The DH, the Spitter and ... the Three-Batter Minimum? A Brief History of Major Rule Changes

With news that MLB will implement a three-batter minimum in 2020, we look back at the biggest changes baseball has made over its long history.
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There is no mandatory development process for a new baseball rule. The league has the authority to enact just about anything, whether there is player approval or not. (See: MLB and MLBPA’s declaration of changes for 2019 and 2020, including a three-batter minimum for pitchers that the union "did not formally accede to" but agreed not to challenge, per ESPN.) Over the last few seasons, however, an unofficial pipeline for these has grown popular. A potential rule change will be tested in the minor leagues—think a pitch clock (first tried in 2014) or ghost runners for extra-inning games (in 2018)—and if it sees success there, it might receive a trial run in spring training, as the pitch clock did this year.

And if an idea is really radical, it might have to start in an entirely different ecosystem: independent ball.

Last week, MLB announced a partnership to try this with the Atlantic League in 2019, describing a slew of tweaks that include pushing back the mound, banning defensive shifts, using robot umpires, and, yes, requiring each pitcher to face at least three hitters. They’re changes that could range from barely perceptible to foundationally disruptive. If they do make it to the big leagues, though, how will their journey there compare to past major changes? Here’s how some of baseball’s most seismic procedural shifts made their way into the rulebook:

Creating The DH

The loose outline of this one is pretty well-known: After the ‘60s, when pitching ruled the game, baseball went looking for a way to boost offense. The AL embraced the idea of a designated hitter, beginning in 1973. The NL did not. The rest is history. (Well, for now, at least.)

But there was more to it than that. MLB first introduced the DH—initially known as a “designated pinch hitter,” or DPH—as a temporary experiment in spring training in 1969. Almost immediately, the controversial move hit a stumbling block. Montreal Expos manager Gene Mauch, ever the creative strategist, decided to test the limits of the rule: “Mauch discovered that by changing pitchers frequently and moving the replacements up in the batting order he could bring a pinch hitter to the plate eight times. He did, and the Expos clobbered Kansas City Royals in their Grapefruit League opener,” reported the Montreal Gazette. The very next day, the league issued a directive. The DH would only be allowed to replace the pitcher, and his name could not move around in the batting order.

During 1969’s regular season, the rule was adopted in several different minor leagues, and it could be glimpsed at spring training for the next few years, too. The DH still had plenty of critics, though, and most managers simply refused to use one during the spring, even if they had to opportunity to try. In 1971, The New York Daily News viewed the rule  dismissively as “the designated pinch hitter gimmick, which some clubs insist on tinkering with in spring games.” But it had supporters, too, with none more important than Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who ensured that it was a topic of conversation at the 1972 Winter Meetings in Honolulu.

There, it came before baseball’s rules committee, who agreed to approve an expanded round of experimentation with the designated hitter in the minors. Despite the expansion at the game’s lower professional levels, it was voted down, 7-2, in the big leagues. This didn’t sit well with some of the idea’s proponents—including Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who thought that the rule would boost offense, which would increase general excitement and the lagging attendance numbers in the American League. Two days after the rules committee gave the green light to the trial run in the minor leagues, Finley rallied some of his fellow owners to make a statement: The AL went on the record with its unanimous support for the DH. The Winter Meetings ended the following day, but Finley decided to see how far he could push the momentum.

He returned to the rules committee, asking them to go into a special session to hold one more vote—on a designated hitter for just the AL, instead of all of MLB. Finley’s dream was, again, voted down: 5-3, with one abstention. Even the commissioner, who’d previously shown support for the rule, was apprehensive on this one. “That could cause a problem if such a rule was adopted by one league and not the other,” Kuhn told UPI after the vote. “What would happen in the World Series?” (Finley, meanwhile, was frustrated that he was forced to pursue this specific route and was unable to round up enough support from teams in the National League. Finley told UPI: “If anyone asks me what’s wrong with baseball, I’d say stupidity on the part of the owners.”)

With Winter Meetings over and two unsuccessful elections in the books, the designated hitter seemed an unlikely possibility for the immediate future. The AL wouldn’t surrender so easily, though. The owners scheduled a secret meeting two weeks later in New York, and they doubled down on their commitment to the DH. “The American League is tired of the National League saying that it can’t be done,” Minneapolis Twins president Calvin Griffith told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “We say it can be done, and in 1973, too.” They successfully lobbied the commissioner to hold a joint session on the subject in mid-January, despite the fact that there hadn’t been any marked shift in opinion from the National League. The reaction? “Greedy AL Owners Sabotaging Game,” proclaimed a headline in the Boston Globe.

