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Distinguished History
Steve Wulf
April 05, 1993
WHO WAS THE FIRST DESIGNATED HITTER? RON BLOMBERG'S NAME MAY BE A BIT OF TRIVIA, BUT THE IMPACT OF THE DH SINCE '73 HAS NOT BEEN TRIVIAL
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April 05, 1993

Distinguished History

WHO WAS THE FIRST DESIGNATED HITTER? RON BLOMBERG'S NAME MAY BE A BIT OF TRIVIA, BUT THE IMPACT OF THE DH SINCE '73 HAS NOT BEEN TRIVIAL

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Against the change there are many strong points to be made.... It is a cardinal principle of baseball that every member of the team should both field and bat.... The better remedy would be to teach [the pitcher] how to hit the ball.

So, baseball people have been having the same argument about hitting for the pitcher since Connie Mack was in knee pants or at least since he was the 43-year-old owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.

The next honcho to go to bat for an extra hitter was Heydler, the president of the National League from 1918 until '34. Heydler, a former umpire and sports-writer, helped bring Kenesaw Mountain Landis to baseball and baseball to Cooperstown, and he wanted to bring a little more offense to the game. In the late '20s he made repeated efforts to introduce a 10th-man experiment, and he came very close to getting National League clubs to agree to try it during spring training in 1929.

Finally, in 1940, a California amateur league called the Bushrod Winter League used a designated-hitter rule, and the idea soon caught on in other amateur circuits. But it wasn't until the hitting drought of the late '60s that the DH idea was revived in the pros. By 1968 the pitcher had become so dominant that Carl Yastrzemski led all American League hitters with a .301 average, while Denny McLain won 31 games and Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA. After that season the major leagues agreed to 1) lower the mound from 15 to 10 inches and 2) change the upper limit of the strike zone from the top of a batter's shoulders to his armpits. In 1969 baseball also started to experiment with a designated hitter. It was used in some American League exhibition games—National League teams refused to be guinea pigs—but more important, the Triple A International League agreed to institute it for the '69 season.

Which brings us to Tepedino. The Brooklyn-raised Yankee farmhand had a sweet lefthanded stroke and a questionable glove at first base and in the outfield, so he did much of the designated hitting for Syracuse. When the figures were tabulated at the end of the season, the International League batting average was up 17 points from the year before, from .251 to .268, and total runs for the eight clubs had risen from 4,662 to 5,000. Other International League DHs that year included Choo Choo Coleman, Thurman Munson, Wilbur Huckle, Terry Crowley and Arlo Brunsberg, but Tepedino, who batted .300 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 357 at bats, was the king.

The experiment was an obvious success. However, bowing to pressure from baseball purists, the International League discontinued the DH after '69. And Tepedino soon found himself stuck in the organization behind another lefthanded hitter with a sweet stroke and a questionable glove: Ron Blomberg.

Though the DH trial was over by 1970, the idea stayed alive in the American League, which found itself lagging behind the National League at both the plate and the gate. The NL, riding the wave of its new artificial-turf stadiums, had only three teams with less than one million in attendance, while the AL had only three teams with more than one million. Moreover, in 1972 the 12 National League teams scored 824 more runs than the 12 American League clubs. Says Lee MacPhail, who was the Yankee general manager at the time, "Clearly, something had to be done. And personally, I never got a thrill out of watching a pitcher hit."

The most vociferous proponent of the DH was Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, he of the orange baseballs and color-coded bases. "I pushed the DH for three years," he says. "They thought I was nuts, but after continuously harping, I finally woke them up." Finley was so enamored of the DH, in fact, that he acquired one even before the rule was passed, trading McLain to the Atlanta Braves in June 1972 for the hobbling Cepeda. But Cepeda played only three games for the A's that year, and Finley, anticipating a no vote on the DH, released him.

But two weeks later, on Jan. 11, 1973, Finley and the rest of the baseball world were surprised when American League owners voted 8-4 to institute a three-year experiment with the designated pinch hitter—or DPH, as it was originally called. National League president Chub Feeney wished the AL luck, saying, "We like the rules the way they are," but in truth, the NL owners were almost evenly divided on the proposal.

Two months later Larry Hisle of the Minnesota Twins inaugurated the role of designated hitter by swatting two homers and driving in seven runs in a 12-4 exhibition-game victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Another month would pass before the real first DH made his debut.

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