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History of The Designated Hitter


The next two weeks are going to be busy for me so I am reprinting a favorite. Just as true today!

In two weeks we will finally hear that pitchers and catchers have reported (February 14th). So today I am going to go on a rant about one of my pet peeves when it comes to Major League Baseball: the designated hitter. It is a bad idea whose time may be drawing to a close (we can only hope!). Stick around for my conclusion next week, which you may find to be surprising.

1968 was known as “The Year of the Pitcher”. In the American League, Denny McLain led the Detroit Tigers to the pennant going 31-5, the last pitcher to ever win 30 games. In the National League, Bob Gibson similarly led the St. Louis Cardinals, going 22-9 with an astounding 1.12 ERA. Carl Yasztremski limped home to the AL batting crown with an anemic .301 average (the only qualified player to hit over .290), and it took some hot hitting over the last two weeks of the season to get there; as late as September 13 Yaz was at .299, and after cresting at .306 a week later, an 0-for-5 on the season’s last day of September 29th left him at .301; fortunately, it wasn’t an extra-inning game.

We can talk about 2010 being “The Year of the Pitcher” and surely we saw some great performances, but 1968 was an apogee for moundsmen. Baseball in general was under stress during the 1960’s as social unrest and the rise of the National Football League was relegating the National Pastime to a distinctly second-tier category in the life of the USA. Expansion had diluted talent, and in many of the cities crumbling ballparks in bad neighborhoods were hardly attractive draws. A sense of decline was beginning to set in.

You can go back over 100 years and find suggestions that pitchers should pitch and who wanted to see them try to hit? Connie Mack made such complaints in 1906. The National League at the urging of its President John Heydler considered trying a DH in its Spring Training games of 1929, but failed to do so (this was a good thing as 1930 was the high point for offense as the National League collectively hit .300…including pitchers!).

But after 1968 and the apotheosis of “small ball”, owners feared that without taking action fans would tune out the game. The first thing they decided to do was to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. With another round of expansion due in 1969 and a further dilution of talent as the leagues expanded from 10 to 12 games and went to divisional play, discussions intensified about how to increase offense.

Charlie Finley, the owner of the Oakland Athletics, took up the cause espoused by his predecessor The Tall Tactician and actively began lobbying for the AL to adopt the DH (among other things like a Designated Runner); and on January 11, 1973, the AL voted 8-4 to adopt the rule change. The NL, however, voted 6-4 with 2 abstentions, those being the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The official story is that Bill Giles of the Phillies was unable to reach owner Ruly Carpenter, who was on a fishing trip and incommunicado in those days before cell phones, and therefore felt he lacked guidance to vote yea or nay. The Pirates’ emissaries had been instructed by owner John Galbraith to vote with the Phillies. The abstention was in effect a negative.

More next week.
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