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Mudville: May 25, 2024 7:46 am PDT

Designated First

Ron Blomberg can thank a spring training injury in 1973 for his having a place in baseball history.

In December 1972, the American League adopted the designated hitter, which would forever change the course of how a lineup was formed. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would play the first game in the league that season, on April 6, 1973. Someone was going to be the first designated hitter in history during that game.

At least twice before, MLB considered employing a designated hitter, but a majority of owners nixed the idea. It would take another nearly half century for the NL to adopt it.

Blomberg, an Atlanta native who was the first pick in the 1967 draft, said, “I knew I was going to be the DH, because when I was down in spring training, I was having a really super spring, but I pulled a hammy three days before we broke camp to go to Boston. There were two things I could have done. I could have gone on the disabled list in spring training, and when you’re a youngster, if you get sent down you might never get called up – so you had one-year contracts, and when you have one-year contracts you might never see this again – so you say to yourself, yes, I’m going to play, and I got treatment. It was enough so at least I could put my uniform on to go in,” he recalled.

“Then Yankee manager Ralph Houk and coaches Dick Howser and Elston Howard came up to me, and asked, ‘Can you hit? Because Luis Tiant is going to be the pitcher.’”

Blomberg said he had “no idea” what role the DH would play.

“I wasn’t a DH in spring training, primarily playing first base; when I had no idea, I mean we thought it was a gimmick, everybody wanted to be the DH. I saw people fighting over it.”

According to the book Jewish Major Leaguers: In Their Own Words by Peter Ephross with Martin Abramowitz, Houk explained the DH to him thusly:

“You get up to bat, you take your four swings, you drive in runs, you come back to the bench, and you keep loose in the runway,” Houk told him. “You’re basically pinch-hitting for the pitcher four times in the same game.”

For opening day, Houk had Blomberg batting sixth, behind Graig Nettles in the five spot.

In the top of the first against Tiant, Horace Clark led off with a single, but was eliminated on a double play when Roy White struck out and Carlton Fisk gunned down Clark at second. Matty Alou doubled, followed by a walk to Bobby Murcer. When Nettles walked to load the bases, Blomberg came to the plate as the game’s first DH. On a 3-2 pitch, Tiant walked Blomberg, so he not only had the first at-bat by a DH, but also the first RBI.

(Ironically another Yankee, Larry Gowell, was the last American League pitcher to get a regular season hit in 1972 before the adoption of the DH. Facing Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jim Lonborg, Gowell hit an RBI double, which was both his first and last career hit.)

Boston’s DH on that April day was Orlando Cepeda, who led off the second inning by striking out. Blomberg singled in the third inning to record the first hit by a DH. He finished the game going 1-3. Cepeda went hitless in six at-bats, but even without a contribution by the DH the Red Sox went on to beat the Yankees 15-5, with Tiant pitching a complete game.

“People came around me and said it was a big deal, the Hall of Fame came down and took my bat and everything,” recalled Blomberg, now a scout for the Yankees. He asked Yankees PR head Marty Appel, “What are they doing? He said they want the ball, want this and want that.”

Blomberg was reluctant to give up his bat for posterity.

“We (were given) 12 bats a month, that’s all we got. I picked this one out because it’s got all the (knots) on it; when you have knots on the bat it’s harder, like a maple bat. I said to Marty, ‘This is the greatest bat in the world.’ He said, ‘We got to take it,’ and I said, ‘You can’t take it, it’s the greatest bat in the whole bunch, it has 40, 50 hits in there for me.’ But they took it,” he said.

(Tom Shieber, senior curator for The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said the bat Blomberg used when he became the first designated hitter in a regular season game is currently on display in an exhibit titled “Whole New Ballgame.”)

Blomberg went on to play for eight seasons in the majors, seven with New York and one for the Chicago White Sox. He put up some impressive numbers, but his career was hampered by injuries, which prevented him from reaching his full potential.

While the DH gave Blomberg a place in history, it also led to his nickname.

