It was 40 years ago today that Ron Blomberg of the Yankees stepped to the plate against the Boston Red Sox as baseball’s first designated hitter — a new-fangled innovation that the American League had instituted to boost its flagging offense. The National League, meanwhile, respectfully declined, voting down the measure.
“We’ll continue to play by baseball rules,” National League president Chub Feeney said at the time. As I wrote in this story about the DH in 1997, Feeney also said that if the American League “experiment,” as they called it, “proved itself,” the National League “wouldn’t hesitate to adopt it.”
I’d say the DH has proved itself, both as the impetus for increased offense, and as a way to keep great hitters, from Hank Aaron to David Ortiz, in the game. Here in Seattle, of course, Edgar Martinez was a fixture at DH for a decade after injuries limited his mobility in the field. Rob Neyer today rated Edgar as the greatest DH of all time.
It’s beyond time to unify baseball and adopt the designated hitter in the Nationals League. Christina Kahrl of ESPN makes a compelling case here.
It just seems ludicrous that more than a decade after commissioner Bud Selig wisely blurred the lines between the National League and American League by getting rid of the concept of separate league offices, presidents, and umpires, that this fundamental difference should still exist between the two leagues. And now that interleague games are being played virtually every day of the season because of of the odd number of teams in each league, resulting from the move of the Astros to the American League, you’re asking teams to change their style of play in about 10 games a year. Not to mention the fact that in a seven-game World Series, four of the games are played under one set of rules, three under a different set of rules. Would any other league put up with that? I remember in the 1993 World Series, when Toronto went into Philadelphia, and Jays manager Cito Gaston was faced with either benching batting champion John Olerud, or benching the great Paul Molitor, their DH. Olerud sat the first game, while the next night, Molitor played third base for the first time in three years.
You could argue, I suppose, that pure baseball requires two-way players. But I think that four decades of designated hitting not just in the American League, but virtually every league in every level of organized baseball, has eliminated the stigma. Those same purists may rave about the increased strategy in the National League, but I would say that watching a pitcher flail at the plate four times, or maybe drop down a bunt, is not nearly as compelling as watching the Billy Butlers, Adam Dunns and Frank Thomases of the world.
You can give up, by the way, on the unification coming the other way — by dropping the DH altogether. The powerful Major League Baseball Players Association would never allow it, because the DH tends to be a highly paid position. No, the DH is here to stay in the American League. MLB’s inclination, it seems, is to just leave it the way it is, with half their teams playing the game one way, half playing the other. But Selig hasn’t changed to make other major changes to the structure of the game, from wild cards to interleague play to international games to realignment. It’s time to join the 21st century, eliminate the folly of two different sets of rules, and adopt the DH in the National League, too.