Designated Hitter Rule

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Today we celebrate the birthday of the most significant baseball rule change in over a century.

The designated hitter rule allows teams to use another player to bat in place of the pitcher.  Because the pitcher is one of the team’s nine defensive players, the designated hitter—or “DH” does not take the field on defense.

The DH must be selected prior to the game, and that selected hitter must come to bat at least one time–unless the opposing team changes pitchers prior to that point.  The DH is an optional position, but a team that chooses not to select a DH prior to the game is barred from using one for the rest of the game.  A player who enters the game in place of the DH—either as a pinch-hitter or a pinch-runner—becomes the DH in his team’s lineup thereafter.

The idea of adding a tenth man to bat for the pitcher was first suggested by Connie Mack [Daily Dose, 12/5/16] in 1906.  [Mr. Mack obviously did not have Babe Ruth—who began his career as a pitcher–on his squad[.  In 1928, National League president John Heydler revived the idea, but the rule was rejected by American League management.  In the early 1970s, colorful Oakland Athletics’ owner Charles Finley had become the rule’s most outspoken advocate, arguing that a pinch-hitter to replace the pitcher—who was usually a poor hitter—would add an offensive punch that baseball needed to draw more fans by making the game more exciting.

At a joint meeting between the two leagues in Chicago on this date in 1973, owners of America’s 24 major league teams voted to allow the American League–which lagged behind the National League in both scoring and attendance–to put the DH into practice.  Rule 6.10 [later changed to 5.11] allowed teams in the AL to use a designated pinch-hitter that could bat for the pitcher, while still allowing the pitcher to stay in the game.  It marked the biggest rule change in baseball since 1903, when it was decided that foul balls would be considered strikes.  In the first year of the DH, the American League posted a higher batting average than the NL, a statistic that has remained consistent to this day.  Initially a three-year experiment, the DH was later permanently adopted by the American League and later by most amateur and minor league teams.

At first, the Designated Hitter Rule did not apply to any games in the World Series.  From 1976 to 1985, it applied only to World Series games played in even-numbered years.  Beginning in 1986, the current rule took effect, where the DH is used in AL ballparks, but not in NL venues.  Interleague play follows the same DH rules as the World Series and, since 2010, the designated hitter has been used by both leagues in the All-Star Game.

On April 6, 1973—Opening Day—Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees became baseball’s first designated hitter.  On a bone-chilling, blustery day in Boston, he made his first plate appearance in the top of the first inning, batting in the sixth spot and facing Red Sox ace Luis Tiant.  A superb athlete, Blomberg is the only person ever chosen for the Parade All-American teams in football, baseball, and basketball.  He was scheduled to attend UCLA to play basketball for legendary coach John Wooden [Daily Dose, 10/14/15], but after becoming the first overall pick in the 1967 amateur draft, Ron Blomberg chose to play professional baseball.

With two outs and the bases loaded, Blomberg drew a walk on a full count to drive in Matty Alou for the game’s first run.  It was one small step for Blomberg, and one giant leap for aging sluggers everywhere.  Tiant would settle down to earn his first win of the season in a 15-5, complete game victory before 32,882 fans at Fenway Park.  The game ball—along with Blomberg’s hat and jersey—were immediately shipped to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Blomberg, who edged out Joe Namath [Daily Dose, 5/31/16] in voting for the most popular athlete in New York, played seven years for the Yankees before spending his final season with the Chicago White Sox.  He hit .295 for his career but injuries prevented him from ever playing an entire season.

Hal McRae was the first player to spend most of his career at DH, while Paul Molitor was the first hall of famer to play more career games at DH than any other position.  Molitor, who had over 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases over 20 big league seasons, was inducted into Cooperstown in 2004 on the first ballot.  David Ortiz has more hits, home runs and RBI than any DH in history.  Edgar Martinez won two batting titles during his remarkable 18-year career as a DH with the Seattle Mariners, while Harold Baines—who had three separate stints with the Orioles and White Sox—was one of the most productive designated hitters in baseball history.  A ten-time All-Star, “Big Papi” led the Boston Red Sox to three World Series titles and collected seven Silver Slugger Awards as the best DH in baseball.  In 2006, “Senor Octubre” hit 54 home runs to break Jimmie Foxx’s single season Red Sox home run record, while driving in 137 runs.

A designated hitter has been named MVP of the World Series three times.  In 1993, Molitor hit .500 and scored ten runs for the Toronto Blue Jays, while Hideki Matsui batted .615 with three home runs for the Yankees in 2009.  Four years later, Ortiz—voted one of the four best players in Red Sox history—earned MVP honors after batting .688 and belting two home runs to lead Boston to the title.

Major League Baseball’s NL is one of the few leagues in the world that does not employ the DH.  When asked, in 1973, why his league voted against the rule change, National League president Chub Feeney said, “We like the game the way it is.”  Baseball purists abhorred the rule, arguing that it detracted from the game’s integrity.  Proponents argued it makes the game more exciting.  The rift between pro- and anti-DH fans continues today.

Although the DH is rumored to be gaining momentum with National League owners, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred stated in January 2016 that, “The most likely result on the designated hitter for the foreseeable future is the status quo.”

Today’s Daily Dose question:  How do you feel about the designated hitter in baseball?