Football decided to liven up its offense way back in 1911. when Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne showed that a ball could indeed be thrown overhand in the air from one man to another. The purists screamed, though no harder, perhaps, than they did in 1954 when the National Basketball Association instituted a 24-second clock that literally saved the game. This year baseball took a couple of timid steps in the same liberating direction. One was the lowering of the pitchers' mound. Another was a tightening of the strike zone. Both brought a few agonized cries (mostly from pitchers), but they have helped revive the game (SI, Aug. 4). Last week a survey of a third experiment—thus far limited to the minors—produced even more encouraging news: the Designated Hitter is shaking up the game.
Call it the DH Factor. It is a remedy to spare us all the agony of watching pitchers take three futile swings or mess up a simple bunt attempt every time they slink to the plate. The DH—for Designated Hitter—is a special man in the lineup who takes the field only to bat in the pitcher's position. Baseball authorized the International League to employ this innovation on a trial basis this season, and so far—after 2,500 appearances of DHs—the figures show that not only is the hitting improved, but the pitchers last through more complete games and the fans get more action. The use of Designated Hitters has cut as much as 10 minutes off the average time of games.
Baseball's more conservative elements are already on record with the opinion that the rule takes strategy away from the game and thwarts the development of some pitchers, since the starters—who do not have to be removed for a pinch hitter—stay around longer. Many others, however, are already high on the new rule, and may soon force the majors to consider using DHs in American and National League games.
Harry Dalton, the young general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, is conducting a survey among International League managers, writers and fans, and if the results are favorable. Baltimore could be-a strong advocate for major league DHs. The Orioles have the most progressive organization in the game, but they do not draw well at the gate, so Baltimore would be a natural leader in trying to institute changes that will brighten up the offense.
August 10, 1969
Reduced to its simplest, the Designated Hitter rule specifies that before a game starts the manager name one hitter to bat in the place of the pitcher. Although ninth place is the position where the DH is usually put, he can be listed anywhere. Once in that spot, however, he is locked into it, although if the manager wants to play the lefty-righty percentages he may pinch-hit for his DH, and then the pinch-hitter stays in the game as the new DH.
George Sisler Jr., the forward-thinking president of the International League, is sold on the idea for baseball's future. Sisler says he would recommend the new rule to the majors. "It has done exactly what we had in mind," he says. "That is, it has put more offense into the game. There is no question that our games are more interesting, because now there is constant pressure and suspense since there is no weak spot in the lineup."
In 366 of the first 404 games played in the International this year the DH made a hit, scored a run or batted one in. The league's DHs are batting .270, and few major league pitchers have ever even approached that neighborhood. The top-hitting pitchers last year were Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox at .282 and Jim Maloney of the Reds at .243, but the bulk of the pitchers are closer to the other extreme, down to the depths of Dean Chance, who has been .026, .033 and .054 the last three seasons.
"The rule has caught on in popularity with the fans," Sisler says. "By having a Designated Hitter and by allowing the starting pitcher to stay in the game longer, we are giving the fans the best talent we have at all times."
One of the more interesting personalities involved in the Designated Hitter experiment is Dave Campbell, a 26-year-old left-handed hitter for the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles' top farm club. Playing for Elmira in the Eastern League last season, Campbell hit only .231, with 43 runs driven in and five homers. Cal Ripken, now the Rochester manager after working at Elmira last year, has used Campbell as his DH for a variety of reasons. "Jim hit a lot of balls really hard in the Eastern League last year," Ripken says, "balls that would have been doubles or homers in the International League, because there is a big difference in the size of the parks. When I realized that the Designated Hitter rule was going to be used this season, I thought of Campbell. I prefer to use the Designated Hitter in the nine hole to put more punch in the bottom of the batting order. During one two-week period when the rest of our lineup was going bad, those three men down at the bottom were carrying the club."
For two weeks Campbell pounded the ball better than he ever had, hitting .377. A rugged, good-looking athlete from Hartsville, S.C., Campbell began to attract a special fame as a DH. He vaulted up among the league's top hitters and is still second in runs batted in on a club that has some good prospects.
"Being the Designated Hitter," Campbell said last week at Silver Stadium in Rochester, "made me start to think a little more about hitting. If the pitcher got me the first time I could go back to the bench and think about how he had done it and what I had done wrong. Because I didn't have to go out and play in the field the idea of hitting was more on my mind. I had never done much pinch-hitting, but I know it's different. With the Designated Hitter rule you go up to bat and know that if you don't get a hit the first time up that you are still going to get two or three more chances."
Campbell's productive bat, a series of injuries and military commitments have recently forced him into the defensive starting lineup at first base, and he has already noticed the difference. "When I was the Designated Hitter I trained myself differently before the games," he says. "I would run enough to get myself into a good sweat so that I would be loose and not all tied up when I went up to hit. Maybe the job was easier and more of a mental thing, but since I've been starting I haven't been hitting the ball as well."
Last week Lee MacPhail, the general manager of the New York Yankees and one of the men who pushed hard for the DH trial, was sitting in his office at Yankee Stadium looking over statistics from the International League. "Obviously," MacPhail said, "the Designated Hitter has had some effect, and part of it can be seen in the pitching statistics. The ratio of hits to innings pitched is higher—much higher—than it was last year. The idea of the rule was that it would serve as an experiment so that we had something in reserve to study in case the defense continued to hold an edge over the offense.
"The swing back to offense so far has been fine, but I want to analyze the full statistics at the end of the season. The question remains: Has the hitting been helped so much by the lower mound and the smaller strike zone, or has expansion really been the main reason for the apparent increase in hitting? The Designated Hitter has allowed a lot of players to get to bat more often than they normally would, and in this way it has already accomplished something productive. I would like to see it continued in the minors."
Certainly the results of the International League trial have shown the Designated Hitter to be an experiment worth careful consideration, and if the Orioles decide to push for its adoption the majors could be in for more of the infighting baseball is famous for. The conservatives may win out again over those who do not dream about the ghost of Abner Doubleday every night, but then baseball, like the turtle, may decide instead that progress is seldom made without sticking your neck out.