The Birth of the Designated Hitter

The Designated Hitter is Born MLB History

Baseball—like any other living organism—evolves, adjusts, and adapts with beauty emerging from minutiae, memory, and, in some cases, masochism reinforced by decades of unrequited love. See Red Sox, Boston; 1919-2003. See Cubs, Chicago; 1909-2015. On January 11, 1973, baseball’s overseers added what New York Times scribe Joseph Durso called “a radical step… to put more punch into the game.” The Designated Hitter.

The American League embraced the idea. The National League, not so much. Quoted by Durso, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn extolled, “Pitchers bat around .120 collectively and pinch-hitters around .220. That’s automatically going to raise team batting averages. Besides, if you decide to rest a Willie McCovey or Harmon Killebrew and use him as the designated pinch-hitter one day, he’s going to be better than the average pinch-hitter. And he’ll go to bat four or five times, and that’ll improve his eye, too.”

While conventional wisdom highlighted the possibility of more runs with a slugger at the plate instead of a pitcher, White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner pointed out that a DH benefited a team’s defense. In the Chicago Tribune, Tanner said, “Part of the game is forcing the other club to put that relief pitcher in the game after a pinch hitter replaces a pretty good starter in a low-scoring game. But now the Angels, for instance, will be able to keep Nolan Ryan in there all the way. Or, we can let Wilbur Wood go the route without sending him to the plate. And this should keep the score down, too.”

Ron Blomberg earned the distinction of being the first Designated Hitter when he batted in a Yankees-Red Sox game in April. Of his 338 plate appearance in 1973, that first one in the DH slot secured his name in the annals of baseball trivia. Blomberg walked in his first time at the plate, went 1-for-3, and notched one RBI. Red Sox hurler Luis Tiant pitched a complete game, leading his fellow Bostonians to a 15-5 victory.

New York Times sportswriter Murray Chass showed the irony of Blomberg’s output: “He broke his bat on the single, which means the first two bats he used today wound up in contrasting places—the first in the Hall of Fame, the second in the trash can.”

Purists argued against the DH, as they had argued against a 162-game schedule, Astroturf, and domed stadia. It was an argument against quantifiable evidence showing the cause and effect of the new position. In the May 7, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated, William Leggett wrote, “In three short weeks the DH has put more punch and excitement and scoring into the game—a hallowed game, agreed, but one that was being smothered by the excellence of the pitching. Heavily criticized by some before it was given a chance to see the sunlight—a phony rule it was called, desperate, Mickey Mouse, a rewriting of Beethoven—the designated hitter is doing only what it was intended to do.”

[FBW]
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