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Distinguished History

April 05, 1993
April 05, 1993

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April 5, 1993

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Distinguished History

WHO WAS THE FIRST DESIGNATED HITTER? RON BLOMBERG'S NAME MAY BE A BIT OF TRIVIA, BUT THE IMPACT OF THE DH SINCE '73 HAS NOT BEEN TRIVIAL

The Palm court, the Tony restaurant in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, is a place frequented by legends. The Beatles, Princess Grace of Monaco, Eloise of fiction and Macaulay Culkin of filmdom have all dined in this elegant setting. Who knows whom one might see sitting behind one of the palm fronds? Why, that man shuffling toward a table, isn't that...yes, it is, Mickey Rivers.

This is an article from the April 5, 1993 issue

"Hey, Mick the Quick!" shouts a big guy sitting at another table. "How's it goin'?" Rivers smiles faintly in acknowledgment. "Great ballplayer, Mickey Rivers," the man says to his teenage son and a guest. "Better than I was. But was he a first? No. Ron Guidry, over there, was a Hall of Fame pitcher in my book. Old White Lightning. [Uh, that was Louisiana Lightning.] But was he a first? No. Was Mickey Mantle a first? No. But I was. Me, Ron Blomberg, the Boomer. By a stroke of fate, I was a first. The first designated hitter."

Blomberg, Guidry and Rivers are part of a contingent of New York Yankees, past and present, who are staying at the Plaza this February weekend to take part in a Yankee Fan Fest. The years have not been kind to Blomberg's hairline, and his waistline has expanded a little, but his essential sweet nature hasn't changed. He was a good ol' Jewish boy from Georgia back then, and he is a good older Jewish boy from Georgia now. He was prone to errors then, and he is prone to errors now. And as always, he can talk a blue pinstripe.

"I called up the Palm restaurant last night for a reservation—fancy place, right? (Right.] 'The name is Ron Blomberg,' I said. The ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' said, 'Ron Blomberg? The first designated hitter?' Same thing happened when I called the Atrium Health Club. The guy said, 'Ron Blomberg? The first DH?' It's incredible. I was an answer in Trivial Pursuit. I was an answer [actually, a question] on Jeopardy! The guy on ESPN, Steve Berman [uh, Chris Berman], mentions me all the time. And all because I pulled my hamstring in spring training 20 years ago."

Designated-Hitter Trivia Question No. 1: What did New York Yankee Ron Blomberg say on April 6, 1973, the day he became the first designated hitter to bat in a major league game, when he walked with the bases loaded against Luis Tiant of the Boston Red Sox in the first inning?

(a) "It was one small walk for a man, one giant walk for mankind."

(b) "The DH rule will turn American League managers into robots with no discernible decisions to make."

(c) "Was Mickey Mantle a first? No. But I was. Me, Ron Blomberg."

(d) "I don't know how I'll make out as a designated hitter. I've never done it before."

The answer is (d). Blomberg really did utter that Berraism when asked how he liked being the DH. The funny thing was, Yankee manager Ralph Houk had never once used Blomberg, a first baseman, as a DH in spring training. But just before the season began, Blomberg slightly pulled a hamstring in his right leg. "Ralph told me that if it was cold in Boston on Opening Day, he might put me in the lineup as the DH to keep me from really hurting myself," says Blomberg. So if Blomberg hadn't strained his leg. or if the weather had been warmer, Felipe Alou or Johnny Callison, the other Yankee DH candidates, might have been the first designee.

DH Day turned out to be bright, sunny and cold, with Fenway Park temperatures in the 40's and winds gusting up to 30 mph. As Ray Fitzgerald wrote in The Boston Globe the next day, "The game didn't need a designated hitter. It needed a designated meteorologist." The wind played a role in that first American League game of the season when, with two outs and the bases empty, Matty Alou lofted a fly ball that got up in the currents, baffling centerfielder Reggie Smith and falling for a double. Had Smith caught the ball, Boston's Orlando Cepeda might have been the first DH to bat. But Tiant then walked Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles, and Blomberg was up. "Carlton Fisk was behind the plate," says Blomberg. "I said to him, 'I feel weird.' Then I said, 'What's he throwin'?' And Carlton said, 'He's throwin' it right by you.' "

Tiant did throw it by Blomberg, four balls' worth, and the DH walked to first as Matty Alou walked home with the game's first run. The next batter, Felipe Alou, doubled, giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead. It looked as if it was going to be a rout, and it was: 15-5. The 15, however, belonged to the Red Sox, who blasted Mel Stottlemyre for eight runs in the first three innings. The then 25-year-old Fisk, who is the only player from that game still active, hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and drove in six runs. The only Boston regular without a hit was the DH, Cepeda.

