By Marty Appel, September 23, 2016
On January 11, 1973, about a month before spring training, the American League announced that it would begin using a controversial new rule for the ’73 season—“the designated pinch-hitter rule.”
It was implemented when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn broke a tie between the AL (which had voted approval) and the National League (disapproval), granting it to just the one league.
That decision, more than 40 years later, remains controversial. It was intended to be an experiment, designed to help the weaker-hitting AL put some more offense into games and thus draw greater crowds.
Years later, former AL President Lee MacPhail reflected that “it served its purpose; neither league is struggling offensively, and we probably could abandon it.”
But it wasn’t abandoned, and there it still rests today. Despite some recent talk that the NL might consider implementing it, that remains a long shot. As for being eliminated, that would require approval of the Players Association, since it is part of the Rule Book, and such a move would be unlikely in that it would make many high-salaried players jobless. Unions don’t approve things like that.
I was part of the New York Yankees public relations operation on that cold January day 43 years ago, and we were in the midst of our annual “winter caravan,” taking a bus each morning to travel a good distance to preview our season for writers and broadcasters in Connecticut, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey. These were always fun trips with plenty of beer on the bus, card games going in the back, and a chance to get to know our newest “star,” who was along to aid the publicity effort. In 1973, that was Graig Nettles.
We stopped at our destination in south Jersey, and got word of the news (it was called “designated pinch-hitter”) from the newspapermen themselves, who had received wire service reports before driving to the restaurant. I remember that it was a bit of a shock to get news that way, but the concept wasn’t alien. It had been debated and voted down at the 1972 Winter Meetings in Honolulu. Lee MacPhail was our general manager, and he might have been notified by “teletype” from the league office in Boston, but he was on the bus with us.
My best memory of the day was when one of the newspapermen, in all seriousness, asked Manager Ralph Houk, “Do you expect to use this rule often?”
Houk knew immediately that he would in fact be using it every day until the end of time. So too did all the other AL managers. Instantly, the game had changed.
You could play with the rules in other sports—moving goal posts, adding three- point shots, curving hockey sticks—but to tamper with baseball rules was huge. Still is.
That was why, in part, the National League would be so opposed. The NL was the league of the solid citizens—O’Malley, Stoneham, Carpenter, Galbreath, Busch—the wise old guard. They were the barons of baseball, the ones who were ideologically tied to tradition. The American League had the Finleys, the Veecks, the new guy waiting for league approval—George Steinbrenner, and others who did not see things as much etched in stone as others did (John Fetzer and Tom Yawkey being exceptions).
The “DH rule” had been suggested, from time to time, all the way back to a young Connie Mack. Letting pitchers hit, usually without success, was often discussed. But now the American League, which had fallen deeply behind in signing black and Latin stars, was really struggling. It really did need a boost. Only one of its teams—the Kansas City Royals—had hit better than .250 in 1972. The Texas Rangers hit .217.
The rule had actually been tried in 1969 in the International League, where the league batting average went from .252 in 1968 to .269. No one proclaimed it a success or a failure, and it was quietly dropped after one season.
“I liked it,” says Hector Lopez, the former Yankees and Athletics infielder-outfielder who was managing the Buffalo Bisons. (Lopez, a Panamanian, was the fourth black manager in organized baseball. Gene Baker managed Batavia of the New York-Penn League in 1961 and 1964; Nate Moreland managed in the Arizona-Mexico League in 1959, and Sam Bankhead was player/manager for Farnham in the Provincial League in 1951). “We used an outfielder as a DH for most of the season, but of course, he thought he was hurting his career by not playing the field for scouts to see. And the pitchers missed hitting.”
Some of the hitters in the league that year were Darrell Evans, Ralph Garr, Amos Otis, Tom Grieve, Dave Cash, Tony Muser, Frank Tepedino, and Mike Jorgensen.
“I liked it a lot,” says Tepedino, who played for Syracuse. “If I was going to get to the majors it was going to be with my bat, not my glove. I was happy not to have to think about fielding. It was perfect for me.”
Ron “Boomer” Blomberg —the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history.
Credit: Dennis Amith on Flickr (image cropped)
For 1973, American League teams had to act quickly. Oakland had released Orlando Cepeda, who had bad knees, on December 18, and he thought his career was over. Suddenly, a race was on to sign him. Boston signed him on January 18. The intent of the rule was exactly this—to keep star players in the game longer. At once, names like Harmon Killebrew, Boog Powell, and Al Kaline saw their careers extended. Other teams hustled to find sluggers. The Yankees signed Jim Ray Hart from the Giants. Oakland replaced Cepeda with Deron Johnson. Others included Frank Robinson (California), Alex Johnson (Texas), Tommy Davis (Baltimore), and Carlos May (Chicago).
Over the years, the idea of the DH slugger in the middle of the lineup evolved into any sort of hitter, batting anywhere in the lineup, without regard to star quality.
People used to ask Mickey Mantle if the DH would have extended his career past 1968. “Oh no,” he would respond. “I couldn’t hit anymore. That was why my career ended.”
Adjustments were necessary. Most old scoreboards couldn’t post “DH” as a position, and had to make due with “B” for batter (the second half of 1B, 2B, 3B), or just a blank.
A statistical oddity in that first season of the DH was Nolan Ryan of the Angels breaking the all-time, single-season strikeout record with 383—without ever facing a pitcher.
The DH was used throughout spring training of 1973, so it wasn’t a novelty by Opening Day. But the story of the very first regular season DH was an oddity in itself. Opening Day in the AL was Friday, April 6, and the Yankees were at Fenway Park to face the Red Sox. By playing in the Eastern time zone, this was the first game with a DH. Cepeda was slated to hit fifth.
The Yankees DH was 24-year-old Ron Blomberg, a former number one overall draft pick. Blomberg had been injured in spring training and was unable to play the field—but Houk asked him if he could hit, and Blomberg said yes. He was to bat sixth.
The injury prevented Tepedino from serving in that role on Opening Day. Houk had told him it would be him, until the Blomberg injury.
In the top of the first, with Luis Tiant on the mound, Matty Alou doubled with two out, and that was followed by walks to Bobby Murcer and Nettles. That sent Blomberg up, as PA announcer Sherm Feller mumbled “designated hitter, number 12, Ron Blomberg.” (He may have said “BLOOM-berg,” which would have been the correct pronunciation; but that was unlikely).
So history was about to be made. And rising to the moment, Blomberg walked, scoring Alou with the game’s first run. The DH was going to be a hit—already, it was resulting in added offense!
After the game, I got the bat from Blomberg, and sent it to Cooperstown. “The first pitcher, catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, left fielder, center fielder and right fielder are all long dead,” I told him, “but you’re here; the first DH in history.”
It is the only bat at the Hall of Fame commemorating a walk.
Despite the historic moment, no video or still photos have been found of the time at bat. Cepeda, as it turned out, didn’t bat until the bottom of the second, and he struck out. (The Red Sox won the game 15–5, despite an 0 for 6 from Cepeda.)
Both Blomberg and Cepeda were honored in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park in 2013, and Blomberg even wrote a book called Designated Hebrew.
Want to get a quick debate going among opinionated baseball fans? Try Pete Rose or the DH rule. Forty-three years later, the DH is still a hot topic.
“The D.H. got me to the Hall of Fame. Amazing . . . when you think everything’s finished, it’s only the beginning.” ~Orlando Cepeda on the 40th anniversary of the DH Rule (2013)
Credit: memoroboblia on eBay