“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.” That’s the opinion of fictional ballplayer Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner in the movie, “Bull Durham.”
Non-fictional former ballplayer Orlando Cepeda does not agree, as least as regards the designated hitter.
“I couldn’t play on the field – my knees were so bad – but I knew I could hit. And because I could hit, it was easy for me. So that rule got me to the Hall of Fame,” Cepeda said.
By the time the designated hitter appeared in the American League 40 years ago this month, Cepeda had played in the field and hit a ton for 15 seasons, most of them with the Giants and the Cardinals. When the Boston Red Sox called him in Puerto Rico before the 1973 season, he couldn’t imagine what they wanted with an old fellow who could no longer run.
“Well, I didn’t know anything about it,” Cepeda said. “I was with the Oakland A’s, and my knees were so bad that I wouldn’t play ball anymore. So when Boston called me, I didn’t know nothing about the rule of designated hitter.”
He learned quickly. With a .289 average and 20 home runs, Cepeda may have been the best DH in 1973, but he wasn’t the first.
“See, Orlando got in the Hall of Fame through the front door, and I got in the back door.”
That’s Ron Blomberg. On April 6, 1973, in a game between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park, he was the first DH to step to the plate. For the record, he walked. And he didn’t think what he was doing was a big deal.
“Everybody thought it was a glorified pinch-hitter,” Blomberg said. “Everybody thought it was a joke, and nobody really took it very seriously. All the writers came up to me – there were about 70, 80 writers across the country — because it was a big deal. So they came up and they said, “You know, you’re the first DH.” So, you know, to be honest with you, I thought the DH was just going to last, you know, for a couple of months at the most.”
The argument for the DH was simple: who likes to see pitchers flail away at the plate? Put another hitter in the lineup. It still makes sense to Orlando Cepeda.
“I believe with the designated hitter, they made the game more exciting, because baseball is about hitting,” Cepeda said. “Pitching is great, defense is great, but hitting is also great.”
Blomberg, forever and always the first DH, couldn’t be more enthusiastic in his agreement.
“I had so much fun with this thing, because nobody can ever take this away from me,” Blomberg said. “You know, because there’s not too many firsts in the game of baseball.”
Forty years after the Yankees sent Blomberg to the plate as their DH, the American League continues to feature the designated hitter, and the National League continues to pretend not to notice. It’s a circumstance that ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian can’t understand.
“Forty years later, I’m still confused, because I still don’t understand how we can have a different set of rules in each league,” Kurkjian said. “I’m telling you that historians, 50 to 100 years from now, are going to look back at this now 40-year period and say, ‘What were they doing back then?’”
According to Kurkjian, nobody should have been surprised when the Red Sox made that call to Puerto Rico before the ‘73 season. Their understanding of the new rule was representative: the DH was a guy who, whether because of age or injury, couldn’t play in the field.
“Whether it was Frank Robinson or Rico Carty or Orlando Cepeda or somebody like that – star players at the end of their career,” Kurkjian said. “But what it is now, much more than that, it is a way for American League managers to get a different player a day off, and yet keep their bat in the lineup. Last year, for instance, the Yankees used five different starting designated hitters the first five games of the year.”
Whether you regard the designated hitter as an outrage against the purity of the game, as Crash Davis certainly does, or as the happenstance that earned you lots of opportunities to speak at banquets, as Ron Blomberg certainly does, there’s no doubt the institution of the new rule created some great stories. I asked Tim Kurkjian to pick a favorite.
“Frank Robinson was my favorite designated hitter, and for a bunch of reasons,” Kurkjian said. “He was the designated hitter the day that he was the first African-American manager of all time. So he put himself in the lineup, grudgingly, as the DH, and the number two hitter against Doc Medich, first day of the season. And he goes down 0-2 to Doc Medich, and then Doc Medich throws him a breaking ball on the outside part of the plate, and tries to strike him out on three pitches. And Frank Robinson looks at himself and says, ‘He’s trying to embarrass me on my day in front of all these people.’ And the next pitch, Frank Robinson, the DH, hit a home run over the left-center field fence.”
“That,” Tim told me, “was Frank Robinson.” And his tale, say I, is as good a “Happy Birthday” story as any for the DH, 40 years old this weekend.