Many fans hate the concept of the designated hitter, saying that it ruins tradition and makes players one-dimensional. A few fans like the DH, because of the potential for added offense. Loved or not, the DH has been a permanent part of the game for two generations. If you’re under the age of 45, you probably don’t remember the game without the designated hitter.
According to the post-Mayan calendar, it has been 40 years since the designated hitter rule first came into play in the major leagues. The rule was officially passed in January of 1973. Yet, the idea for a DH has origins that date back to the 1890s, when some believed that a pitcher batting late in a game might be exhausted by fatigue. In the early 1900s, Connie Mack suggested that the game might be improved if a better hitter replaced the pitcher at bat. And in 1929, National League president John Heydler made a formal proposal that pitchers, who had long carried reputations as weaker hitters, should not be allowed to bat. Although he actually never used the term “designated hitter,” Heydler suggested that a so-called “10th man” be allowed to hit in place of the pitcher‘s spot.
When Heydler’s suggestion failed to gain acceptance during his lifetime, the issue of the DH fell into the background. In the 1960s, at a time when pitchers were beginning to dominate the game, Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley pushed hard for the adoption of a designated hitter, a rule that he felt would increase the amount of action in the game by aiding each team’s offensive production. The other major league owners resisted Finley, but did allow the American League to use the DH in a few exhibition games during the spring of 1969.
Late in 1972, National League owners rejected the latest proposal to institute the DH, but in an important concession, they granted the American League the right to use the DH on an experimental basis if approval could be gained from the Playing Rules Committee.
By January of 1973, a sufficient number of owners had come to see the potential benefits of the DH. The American League, which had seen its attendance decline in recent years, saw a particular need for the extra fan interest, and the increased level of offense, that the DH might spur.
AL owners began the process of writing a designated hitter rule. “A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of pitchers in the game,” stated the first part of the rule. The rule went on to say that a DH was not mandatory, but a failure to designate a hitter for the pitcher prior to the game would preclude the use of the DH that day. Furthermore, the DH could be moved to a defensive position after the start of the game, but the pitcher would then have to bat in the place of the substituted defensive player.
On Jan. 11, American League owners officially voted, by a count of 8-4, to allow use of the DH on an experimental three-year basis. The Playing Rules Committee then delivered its formal approval. The designated hitter was born.
At first, some media outlets referred to the new rule as a “designated pinch-hitter” or “DPH.” Within a few days, writers dropped the “P,” shortening the acronym to “DH.” The DH abbreviation became the accepted term in baseball’s changing lexicon.
Although American League owners voted for the DH, many of the league’s managers expressed opposition to it. The naysayers included Baltimore’s Earl Weaver, who loved his three-run home runs but preferred nine-man baseball. “I might be from the old school, but I don’t think baseball needs saving,” Weaver told The Sporting News. “I’d like to keep the game just as it is.”
A fewer number of AL managers expressed their approval of the DH. One of them was Rangers skipper Whitey Herzog, whose team had just acquired a hard-hitting outfielder during a wintertime trade. “We’ve got the perfect DH in Rico Carty,” Herzog told The Sporting News. To the surprise of some, Carty expressed an opposing view. “I’m no invalid,” said Carty, who had missed two full seasons because of injury and illness while with the Braves. “I want to play both ways.” That may have been Carty’s sentiment, but his frequent injuries and his reputation as a brutal defensive left fielder dictated that he be a DH first and foremost.
Three months after the American League passed the rule, the DH moved from legislation to reality. On Opening Day, April 6, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became the first designated hitter to appear in a major league game. Playing in 30-degree weather at venerable Fenway Park, Blomberg made his first plate appearance in the top of the first inning. With the bases loaded, he faced Red Sox right-hander Luis Tiant. The setting had all the makings of grand drama, but the result lacked theatrics: Blomberg drew an anticlimactic walk.
Blomberg made three more plate appearances in the game, picking up a hit in a 15-5 drubbing at the hands of the Red Sox. After the game, Yankees public relations director Marty Appel arranged for Blomberg’s bat and jersey to be sent to the Hall of Fame, where it was featured in a prominent exhibit for several years.
In many ways, the DH rule was made to order for a player like Blomberg, a poor defensive first baseman who was prone to injury. Blomberg was fragile to begin with, and the more often that he had to play the field, the more he found himself susceptible to injuries.
Blomberg is well remembered for being the first DH, but he did not lead the Yankees in DH appearances in 1973. That honor went to former Giants standout Jim Ray Hart, who did not even start the season in the Bronx. After coming over in a midseason deal with San Francisco, the hard-drinking Hart put up so-so numbers (13 home runs and a .742 OPS) in 106 games, before being released early in 1974.