For his part Blomberg went 1 for 3, with a single and the walk. After the game Yankee public-relations man Marty Appel went down to the clubhouse to get Blomberg's Louisville Slugger in order to send it to the Hall of Fame, where it is still prominently displayed. "We lose 15-5, and all these reporters are asking me questions after the game," says Blomberg. "That's really the first time I sensed that I was part of history."

Indeed, later that day The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite ran a feature on the designated hitter, with David Culhane reporting from Boston and Morton Dean reporting from another game, in Baltimore. Appel, who is now the p.r. director for the '96 Atlanta Olympics, says, "My one regret about that day is not saving the lineup card. I have no idea who has it, or if anybody even bothered to keep it. But I can almost guarantee you, though, that Houk spelled Blomberg as Blumberg and that [shortstop] Gene Michael's last name came out Michaels. Ralph always did that."

Despite the game's historical significance, some of the other participants don't have much to say about DH Day. Says Houk, now 73 and retired in Winter Haven, Fla., "I have a hard time remembering what I ate for breakfast." Tiant, now a minor league pitching instructor, says he can't recall a thing about the game. And Fisk, too, remembers nothing about the game. His wife, Linda, however, did have this to say when told her husband played in the first designated-hitter game: "Ron Blomberg, right?"

DH Trivia Question No. 2: The father of the designated hitter is:

(a) Connie Mack
(b) John A. Heydler
(c) Frank Tepedino
(d) Charlie Finley
(e) Sol Blomberg

Actually, you could make a case for any of them, so the answer is all of the above. Now take a guess as to how far back designated history goes. Fifty years? Sixty years? Try 87 years, or at least 87. The following excerpt is from the article "Why the Pitcher Ought to Bat," which first appeared in the Philadelphia North American and was reprinted in the Feb. 3, 1906, edition of Sporting Life:

The suggestion, often made, that the pitcher be denied a chance to bat, and a substitute player sent up to hit every time, has been brought to life again, and will come up for consideration when the American and National League Committees on rules get together.

This time Connie Mack is credited with having made the suggestion. He argues that a pitcher is usually such a poor hitter that his time at the bat is a farce, and the game would be helped by eliminating him in favor of a better hitter.

Against the change there are many strong points to be made.... It is a cardinal principle of baseball that every member of the team should both field and bat.... The better remedy would be to teach [the pitcher] how to hit the ball.

So, baseball people have been having the same argument about hitting for the pitcher since Connie Mack was in knee pants or at least since he was the 43-year-old owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.

The next honcho to go to bat for an extra hitter was Heydler, the president of the National League from 1918 until '34. Heydler, a former umpire and sports-writer, helped bring Kenesaw Mountain Landis to baseball and baseball to Cooperstown, and he wanted to bring a little more offense to the game. In the late '20s he made repeated efforts to introduce a 10th-man experiment, and he came very close to getting National League clubs to agree to try it during spring training in 1929.

Finally, in 1940, a California amateur league called the Bushrod Winter League used a designated-hitter rule, and the idea soon caught on in other amateur circuits. But it wasn't until the hitting drought of the late '60s that the DH idea was revived in the pros. By 1968 the pitcher had become so dominant that Carl Yastrzemski led all American League hitters with a .301 average, while Denny McLain won 31 games and Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA. After that season the major leagues agreed to 1) lower the mound from 15 to 10 inches and 2) change the upper limit of the strike zone from the top of a batter's shoulders to his armpits. In 1969 baseball also started to experiment with a designated hitter. It was used in some American League exhibition games—National League teams refused to be guinea pigs—but more important, the Triple A International League agreed to institute it for the '69 season.

Which brings us to Tepedino. The Brooklyn-raised Yankee farmhand had a sweet lefthanded stroke and a questionable glove at first base and in the outfield, so he did much of the designated hitting for Syracuse. When the figures were tabulated at the end of the season, the International League batting average was up 17 points from the year before, from .251 to .268, and total runs for the eight clubs had risen from 4,662 to 5,000. Other International League DHs that year included Choo Choo Coleman, Thurman Munson, Wilbur Huckle, Terry Crowley and Arlo Brunsberg, but Tepedino, who batted .300 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 357 at bats, was the king.

