of outfielders, some a little long in the tooth. But Martin now can field a team that will seem a lot younger than it is. He has Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Willie Horton, Paul Jata, Ike Brown, Gates Brown and Frank Howard—all of whom have played in the outfield. Some have fielded very well (e.g., Kaline and Stanley) and others not so well (Howard, Gates Brown). At first base Norm Cash, Howard, Kaline, Bill Freehan and Duke Sims all have had experience, but none is going to bring memories of Hal Chase rushing to mind. The Tigers have asked Rich Reese, a talented defensive first baseman released last year by the Twins, to come to spring training. Reese has hit three grand-slam homers as a pinch hitter; no American League player ever hit more. Think, oh think, of the possibilities. It will be amazing if Mickey Lolich or Joe Coleman, Detroit's top pitchers, ever come to bat. Last year the two of them had a total of 15 singles in 171 times up.
Earl Weaver, manager of the Orioles, doubts that many of his pitchers will get to the plate, either, even though he has a good hitter by pitchers' standards in Jim Palmer (.224). "The pitcher seldom hits more than .220," Weaver says, "and teams are going to go for more offense. The designated hitting rule is also going to cut down on bunting. You will tend to go more for the big inning rather than scratch around for a run. You won't eliminate the bunt in the late innings, of course. Teams will still be scuffling to get one run ahead from the seventh inning on."