Happy birthday, DH!

The designated hitter rule has been a career saver for players, a bone of contention for purists; and after 40 years, it remains controversial

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJuly 7, 2013 

Conceived as an experiment to revive baseball from its pitcher-dominated doldrums during the late 1960s, the designated hitter turned 40 years old this season.

A birthday party would seem to be in order, no?

Although the DH was approved by the American League on Jan. 11, 1973, and made its debut 85 days later, on April 6, today is as appropriate a time as any to put some candles on a cake and hope the festivities don’t devolve into a free-for-all.

Why today? Well, we’re just past the midway point of the major league schedule, and the Seattle Mariners are playing an interleague game at Cincinnati. Which means: Because National League rules are in effect, the team whose most beloved alum bears the name on the annual trophy given to the AL’s outstanding designated hitter – the Edgar Martinez Award – will be prohibited from using a designated hitter.

It’s a kind of Band-Aid compromise bound to evoke strong opinions. Most of those with NL roots agree with lifelong farmhand Crash Davis, whose “Bull Durham” rant called for a constitutional amendment banning the DH. Proponents from the AL counter that virtually every baseball organization on the planet allows a hitter to take a pitcher’s spot in the batting order.

And then there is baseball commissioner Bud Selig. He sees no trouble with an arrangement that finds 15 teams playing by one rule, and 15 others playing by another.

“I don’t think anyone expected the experiment to last this long,” Selig said a few years ago. “But as much of a purist and traditionalist that I am, I think it’s a way of life and has worked out well.”

Subscribers of the status quo, this Bud’s for you.

Now let’s get to the party. A number of baseball dignitaries have shown up posthumously, beginning with Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. It was Mack, in 1906, who first proposed the idea of a “full-time pinch hitter” substituting for the pitcher.

Mack is wearing a business suit and a fedora today, looking much like he did when he managed in the A’s dugout. He’s chatting with former NL president John Heydler, who made a push for his league to adopt the DH in 1928. Heydler’s reasoning? He thought baseball games were too slow – this was 1928, mind you – and that sparing pitchers from swinging a bat would pick up the pace.

The NL owners were on board with Heydler, but those AL owners not named Connie Mack opposed the DH. Uniformity prevailed. The concept was scrapped.

Between the late 1920s and the late 1960s, baseball lost its undisputed grip on the American sports fan’s psyche. The typical pitchers’ duel bored spectators. They wanted action, it was presumed, and they wanted it now.

“The game has got to be more offensive,” insisted Indians general manager Gabe Paul, arguing the case for a DH. “The stadiums and the pitchers are getting bigger. You can coach a pitcher a lot easier than you can coach a batter. Maybe we even ought to juice up the ball.”

Paul had a voice, but nobody’s voice was louder than Kansas City/Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley, here today holding court with guests around the main table. Charlie O. showed up a few minutes ago with a bag of orange baseballs.

(Colors were always a fascination for him. Orange balls, why not? He demanded his A’s wear white shoes, which was not as strange as his demand that his players on the Golden Seals, the Bay Area NHL franchise he briefly owned, wear white skates.)

Finley led the charge for the designated hitter, a novelty that gained more traction than his bizarre proposal for a designated runner. (Imagine a sprinter standing adjacent to Kendrys Morales in the batter’s box. Once Morales makes contact, he stays put, and the sprinter races to first.)

The DH evolved as players do, from the minors. In 1969, the Triple-A International League implemented it on an optional basis: if both managers agreed to use a DH, there was a DH. It was used daily.

Bowie Kuhn, who began his tenure as baseball’s commissioner in 1969, took note of the International League’s acceptance of the DH.

Kuhn frequently jousted with Finley. (“I saw an empty cab pull up to the curb,” Charlie O. used to joke, “and Bowie Kuhn walked out.”) But when it came to the DH, the stolid commissioner and maverick owner saw things eye-to-eye.

“The designated hitter,” former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee once theorized, in his usual tone of irreverence, “is the bastard son of Bowie Kuhn and Charlie Finley.”

Kuhn is an early arrival at the birthday party, eager to point out how he not only pushed for the DH but a modest version of interleague play, with games limited to teams representing such authentic geographic rivals as the Dodgers and Angels of Los Angeles.