The January meeting lasted seven hours. For Finley & Co., it was a victory. The owners agreed to give the DH to the AL over a trial run: the league would implement the DH over a three-season span, with no designated hitter to be used for the All-Star Game or World Series. The National League would potentially be willing to jump on later if the rule proved beneficial; as the meeting concluded, a league official said that they “wouldn’t be reticent to adopting it,” per the Associated Press. That statement was as warm as the league’s stance on the subject seemed to get.

The three years came and went. The AL loved its new product and the NL was happy to avoid it. For the 1975 GM Meetings, Kuhn only hoped that the two leagues would find a way to agree; unfortunately for him, this wasn’t happening. The AL refused to give up the DH, and the NL refused to get on board. They left the meeting on the same divide that they’d left the joint session three years prior—and the same one that they’ve been on ever since.

Lowering The Mound

A new rule doesn’t have to take years of battle, spurred by secret meetings and fierce league debate.

After 1968’s “year of the pitcher,” MLB concluded that something needed to change. For that year’s Winter Meetings, it called a special meeting of managers and GMs, with the goal of discussing potential changes to boost offense. (This, you’ll recall, is when the designated hitter first got introduced for minor leagues and spring training.) The big result? A proposal to lower the mound. It went off to the rules committee for approval, and it was signed into baseball law. That was it! Of course, pushing the mound down is fundamentally different from pushing the mound back, as baseball is suggesting now. The former, at least, took scant time, little debate, and no experimentation.

Banning The Spitball—With A Caveat

“Many twirlers who formerly depended on the spitball now are trying to get away from it, believing that its continual use shortens their big league careers. This is the tendency all over the country, and I believe that it won’t be many more years before they will take a pitcher who throws the spitball and put him in the museum of natural history.”

This was the New York Giants’ Christy Mathewson in 1914, writing in “Matty’s Big League Gossip,” an edition of his syndicated newspaper column. (The Hall of Famer had, yes, a regular baseball column … while he was still pitching.) He was right. The spitball had been popular a decade before, but there were growing concerns about its safety—it didn’t seem great for pitchers’ arms, and it was difficult to control, which made it dangerous for hitters, too—and the role that it played in the game’s lack of offense. Some disliked that its effectiveness seemed to be primarily a matter of good fortune and, well, good spit. “Spitball robs baseball of much science: Pitchers do not fight against batters’ wits, but trust their luck,” declared the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Throw in the fact that it was deemed “disgusting to spectators, especially women,” as one newspaper editorial put it, and banning the pitch made sense.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. It quickly became a question of labor and fairness. What will happen to pitchers who’ve dedicated their entire careers to developing the spitball? In January 1920, the rules committee settled on an answer: “Pitchers now in the big leagues who use the moist delivery will be given one season in which to develop something else. Club owners will be asked to send in a list of their men who use that kind of pitching,” Bill Veeck, Sr., a rules committee member, told the press after the decision. “Youngsters going to the big leagues for the first time will not be allowed to use the spitter. If they can’t make good without it, they can go back to the brush and develop something else.”

The spitball’s use was already diminished for 1920, then, but a tragedy hastened its total disappearance. In August, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was hit and killed by a pitch from spitballer Carl Mays. Over the winter, the rules committee followed through on its earlier promise to ban the pitch entirely—with one caveat. There were a handful of pitchers who hadn’t seemed to use the year to develop other pitches, and most of them might be close to falling out of the game, anyway; relying on the deception of the spitter, after all, had always been most attractive to older players. The 17 remaining spitballers were grandfathered in. “With them will pass down and out forever the salivary slants,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune.

Within five years, half of them had retired. The last few, though, took more time. Burleigh Grimes became the very last, in 1934, and he’d wanted to stay on even longer: “I’m not washed up yet,” he protested to reporters after he was unconditionally released by the New York Yankees, a 40-year-old relic of a rulebook gone by.

The spitball was gone, but it wasn’t forgotten. A few decades later, there was an unsuccessful push for its revival. “I hope they bring back the spitball,” Commissioner Ford Frick said in 1961. “The pitchers need help. Most of the rule changes the past few years have favored the batter. Something has to be done to give the game more balance.”

Something always does.