New York sportswriter Dick Schapp and his son Jeremy, now also a sportswriter, came to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day. “I said, ‘Dick how are you doing?’ He said, ‘The Designated Hebrew,’ and that’s what he said to me, and I ran with it, and I thought it was a perfect thing, being a Jew, coming from the south, coming to New York,” said Blomberg, who titled his autobiography Designated Hebrew.

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 17, 1973: First baseman Ron Blomberg #12 of the New York Yankees looks into the crowd on June 17, 1973 against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

At Atlanta’s Druid Hills High School, Blomberg was a standout player in football, basketball, and baseball. Two of America’s most successful and famous coaches attempted to recruit him.

“John Wooden (of UCLA) came to recruit me. Back then, first thing you think of is Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). I had a 44 inch vertical, I could jump, I could shoot; now, I’m a 6’4” guy playing center, dunking a lot of my shots, (figuring) what position (was I) going to play against a guy who is 7′ 5”? I was probably going to be a three guard,” he said.

Then he went to Alabama to meet with football coach Bear Bryant., who, of course, was wearing his famous hounds tooth hat.

“You feel like you’re on TV.”  “Is this real?” he asked himself when he met the coach.

Despite the attention from the coaches, Blomberg chose to go with the Yankees.

After being drafted, Blomberg arrived in New York as a 17-year old. At that time, he said, the Yankees never had publicized a Jew. “There was a Jew, who did not use his name, because he did not want to be associated with (being) a Jew. I never met him, but I was the first guy to come out.”

He had also heard that New York City and the Yankees were anti-Semitic.

“CBS owned the team, (General Manager) Lee MacPhail, Johnny Burke, and Johnny Johnson were running the team; I never saw that (bigotry). I went into the stadium and I saw a lot of Jews working there, and I said, this is not bad. Growing up down south I grew up with the KKK. I grew up with all that stuff, I saw all the hangings there. (I’d) play a basketball game or football game, and there’s a yard on fire with a cross on it,” he said.

When the American League adopted the DH, it was on a three-year trial basis.

Eventually the National League would have to adopt it, said Blomberg, as the DH gave the American League an advantage in the World Series and in interleague games.

At first, the designated hitter rule did not apply to any games in the World Series. From 1976-1985, it applied only to series held in even-numbered years, and in 1986 the rule took effect that the designated hitter rule was used according to the practice of the home team. Now with the universal DH, it’s used in all World Series games.

As alluded to earlier, in the early 20th century, the concept of a DH had been discussed among owners. Reports say it was Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics who championed the idea, but it was voted down. In 1928, National League president John Heydler floated the idea, but it was again rejected.

But after 1968, the year of the pitcher, when only one batter (Carl Yastrzemski) hit over .300 in the AL, the notion of a DH began to surface in a more serious way.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, in 1969 a four-year trial in which the International League and four other minor leagues started using the DH for their games began that year. The American League allowed its use in spring training in 1971.

The DH also allowed aging players to add one or more years to their careers. Not having to play the field was obviously less taxing. Cepeda, who was 34 when he was Boston’s DH, appeared in 142 games without ever taking the field. He batted .289 with 20 homeruns and 86 RBIs.

The most successful DH so far was, arguably, Edgar Martinez, who played his whole career for the Seattle Mariners and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019. (Red Sox fans have an argument that David Ortiz was the best ever DH, though his average as a DH is 26 points below that of Martinez.)

During his first three seasons with Seattle, Martinez played third base until he suffered a knee injury. In 1992, he became the club’s primary DH, playing a handful of games in the field (except for in 1994, when he appeared in 64 games during the strike shortened season).

In 15 seasons of 400 or more at bats, Martinez hit better than .300 10 times, winning two batting titles. His finest season (hence the best season for a DH) was in 1995, when he led the league in batting (.356), OBP (.479), OPS (1.107), runs (152), and doubles (52). He hit 29 homeruns and drove in 113 runs. He also led the league in games played with 145, with seven of those appearances being in the field at third and first base.

