Memories & Dreams: The Designated Hitter

By Marty Appel

On April 6, 1973, the Fenway Park public address announcer Sherm Feller cleared his throat and said, “….batting sixth, the designated hitter, number 12, Ron Blomberg, number 12.”

Baseball history was about to be made, after eight decades of debate.

Indeed, discussion of the merits of the designated hitter rule go back to the 1880s.

Even in the dead-ball era, no advanced analytics were required to know that pitchers were, almost without exception, terrible hitters. The evidence was there in their batting averages, which seldom topped .200.

There were articles published as early as 1887 advocating for what we now call the DH. Pittsburgh owner William Chase Temple, (who also donated the Temple Cup to the annual world championship team) strongly urged the idea in 1891. Connie Mack pushed for it as a young manager after the turn of the century.

Yet on into the 20th Century, there was no real movement toward sending up a pinch hitter for the pitcher – perhaps the same pinch-hitter – without removing the pitcher from the game.

But after 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher”, in which the major league batting average was only .237 (.230 in the American League), talk of a DH began to gain traction. In 1969, it was decided to try it in the International League. There, the league’s batting average proceeded to jump from .252 to .269, but it was dropped after just that one season. The game’s old guard, mainly the National League team owners, found it too radical a concept. Three (including Pittsburgh) had their top farm clubs in the International League, and they wanted their pitching prospects batting.

“We used an outfielder as a DH for most of the season,” recalled Hector Lopez, the former Yankee-Athletic outfielder/infielder, who managed Buffalo that season, a Washington farm club. “But he thought he was hurting his chances to move up by not playing in the field. And the pitchers missed hitting. But I liked it”

“I liked it a lot,” said Frank Tepedino who played for the Yankees farm club at Syracuse. “I wasn’t going to get to the big leagues with my glove; it was perfect for me.”

Given the National League opposition, it caught many by surprise when the American League green-lighted the “designated pinch-hitter” rule on January 11, 1973, just a month before spring training. It was to be a three-year experiment. The A.L. would go it alone, feeling that their product was in need of an offensive boost. The league batting average for 1972 was only .239.

The Yankees were on their winter press caravan in southern New Jersey when the news of the DH rule broke. One reporter asked manager Ralph Houk that day how often he planned to use this novelty. (Yankee pitchers would have two plate appearances in 1973.)

The impact was immediate; the two major leagues would be playing under different rules. It would remain controversial to the current day.

A.L. teams had to quickly adjust their rosters. Oakland had released Orlando Cepeda on December 18. He thought his career was over. But now he had a new life, and he was signed by Boston. Suddenly players like Frank Robinson, Tony Oliva, Frank Howard, and Tommy Davis, had career extensions.

The DH was used throughout spring training (except in National League parks), and the first game to employ it in the regular season would be New York at Boston on Friday, April 6, thanks to an early start in the Eastern Time Zone.

For the Yankees, it was Tepedino, of all people, who figured to get the assignment, even though the role seemed to be going to veteran players on most clubs.

But Ron Blomberg, 24, was hurt near the end of training and could not play the field on Opening Day. So Tepedino lost his roster slot to Blomberg, the nation’s number one draft pick in 1967. Right-hander Luis Tiant would pitch for Boston – if a lefty had started, a right-hand hitter, maybe Ron Swoboda or Felipe Alou, might have been the historic DH. (The Yankees obtained righty Jim Ray Hart from the San Francisco Giants several days later).

Blomberg (pronounced BLOOM-berg) was to bat sixth in the Yankees batting order. He had not served as DH even once in exhibition games. The Red Sox had Cepeda hitting fifth as their DH.

“I didn’t really know how to be a DH,” says Blomberg. “What was I supposed to do between at bats?” (He got an early start of the clubhouse post-game buffet).

In the top of the first, with two out, Matty Alou doubled, and that was followed by walks to Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles. Cue Sherm Feller and his PA announcement. (The term “designated pinch-hitter” was already shortened to designated hitter.) History was made.

Blomberg proceeded to walk, driving in a run. Ah! Already the DH was creating increased offense!

It was not a moment in which the sellout crowd stood and cheered. Nobody thought to toss the ball four baseball into the dugout for safe keeping. But it was indeed history – the first new position since the nine defensive positions (and pinch hitters and pinch runners), had been established more than a century before.

After the game, Blomberg’s bat was collected in the quiet clubhouse (the Yankees having lost 15-5), and sent off to Cooperstown. It is likely the only bat at the Hall of Fame commemorating a walk.

The A.L. average jumped 20 points in 1973. (Remarkably, the Angels’ Nolan Ryan set the single-season strikeout record that year with 383 – and didn’t strikeout a single pitcher.)

Blomberg’s career was brief and injury-riddled, but he became a regular at old timers days and card shows off the strength of his historic moment. He wrote a book called Designated Hebrew. In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the new rule, the Red Sox brought him and Cepeda back to Fenway commemorate the event.

In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the National League employed it for home games for the first time. And from his Atlanta home, the 72-year old Blomberg looked on approvingly.