In the first inning of Game 3 of the recent World Series, the Dodgers' Bill Russell executed one of baseball's most difficult maneuvers—a righthanded push bunt between the pitcher and the first baseman. The hit contributed to a three-run inning, and the Dodgers scored a 5-4 victory that turned the Series around.
In the fourth inning of Game 6, New York's Tommy John was guarding a 1-0 lead, with Dodgers on first and second, two outs and Steve Yeager at the plate. The obvious move was to walk Yeager and face Pitcher Burt Hooton. Unfortunately, Yankee Manager Bob Lemon, not often confronted with that kind of a decision, then came unglued. Lemon had John pitch to Yeager, who hit a run-scoring single. Questionably, again, Lemon pinch-hit for John in the bottom of that inning, and the Dodgers ended the Series in the fifth by teeing off on John's successor, George Frazier.
Because they were superior players and thinkers, the third-or fourth-best team in the National League took the Series from the best of the American League four games to two. The NL has won five of the last seven Series and 18 of the last 19 All-Star Games. Last season the NL had a 3.49-3.66 earned run average advantage and was outhit just .256-.255 despite using pitchers at the plate instead of designated hitters.
In explaining the marked imbalance between the two leagues, baseball observers usually cite three factors: The NL recruited blacks first and has been more aggressive in signing Hispanics; expansion to 14 teams has diluted talent in the AL more than in the 12-team NL, and the National has superior farm teams. These reasons are valid, but a more important one may be the style of play we saw in the critical moments of the '81 Series. National League teams play smart, fundamental baseball; by comparison, most American League teams are deficient. (Yankee owner George Steinbrenner admitted as much after the Series when he decreed that his players would go back to basics next spring.)
Playing for the one-run inning, NL teams bunt, sacrifice, pinch-hit, hit-and-run and steal (they stole 1.7 bases a game to the AL's 1.2 last season, a statistic not entirely attributable to the predominence of artificial turf in NL parks). American League teams wait for the big inning. That's not only bad baseball, but boring, too. All three NL playoffs were five-game thrillers; in the AL, only the Yankee-Brewer series lasted more than the required three games.
The National League has a history of playing more aggressively, and the American League's adoption of the designated hitter in 1973 appears to have made AL teams less assertive than ever. With a ninth hitter in the lineup, it's easy to await a big inning—and hard to change gears, both in the field and on the bench. In one Series game Lemon allowed his shell-shocked relievers to bat for themselves possibly on the theory that if they didn't, he'd run out of pitchers.
Granted, the Yankees were at a big disadvantage in a DH-less Series. Their DH-oriented bench was limited to pinch-hitting. Forget all suggestions that AL teams be allowed to use the DH in Series games played in their parks. Forget that next year, in line with Bowie Kuhn's rotating schedule, the DH will be used by both leagues in every game. The DH cost the American League. The first step toward parity should be junking the concept once and for all.