The experiment was an obvious success. However, bowing to pressure from baseball purists, the International League discontinued the DH after '69. And Tepedino soon found himself stuck in the organization behind another lefthanded hitter with a sweet stroke and a questionable glove: Ron Blomberg.

Though the DH trial was over by 1970, the idea stayed alive in the American League, which found itself lagging behind the National League at both the plate and the gate. The NL, riding the wave of its new artificial-turf stadiums, had only three teams with less than one million in attendance, while the AL had only three teams with more than one million. Moreover, in 1972 the 12 National League teams scored 824 more runs than the 12 American League clubs. Says Lee MacPhail, who was the Yankee general manager at the time, "Clearly, something had to be done. And personally, I never got a thrill out of watching a pitcher hit."

The most vociferous proponent of the DH was Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, he of the orange baseballs and color-coded bases. "I pushed the DH for three years," he says. "They thought I was nuts, but after continuously harping, I finally woke them up." Finley was so enamored of the DH, in fact, that he acquired one even before the rule was passed, trading McLain to the Atlanta Braves in June 1972 for the hobbling Cepeda. But Cepeda played only three games for the A's that year, and Finley, anticipating a no vote on the DH, released him.

But two weeks later, on Jan. 11, 1973, Finley and the rest of the baseball world were surprised when American League owners voted 8-4 to institute a three-year experiment with the designated pinch hitter—or DPH, as it was originally called. National League president Chub Feeney wished the AL luck, saying, "We like the rules the way they are," but in truth, the NL owners were almost evenly divided on the proposal.

Two months later Larry Hisle of the Minnesota Twins inaugurated the role of designated hitter by swatting two homers and driving in seven runs in a 12-4 exhibition-game victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Another month would pass before the real first DH made his debut.

DH Trivia Question No. 3: Match these pitchers with their claim to fame:

1. Roric Harrison
2. Cy Acosta
3. Mark Langston
4. Rick Rhoden
5. Steve Stone

(a) First American League pitcher to bat after the DH rule was instituted.

(b) Last pitcher to bat in an American League regular-season game.

(c) Served as DH while attending Rosh Hashanah services.

(d) Last American League pitcher to homer in a regular-season game.

(e) Made Yankee regulars Rafael Santana and Joel Skinner feel very small.

If you got all five right, consider yourself a designated head case. The answers are 1 (d), 2 (a), 3 (b), 4 (e) and 5 (c). On Oct. 3, 1972, Harrison homered for the Baltimore Orioles. On June 20, 1973, Acosta had to bat after his Chicago White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner, moved designated hitter Tony Muser to first base to replace Dick Allen. On June 10, 1992, the California Angels' Langston pinch-ran for Hubie Brooks and stayed in the game when the team ran out of reserves. Langston struck out in both of his at bats.

The answers to numbers 4 and 5 deserve more explanation. On June 11,1988, Yankee manager Billy Martin decided to make pitcher Rhoden his DH for the day, batting him seventh, ahead of shortstop Santana and catcher Skinner. Rhoden was a .239 lifetime hitter and some regulars were injured, but the move was also Martin's way of saying he needed bench help. "I thought he was joking," said Rhoden. He wasn't. Rhoden grounded out and hit a sacrifice fly in his two at bats.

With 12 DH starts, Stone was Baltimore's fifth-most-used designated hitter in 1980, although he never actually went to bat. It seems that on Sept. 8 of that year, the Orioles knocked Detroit Tiger starter Milt Wilcox out of the box before he had a chance to face DH Lee May. Wilcox's reliever, Roger Weaver, retired May for the first out of the inning. Said Baltimore manager Earl Weaver after the game, "We knocked him out after five batters and had our DH coming up against a reliever I really didn't want him hitting against, but he stays in because I don't want to waste a hitter."

So for the rest of the month Earl Weaver routinely filled out lineup cards with pitchers as DHs, then batted for them the first time they came up. He was not only protecting himself in the unlikely event of an early knockout of the other pitcher, but he was also creating a mystery spot in his lineup that the other team would have to work around.

