In the spring of 1973 a controversial decision was made that would rock the very foundations of one of America’s most loved and established institutions. This still hotly debated issue has continued to divide Americans for nearly thirty-four years. With no resolution in sight, the proponents and opponents show no signs of stopping the vocal and verbal sparring over the contentious matter. On April 6th of that fateful spring ‘73, Ron Bloomberg became the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history. Ever since the New York Yankee took a base on balls in the first at-bat by a designated hitter (DH) in the American League, fans, players, and sportswriters alike have butted heads over its merits. Instituted originally as an emergency measure to increase slumping offensive performance and rekindle fan interest, the DH is a much maligned, but now integral part of professional baseball. Indeed, “Two generations of baseball fans [the author among them] …have grown up with the Designated Hitter rule being in place, and for them, the DH is as much a traditional part of baseball as the pitcher batting” (“Designated hitter”). The DH is here to stay, in the American League only, and in one man’s opinion that is the way it should be. The DH enables players to extend their careers when their bodies would have broken down in the pre-DH years playing the field. The DH also, succeeding in its original intent, helps to boost offensive production while maintaining baseballs rich tradition of managerial strategy.
While its detractors will vilify it for besmirching the integrity of the game, the DH has allowed many of the games greatest players to continue awing fans with their skill as sturdy batsmen. Prior to 1973 if a player’s skills had diminished in the field due to age or injury he would often lose playing time to another player who perhaps was not as good a hitter, but compensated by being at least marginally better in the field. Though that is the natural order of things in sports, it could rob a great hitter of being able to compete when, really, only one skill set had diminished. Many Hall of Fame-caliber players were able to extend their illustrious careers by way of the DH, among others, George Brett, Paul Molitor, and Carl Yastremski (“Designated hitter).
Though it is not for charity’s sake that hitters should have their careers extended. Baseball is a billions of dollar business after all. The DH should not become a refuge for broken-down also-rans hanging around for one last bask in the fading glow of spotlight, though that sometimes does happen. But most often the DH adds more excitement to a team’s lineup than a pitcher-at-the-bat would. Having the DH allows the American League to bat nine batters in the lineup, rather than eight batters and one guy who has to bat because the rules say so (the pitcher). Most pitchers, pre- and post-1973, are poor hitters. When their spot in the lineup comes up every eight outs they are usually asked to do something really exciting like bunt or try not to hit into a double-play (please note sarcasm). The pitcher’s at-bat is usually a good time to use the facilities or track down the peanut vendor. After the addition of the DH Bob Costas notes that the American “league batting average jumped from .239 in 1972 (pre-DH) to .259 in 1973 (first year of DH).” Having a legitimate ninth hitter adds excitement where tedium was the norm.
Purists will argue that that excitement comes at the expense of baseball’s rich tradition of managerial gamesmanship and strategy. It is true that much of the game strategy employed in the DH-less National League is lost in the American League, especially the double-switch. Managers in the American League do not have the problem of fretting over whether or not to relieve a pitcher because his spot in the lineup is coming up in the next half-inning. They can base their pitching decisions solely on how the pitcher is pitching. However, the evolution of the game since 1973, perhaps related to the DH rule or perhaps not, has altered the landscape so much that “modern AL baseball with its dizzying array of specialist pitchers and batting styles is much more complex than baseball before 1973” (“Designated hitter”). So what has been lost? Does the constant stopping of play to double-switch mediocre relief pitchers and run-of-the-mill reserve outfielders enhance the game? Strategy is still an important part of baseball, even in the American League, but as Paul Daugherty says, “I’d rather see a hitter hit than a manager think. Basically, it boils down to this: [Hall of Fame player] Paul Molitor or [undistinguished manager] Jim Riggleman?”
Baseball has been called America’s Pastime for decades. Whether this is still the case is arguable at best. In order to keep up with the ever expanding pool of available recreation activities vying for the public’s free time, baseball will continue to look for ways to stay fresh and infuse itself with new excitement. It did so with the wild card playoff format in 1995, with inter-league play in 1997, and the designated hitter in 1973. As long as it remains in its current format, American League only, the DH will, and should, remain a part of America’s oldest sports love affair.
Costas, Bob. “DH Rule: Angelos vs. Costas.” USA Today Baseball Weekly.
3 Jan. 2007 http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/bbw/bbw1828.htm>.
The article is a debate between broadcaster Bob Costas and Baltimore
Orioles owner Peter Angelos on the merits of the designated hitter.
Daugherty, Paul. “It’s Time for DH in NL.” Cincinnati Enquirer. 16 Sept. 1997.
3 Jan. 2007
Daugherty’s article is a call to bring the designated hitter to the National League.
“Designated hitter.” 3 Jan. 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designated_hitter.
This entry in Wikipedia discusses the rule of the designated hitter as well as its history and controversies.