His lifetime batting average was .312, with 309 home runs. As a DH, he batted .314, with 243 home runs.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated announced its list of the ten best DH’s of all time. In descending order they were:

10 – Brian Dowling

9 -Chili Davis

8 – Hal McRae

7 – Don Baylor

6 – Jim Thome

5 – Paul Molitor

4 -Harold Baines

3 – David Ortiz

2 – Frank Thomas

1- Edgar Martinez

After he retired, in 2004 an award from the Baseball Writers Association of America for the best DH was renamed The Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award. During his career, Martinez had won it five times, while Ortiz won it six times.

The DH was helping prolong careers. At 40, Martinez batted .294 with 24 homeruns and 98 RBIs. When Ortiz was 40, he played five innings at first base. He batted .315 with 38 homeruns and a league-leading 127 RBIs.

As for the effect on the game, NL pitchers hit .110 with a .293 OPS in 4,829 plate appearances in 2021. They struck out in 44 percent of their at-bats, and were successful with sacrifice bunts 8.7 percent of the time. In 2022, NL designated hitters batted .233/.315/.389 with 81 homers and a 23.9% K-rate. That made DH the NL’s fourth-most-productive lineup spot that year.

The Philadelphia Phillies benefited greatly from the DH last season. Bryce Harper’s elbow injury prevented him from playing the field, but the DH kept his bat in the lineup, and he was a key contributor to the team’s reaching the World Series.

A recent rule change now allows Angels pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani to remain in the game as a DH if he is removed as a pitcher.

Blomberg thinks the DH can help everyday players take a break from fielding while still remaining in the lineup.

“The Yankees did (that) with (Aaron) Judge the last few years, and did with Derek Jeter,” he said. “Instead of killing themselves – to play shortstop is a very tough and strenuous position –  you give him the night off, give him one spot he doesn’t have to (worry about).”

But the Designated hitter did not mean pitchers would never come to bat in the American League.  If the DH is replaced by a player who then takes a position, the pitcher must bat in the designated hitter’s place. This has resulted in pitchers coming to the plate.

In some cases, pitchers batted because they were used as pinch hitters. On September 24, 1973, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Darryl Knowles and John “Blue Moon” Odom were sent to the plate to hit for position players. In other cases, the managers decided to let a starting pitcher hit for himself or the pitcher wanted to bat.

On October 2, 1974, the final day of the season, the Texas Rangers played against Cleveland, and Texas did not use a DH. Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins batted for himself, going one for two and scoring a run in a game he won 2-1.

Former player Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees is introduced during the New York Yankees 72nd Old Timers Day game before the Yankees play against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on June 17, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

A year later, Oakland A’s hurler Ken Holtzman hit for himself, going 0-2, and in 1976, Ken Brett (George Brett’s brother), a left-handed pitcher with the Chicago White Sox and an excellent hitter, went to the plate six times in two starts, but failed to get a hit.

It took more than 30 years for the next American League pitcher to bat in a regular season game.

In a game against Cleveland on May 17, 2009, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon made a mistake on his lineup card. According to Retrosheet, after his team batted in the top of the first, Cleveland manager Eric Wedge showed home plate umpire Ted Barrett that two Rays players were listed as playing third base and no one was listed as the designated hitter on the Rays lineup; and since Ben Zobrist had just played third in the top of the first inning, he was the correct player and Evan Longoria, who was supposed to be the DH but was also listed as 3B, was ruled out of the game.

According to AL rules, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine was thus inserted into the third spot to replace Longoria, and the Rays lost the use of the DH for the game; but since Longoria had not batted, the umpires decided that he was still available for use in the game, and he eventually played – but MLB announced later in the month that Longoria should not have been allowed to play.

If the Lords of Baseball had listened to Mack and adopted the DH in the early 20th century, how many greats could have prolonged their careers? Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and an unlimited number of good to great position players could have played longer – and boosted their stats; could Ruth have hit more than 714 homeruns?

But what is now an essential part of baseball was viewed as a novelty when first introduced a half century ago.

“I remember when I became the first DH, all those guys said, this won’t last six months because it was a gimmick, and baseball never had a gimmick before, the only thing close to it was the Designated Runner, with Herb Washington (of Oakland), and that ended with nothing,” Blomberg said.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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