One night in Detroit, Weaver penciled in Stone even though the pitcher had already flown ahead to Toronto because of Rosh Hashanah, and the next night in Toronto the skipper "started" pitcher Tippy Martinez, who was in Pueblo, Colo., attending his grandmother's funeral. After the season the Playing Rules Committee tacked on a Weaver clause to the designated-hitter rule so that the DH had to make a plate appearance.

Despite that one blip, the designated-hitter rule has remained remarkably unchallenged in its 20 years of existence. What hath the DH wrought? Well, it certainly wrought offense: The American League has had a higher overall batting average than the National League in every year since 1973, and over the last 20 seasons the junior circuit has outscored the senior circuit by more than half a run a game. The American League has also closed the attendance gap, thanks to improved offense and the prolonged careers of such superstars as Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Dave Parker, Dave Winfield and George Brett.

Besides offense and attendance, the DH also offers a hidden blessing, and that is the wealth of baseball lore (box, page 47) that has piled up around it. In particular, designated hitters have found unique ways of whiling away the time back in the clubhouse between at bats—preparation-DH, if you will. Blomberg ate sandwiches. Kurt Bevacqua, who played 5½ seasons in the American League, would hang upside down from a gyro machine. As a Yankee DH, Mike Easier kept loose by swinging his bat against a boxing heavy bag. When he was with the White Sox, Greg Luzinski would untie and tic his shoelaces to burn off energy. Brett works on his golf game, chipping plastic golf balls into the open boxes of candy and gum on the shelves of the Royal clubhouse. "My short game," says Brett, "was a lot better this winter."

If a DH doesn't find something to do, he's liable to go crazy. Which may explain what happened to Larry Parrish, the Texas Ranger DH in 1986. Mired in a deep slump, Parrish was spotted standing at the plate in the darkened Metrodome stadium in Minneapolis one hour after a game. He was practicing his swing. Without a bat. In his shower gear.

DH Trivia Question No. 4: Which of the following baseball people actually liked the designated hitter?

(a) Bart Giamatti
(b) Bill White
(c) Joe McCarthy
(d) Fay Vincent
(e) Sparky Anderson

The answer is (e). McCarthy, who managed 3,489 regular-season games and 43 World Series games without the DH, said in 1970, eight years before his death, "I am intrigued by the possibilities of a designated hitter." On the other hand, Anderson, who has managed 2,158 games with the DH, says, "It stinks. The fans can't even tell if I can manage because of the DH."

Giamatti thought the DH to be an abomination, and his successor as commissioner, Vincent, lobbied hard to have the rule abolished. White, the outgoing National League president, finds the DH so distasteful that he prevented the Mariners from using it in an exhibition game against the Padres in 1990, even though San Diego had already agreed to let Seattle use it.

Far more interesting are the opinions of the ballplayers themselves. Many, perhaps even the majority, think that a designated hitter is somehow incomplete. Brian Downing, who DH'd in more than 800 games for the White Sox, the California Angels and the Rangers, had one request before the final game of his career, last year—to start at second base. "I want to go out a player," he said. (Downing was listed in the starting lineup as the second baseman, but he never actually went onto the field. After singling to lead off the game, he was replaced by Jeff Frye in the bottom of the inning.)

After his MVP season in 1987, George Bell of the Blue Jays was shifted to DH to make room in the outfield for rookie sensation Sil Campusano. On March 17, 1988, in what came to be known as the St. Patrick's Day Massacre, Bell refused to bat in the first inning of an exhibition game against the Red Sox. As Willie Upshaw hurriedly grabbed a bat to pinch-hit, Toronto manager Jimy Williams popped out of the dugout and ran down the left-field line to confront Bell, who was sitting in a lotus position, Gandhi-like, on the bullpen pitching mound. Williams ordered Mahatma Bell into the clubhouse and fined him $1,000 for his passive resistance. Left with little choice, Bell agreed to become the designated hitter, and as such he became the first player ever to hit three home runs on Opening Day. However, Campusano was a bust, and Bell was soon back in leftfield. He is now the White Sox DH, and contrite. "I was 28 and coming off an MVP year," Bell says. "I wasn't ready to come off the field."