Blomberg and Hart’s counterpart with the Red Sox was Orlando Cepeda, the first player signed specifically to fill the role of a DH. Playing in that historic opener against the Yankees, Cepeda did not fare as well as Blomberg did in his debut. Cepeda went 0-for-6. In spite of his lackluster debut, Cepeda would go on to enjoy a productive season, finishing second in home runs and RBIs among all designated hitters. In the highlight of his season, Cepeda rapped out four doubles in one game, a particularly significant accomplishment considering the state of his pain-wracked knees.
For the season, Cepeda hit 20 home runs and reached base 35 per cent of the time, making him one of the best of the early DHs. As a footnote, Cepeda is the only one of the debut designated hitters to make the Hall of Fame. (Frank Robinson, who hit extremely well in 127 games as a DH for the Angels, actually started the season in California’s outfield before making the in-season switch.)
In terms of appearing first at the new position, Blomberg and Cepeda would lead the charge of new DHs. Still, 10 other players would become the first official designated hitters in their teams’ histories. Many of these players are better known for something other than being a DH. Along those lines, some of the names may surprise you.
Baltimore: Terry Crowley. Mostly a pinch-hitter throughout his journeyman career, Crowley lacked the power that most teams seek in a DH. Not surprisingly, he eventually lost the job to veteran Tommy Davis, who put in one of his typical seasons: little power, few walks, a high average (.306), and plenty of RBIs. In fact, Davis’ 89 RBIs made him the leader among first year designated hitters. Davis also managed to steal 11 bases, a remarkable occurrence given the state of his knees in 1973.
Known as the “King of Swing,” Crowley remained a part-time player for the next 10 seasons, which included brief stints in Cincinnati and Atlanta before he returned to the Orioles. After his playing days, Crowley enjoyed a long career as a batting coach, with lengthy tenures in both Minnesota and Baltimore.
California: Tommy McCraw. Like Crowley, McCraw lacked power and was better suited to a role as a backup player. So he quickly gave way to Frank Robinson, who hit 26 home runs as a DH and put up an OPS of .857 in that slot.
McCraw was mostly a journeyman who split his time between first base and the outfield, but he made interesting news in 1971 when he hit a 200-foot pop fly that resulted in an inside-the-park home run. He would make a much larger mark as a highly respected batting instructor during a 21-year coaching career. In particular, he became a confidante of Frank Robinson (his Angels teammate) working under him on four different teams.
Chicago: Mike Andrews. He was perhaps the most unlikely of the debut designated hitters. Best known as a solid defensive second baseman and a far better fielder than Jorge Orta, the Sox’ Opening Day starter, Andrews was serving as a DH largely because of a sore shoulder. Later in the season, the White Sox turned to Carlos May, who gave them a more powerful DH presence.
The Sox eventually released Andrews, who ended up signing a midseason deal with the world champion A’s. It was during the 1973 World Series that Andrews made headlines when Charlie Finley tried to “fire” him as punishment for making two critical errors in Game Two against the Mets. Though Andrews was reinstated to the postseason roster by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, he would appear only once as a pinch-hitter before being forced into retirement that winter.
Cleveland: John Ellis. Having just joined the Indians in the ill-fated Graig Nettles deal, Ellis served as Cleveland’s first DH, but would put in most of his time as a catcher in 1973. (The inimitable Oscar Gamble would handle much of the DH duty against right-handed pitching.)
While with the Indians, Ellis earned the nickname of “Moose,” a tribute to his rugged strength and his rock-solid toughness. He played three fairly productive seasons with the Tribe before being traded to the Rangers, where he spent the final six seasons of a journeyman career as a part-time catcher, first baseman, pinch-hitter and, of course, DH.
Detroit: Gates Brown. If only the DH rule had come earlier, Brown could have spent some of his prime seasons in the 1960s as an everyday player. For much of his career, Brown was a terrific pinch-hitter and an effective left-handed batter against right-handed pitching. Brown platooned most of the ‘73 season with another veteran, the mammoth Frank Howard, before settling into a backup role in his two final seasons.
Perhaps the most colorful of the debut designated hitters, Brown liked to snack during the early portions of the game and was once called upon to pinch-hit while buying a hot dog from a vendor. Brown proceeded to tuck the hot dog into his pants, grab a bat, and pound out a double, sliding into second base and smearing the front of his uniform with mustard and frankfurter.
Kansas City: Ed Kirkpatrick. Nicknamed “Spanky” for his resemblance to the Our Gang character of the same name, Kirkpatrick was a valuable and versatile player throughout his career. He could catch, play first base, and man the outfield corners, all while supplying above-average pop from the left side of the plate. Curiously, he appeared in only eight games as a DH for the ’73 Royals, spending most of his time in right field while the Royals rotated the DH role among journeymen Gail Hopkins, Rick Reichardt and Jim Wohlford.