Among the party guests still living, we’ve got Ron Blomberg, the DH slotted to bat sixth in the Yankees’ lineup for the first AL game of 1973, at Boston. The Red Sox No. 3 batter, Orlando Cepeda, figured to be the inaugural DH that afternoon, but starter Luis Tiant had control problems in the top of the first. With the bases loaded, Blomberg drew a walk, forcing Matty Alou across the plate.

“This new DH,” a wag in the Fenway Park press box noted, “has added offense to the game already.”

Blomberg knew what he was doing at the plate – he retired from an injury-shortened career with a .293 batting average – but the DH challenge baffled him. Upon returning to the dugout after the first inning, he asked Yankees coach Elston Howard: “What do I do now?”

Howard and Blomberg could only speculate. No big league precedent had been set.

“It’s 45 minutes between at-bats,” Blomberg would recall. “It’s very, very hard to sit there. You have to discipline yourself to be a DH. It took me a while to develop a routine.”

Blomberg is sharing memories today with Tony Oliva, the Twins’ star who became the first DH to hit a home run. Oliva exemplified the role of an offensive specialist: A once-terrific outfielder whose everyday status was compromised by recurring knee injuries, Oliva still was able to contribute with his bat.

The beauty of the DH, proponents maintain, is that it has afforded such gifted hitters as Oliva to stay active. Edgar Martinez provides a textbook case. When he put on a glove and took the field, Edgar was a car wreck waiting to happen. But when he held a bat, he was graceful as a maestro directing a symphony orchestra. His swing made music.

The trouble with the DH, opponents maintain, is that there’s a word for position players ill-equipped to occupy a position. The word is retirement.

Edgar is here for the 40th-birthday bash of the DH, along with Eddie Murray, Hal McRae, Harold Baines and somebody else at a corner table signing autographs. Ah, yes, Henry Aaron.

When occupying left field for the Braves became a chore for him, Aaron concluded his career where it began, in Milwaukee. The Hammer was a DH for the Brewers in 1975 and 1976, two seasons that allowed the career home-run king (when the term “career home-run king” meant something) to take a version of a victory lap.

Boston’s David Ortiz – he couldn’t attend the party, because he’s committed to play for the Red Sox today in Anaheim, Calif. – is a traditional DH, a 37-year-old still raking. Ortiz, a six-time winner of the Edgar Martinez Award, defies a trend. Most AL teams now regard the DH less as a permanent assignment than a chance to give everyday players a breather. Take four or five at-bats, and the rest of the night is yours.

The DH-by-committee plan has a fiscal appeal, sparing teams from spending a fortune on a one-dimensional player. (Ortiz is due to make $14 million this season.) But it contradicts a compelling case for the rule, which is to allow aging but still productive hitters – usually fan favorites, such as Martinez – to remain fixtures in a lineup.

Larry Dierker just arrived, his Hawaiian shirt hanging over khakis. The All-Star pitcher for the Houston Astros worked as their broadcast analyst for several years before accepting a job as their manager. He’s got a new job in the club’s community relations department. The author of two books, Dierker is regarded as one of baseball’s most advanced thinkers.

Dierker has a proposal for the designated hitter that could put both leagues on the same page: A DH bats for the pitcher and stays in the game (a nod to AL rules), but once the substitution is made, the pitcher is out of the game (a nod to NL rules). The DH then bats for all subsequent pitchers.

Dierker’s plan would require managers to make significant decisions early in the game. For instance, take a situation in which the Mariners are starting, say, Jeremy Bonderman on the road. They’ve loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the third. Does Eric Wedge substitute designated hitter Kendrys Morales for Bonderman?

The upside is that there’s a chance to break the game open, but at a price: Wedge’s bullpen will be taxed.

Dierker’s “hybrid” idea is intriguing, and would seem to appeal to both purists who decry the DH and defenders who think there should be no such thing as an automatic out. Of course, the odds of Major League Baseball signing off on it are a gazillion to one.

So we’ve got what we’ve got: two leagues, two rules, 40 years of philosophical foes restlessly cohabiting in a tent comfortable for neither side.

Happy Birthday, DH. Better cut that cake soon, before a food fight breaks out.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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