The DH hasn't put everyone's nose out of joint. Easier, now the Red Sox hitting coach, says, "Being the DH is an honor. It's not for everybody. It's for guys who have a high intensity level, who stay in the game mentally and can come off the pine and swing the bat with authority. Something Dave Winfield said to me when we were with the Yankees bothered me more than anything I ever heard from a fan. He said one time when he was tired, These DHs have to play sometime. Give us every-day players a break.' I wonder how Dave feels now." Winfield, of course, is now the Twins' DH.

No designated hitter took his job more seriously than did Kansas City's Hal McRae, who is now the Royals' manager. He stayed in shape by working out with the pitchers before the game. Once the game started, he says, "I would sit in the dugout for three innings, studying the opposing pitcher. Then I would go to the clubhouse, talk to Al Zych, the equipment guy, stretch, watch the game on TV, talk, stretch some more, never losing track of the game. I wouldn't go down to the dugout until it was maybe two batters from my turn.

"But I never felt like an incomplete player. If anything, the DH is more of a team player. I was proud to help the club on offense and not hurt it on defense."

McRae's remarks are reminiscent of something someone said, oh, about 20 years ago. "If Ralph thinks I can help most by being the DH, then it's all right with me," said Ron Blomberg. "I love to play, but I know that I'm a better hitter than anything else."

DH Trivia Question No. 5: Who was the major leagues' first designated hitter?

(a) Ron Blomberg
(b) Orlando Cepeda

"I always liked that kid," says Houk. "I still think Ronnie could've been the best designated hitter ever if he hadn't gotten hurt. Great swing. What's he doing now?"

Well, he runs a career counseling service in Roswell, Ga., just north of Atlanta, but he also has a nice sideline going as the answer to a trivia question. Blomberg can be seen on cable-TV commercials for Ron Blomberg's Autograph Collector's Club of America: "Hi, do you know me? I'm Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter...." The club offers collectors a relatively inexpensive way of acquiring autographs. Blomberg also does the odd wedding or bar mitzvah as a featured guest.

In '73 Blomberg was hitting .400 when he appeared on an SI cover ("Pride of the New Yankees," July 2) along with Bobby Murcer. Blomberg ended up hitting .329 in 301 at bats. But after that year he was beset by knee and shoulder injuries, and the Yankees released him after the '76 season. He tried to come back with the White Sox in '78, after a one-year layoff, but his body wouldn't allow it. Blomberg hit .231 (dropping his career average from .301 to .293), with five homers and 22 RBIs in 156 at bats, and never played again.

"I'm glad I gave it one more shot," he says, "but it cost me my .300 lifetime average. Then maybe I would have been known for something more than being the first DH. But at least I have that."

Well, that depends. According to one theory, the answer to question No. 5 is not (a) but (b). The first designated hitter would be not the first DH to come to bat but rather the first DH to be so designated. And since the home team hands in its lineup card first, the first designated hitter was actually Cepeda.

Nah, let the Boomer have his day. Cepeda already has Hall of Fame credentials, though he hasn't made it yet.

Besides, we have another distinction for Cha-Cha. On April 8, two days later, Cepeda came up with the score tied 3-3 in the ninth against Yankee Sparky Lyle and hit a tremendous shot into the teeth of the wind and over the wall in left. To punctuate the 4-3 win, which gave the Red Sox a sweep of the Yankees, Cepeda did a little cha-cha as he crossed the plate. After the game Boston manager Eddie Kasko said that until that day he hadn't been crazy about the DH. "Now," said Kasko, "I consider it a right nice rule."

Now you know the answer to the question, Who was the first player to change a manager's mind about the DH?

PHOTOMANNY RUBIOONE MOMENTOUS AT BAT 20 YEARS AGO GAVE BLOMBERG CLAIM TO LASTING FAMEPHOTONEW YORK YANKEES[See caption above.]PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANWITH A FEW BREAKS, CEPEDA WOULD HAVE BEEN THE FIRST OFFICIAL DHPHOTOJOHN COLLIERPHOTOAPTHE DH STRUCK A CHORD WITH MANAGERS OF ALL ERAS: MACK (BELOW) MADE A CASE FOR IT 87 YEARS AGO, MCCARTHY (RIGHT) AND ANDERSON (FAR RIGHT) VOICED OPPOSING VIEWS, AND WEAVER MANIPULATED HIS LINEUP BY BENDING THE DH RULEPHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOS[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.]PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN IACONOAPPEL MADE SURE THE FIRST DH AND HIS WOOD HAD A PLACE IN COOPERSTOWN