Three years after his playing days, Kirkpatrick was badly injured in a car accident, which left him with a blood clot on his brain and put him in a coma for nearly six months. Ever tough, Spanky recovered to live nearly 30 additional years before he finally succumbed to throat cancer in 2010. He was 66.
Milwaukee: Ollie Brown. Downtown Ollie was far better known for his throwing arm in right field, an attribute that went to waste as a DH. Like many of the debut designated hitters, Brown shared the job with several teammates. The Brewers used 10 DHs in 1973, including journeymen Johnny Briggs, Joe Lahoud and Bobby Mitchell.
Unlike many of his managerial counterparts, Milwaukee’s Del Crandall used the DH role to rest many of his regulars, including first baseman George Scott, center fielder Dave May and catcher Darrell Porter.
Brown’s 1973 season would represent his last as a semi-regular player. In fact, he would never again appear as a DH because he returned to the National League in 1974. After a brief stint with the Astros that year, Brown became a valuable bench player and pinch-hitter for the Phillies during the middle years of the decade.
Minnesota: Tony Oliva. Like Cepeda and Davis, the DH was made for a player like Oliva, who could no longer play the field because of injury and age. Oliva was a onetime star whose ailing knees prevented him from appearing in the outfield beyond the 1972 season. At his 1960s peak, Oliva was an underrated all-around star, a three-time batting champion who had power, speed, and a rifle arm from right field.
Like Cepeda, Oliva served exclusively as a DH in 1973. He put up solid numbers including 16 home runs and a .291 batting average, though his .754 OPS looks mediocre by today’s standards. He spent two more mildly productive seasons as Minnesota’s DH before his play fell off badly in 1976, forcing his retirement.
Oakland: Billy North. Charlie Finley spent much of the winter trying to find a DH, at one time trying to convince Don Mincher, who had just retired, to reverse his decision. Mincher turned down the offer, forcing the A’s to continue their search. They settled on North, an unlikely choice given his youth (25 years old) and his reliance on base stealing.
Though North began the season as DH, he spent only six games there before A’s manager Dick Williams realized that his speed and strong throwing arm would play much better in center field. The A’s would struggle to find another DH before eventually making an early season trade for Philadelphia’s Deron Johnson, who would hit 19 home runs and become an important contributor to Oakland’s repeat world championship.
Meanwhile, North became a mainstay in center field for two world champions and remained a fine player and top-notch base stealer through 1976. The switch-hitting speedster put in later stints with the Dodgers and Giants before retiring in 1981.
Texas: Rico Carty. On paper, Herzog loved the idea of Carty, a onetime batting champion, serving as his DH, but the situation did not play as well in reality as it did in theory. Accustomed to playing the outfield, the free-swinging Carty found it difficult to be comfortable as a DH and fell into a season-long slump. The Rangers eventually dumped him on the Cubs, where he clashed with Ron Santo and soon drew his release. Carty then signed with the A’s as a late-season DH and pinch-hitter but was ineligible for postseason play.
Released after the season, Carty spent the 1974 season in the Mexican League before eventually working his way back into the major leagues with the Indians. After having struggled so badly in his first go-round with the DH, Carty became a master of the position, putting up strong seasons with the Indians, Blue Jays and A’s before retiring in 1980. In terms of long-term success, Carty emerged as the first great designated hitter.
If nothing else, the DH allowed players like Carty, Oliva, Robinson, Davis and Cepeda to continue their careers as hitters; without the DH, they might have been relegated to pinch-hitting duty or forced into complete retirement. Fans of those five players will be forever grateful for the opportunity to see them play well beyond their normal expiration dates as players.
When the American League saw its attendance jump from 11.4 million in 1972 to 13.4 million in ’73, the “experimental” tag was dropped from the DH legislation. It also didn’t hurt that offensive production increased in 1973, as AL teams combined to score 8,314 runs (4.28 runs per team per game), compared to only 6,441 in 1972 (or 3.47 runs per team per game). After becoming a permanent part of the rules in 1974, the DH has been in place ever since.
So what has changed since then? The DH still helps offense; American League teams perennially outscore their National League counterparts. On the other hand, the DH is no longer a novelty and likely has no impact on attendance in the current day. Other than possibly David Ortiz, I cannot think of a single fulltime DH who would bring fans to the park in today’s game. Perhaps that is one reason why the National League continues to oppose the DH—and probably will for the foreseeable future.
That matters little to the Players’ Association, which continues to love the DH for two reasons: Designated hitters tend to make good salaries, while aging players can extend their careers for several seasons. For those reasons alone, and I tend to like the latter one, the DH is not likely to become part of baseball oblivion anytime soon.