OFF THE BIKE AND INTO THE BOX

Baseball's designated hitters are not all sound of limb, but they are giving the game more punch than it has had
May 06, 1973

If Joe Cronin, president of the American League, has recently written a letter to Charles S. Feeney, his National League counterpart, it must read something like this:

Dear Charles:
You probably haven't had time to peek through those stained glass windows in your office to see how the designated hitter (formerly designated pinch hitter) is doing in our little old experimental league. Well, I have to say it is doing much better than we had anticipated. So much so, in fact, that I am sending to you under separate cover the large black hat that I was forced to wear after our owners voted to adopt the new rule last January while yours decided against doing so. As you well know by now, Charles, our pitchers no longer come to bat, while yours still do. With the season nearly one-eighth completed no American League pitcher has stepped into a batter's box, but our probings have yet to turn up one case of a fan sitting on a curbstone crying because of this break with tradition.

Granted, not everyone over here is in total agreement with the rule. A few of our managers remain opposed to it. But that just might be because the fans are now catching on to how it can be used and misused, and are commencing to second-guess the managers. As we both realize, that might be great stuff for fans but it certainly isn't too good for job security.

I noticed last weekend that there were nine games in your league in which a team scored one run or less. I hadn't realized there were that many Cy Youngs still around. Truthfully, Charles, the shutout factor in both our leagues has been getting out of hand. At the rate the Nationals are going, your fellows may throw a record number.

Although it is still early to be absolutely certain about the DH, I do note that for the first time in my memory the American League is outhitting the National—by .246 to .242. And our games seem more exciting. Tell your pitchers to keep swinging away. We'll play over here with what we've got. Thanks so much for letting us go out on our own on this, and best of luck with the hat.
Sincerely yours, Joseph E. Cronin

Naturally, Joe Cronin has written no such letter to Chub Feeney, but he could, he could. In three short weeks the DH has put more punch and excitement and scoring into the game—a hallowed game, agreed, but one that was being smothered by the excellence of the pitching. Heavily criticized by some before it was given a chance to see the sunlight—a phony rule it was called, desperate, Mickey Mouse, a rewriting of Beethoven—the designated hitter is doing only what it was intended to do. A comparison of the DH and the NL pitcher as batter through last Friday is most revealing:

The designated hitters have been at bat 730 times and have scored 91 runs, made 175 hits, gotten 93 RBIs, hit 20 home runs and averaged .240. In the National League, pitchers—and pinch hitters for the pitchers—have been at bat 698 times and have scored 47 runs, made 107 hits, gotten 44 RBIs, hit three home runs and averaged .153.

By scoring runs and driving teammates in, the Desis—as they are called here and there—had a run-production total of 164, while their counterparts in the National were generating only 88. Overall, the American League, for the first time since 1969, was scoring more runs than the National. It was averaging better than eight runs a game, the NL fewer than eight.

Most of the early outrage over the DH was caused by the deep thinkers of baseball. "Scratch an intellectual and you will find a baseball fan," it has been said. It is seldom suggested, however, that if you scratch him twice you may find a woefully naive one. Let's face it, the rule is working—and producing a new set of heroes who are functioning under unusual pressures.

When the season began, the most publicized of the Desis was Orlando Cepeda, a tremendous hitter bothered throughout his career by bad legs. Boston plucked Cepeda from the beaches of Puerto Rico and put him to work. Orlando went to bat 11 times without getting a hit. Then he came up in the bottom of the ninth in a game at Fenway against the Yankees with the score tied. He hit a homer to win it. Manager Eddie Kasko, certainly no advocate of the rule, played Cepeda one more game as a DH and then replaced him. "Don't give up on me," Cepeda pleaded. "I will hit." For awhile after Kasko put Cepeda back in the lineup, he didn't, and his average hovered at .120. But then hits began flying off Cepeda's bat the way they had during 15 seasons in the National League, where he had a lifetime average of .298. Suddenly he was among the leaders with a .355 average, 12 RBIs and five home runs.

Cepeda's knees are in such bad shape he goes to the trainer's room at Fenway Park between innings, works out on an Exercycle and lifts weights with his feet. The Desi rule has saved him.

"I have had the problem of gaining confidence in my knees after my last operation," Cepeda says, "but I know I can do this job." Cepeda is 35 and hopes to play two more years as a Desi. At least he has the breeding to do so. His father, Perucho Cepeda, known as the Ty Cobb of Puerto Rico, played until he was 45.

There were additional heroes. No fewer than five of the league's top 10 hitters have functioned full or part time as Desis: Ed (Spanky) Kirkpatrick of Kansas City (.386), Jim Ray Hart of the Yankees (.385), Alex Johnson of Texas (.368), Mike Andrews of Chicago (.366) and Cepeda. Hart was picked up recently by the Yankees not only because he is a good hitter but because New York was seeing far too many left-handed pitchers. When the season started, the Yankees used Johnny Callison, Ron Blomberg and Ron Swoboda as Desis and they hit only .077. Last week Swoboda sat in as host of a radio phone-in show in New York and one of the callers asked, "Ron, do you have a better chance to win the pennant now that you have Jim Ray Hart as a DH?"

"Boy," answered Swoboda, "do I love you guys who jump on the bandwagon!"

Hart, once a third baseman, says, "I like this job very much. I have three gloves in my locker and I hope they fall apart from age before I get a chance to use them. I don't miss playing in the field. I might just get a rocking chair for the dugout like old Satch Paige had."

If you could look deep into the mind of Chicago Manager Chuck Tanner when you ask the question, "How do you like the rule?" you would probably see "I don't" flashing in neon. Publicly, Tanner says, "Let's wait a whole season before we judge it. There is no doubt that it has helped our team score."

The hottest Desi for Chicago has been Andrews, a second baseman somewhat deficient in range. "It's a lot of fun being the DH when you are hitting," says Andrews, "and I guess I feel the pressure a little less than some because we have a fine hitting lineup. But you have so much time to waste you have to make yourself bear down. I feel the brunt of baseball is still hitting. I study more now and move around a lot to find out things, to keep myself active."

Minnesota's Danny Walton has produced two homers as a DH, one a game-winning grand-slam while pinch-hitting for DH Tony Oliva. "I just sit on the bench and try to follow the game," says Walton. "You can accept not playing every day. I know some days I will be a designated hitter and some days I'll play third. It's giving me a chance to play up here."

The other grand slam produced by a DH came from Ron Lolich of Cleveland, who hit one against Boston with two outs and the Indians three runs down in the bottom of the ninth. "I had a terrible headache," said Lolich. "Had it all day. I took a couple of aspirin. But, you know, I think the headache helped relax me when I went to the plate. Maybe it blotted out the pressure. I just saw a ball and swung at it."

Naturally, some questions remain. Will Cepeda & Co. get better as the weather" warms? Can the National League pitchers hit any worse? If you see Chub Feeney wearing that black hat, you will know that both answers are yes.

PHOTOBoston's Orlando Cepeda (.355) exercises his damaged knees at Fenway between at bats. PHOTOChicago's Mike Andrews is a .366 Desi.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)