When the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter in 1973, the converted first baseman/outfielder was certain the American League’s experiment of hitting for the pitcher would not last beyond one season.
The DH was adopted after pitching dominated the late 1960s. The AL wanted more offense.
“At that time, everybody considered it a designated pinch hitter,’’ Blomberg, 69, said last week from his home in Atlanta. “The pitcher won’t hit, you hit for the pitcher. Everybody joked about it. Nobody knew what it was.’’
Forty-five years later, it is an AL staple, and Blomberg is surprised that it has not been adopted by the National League. “They will have it soon,’’ he said. “There’s too much pressure.’’
MLB union chief Tony Clark raised the DH volume last week, saying a growing number of players want it for both leagues.
Commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to douse the flames by saying the different styles appeal to fans. Manfred’s position does not seem definitive, though, and over the years, baseball has moved steadily toward unification by eliminating league presidents, ushering in interleague play and having one set of umpires rotate between leagues.
Gene Orza, former chief operating officer of the Players Association, thinks the impetus for the NL to implement the DH may come from Manfred, 59.
“Part of the motivation must be Rob,’’ Orza said. “Rob is a later generation, so to speak. He’s not as tied to the NL traditions maybe as Bud [Selig] had to be or prior commissioners. The National League always thought it was the superior league because it was senior, the American League the newcomer, the upstart. The idea of the [NL] doing something because the AL was doing it wasn’t something they’d cotton to very well.’’
The DH issue could be addressed formally when talks begin for the next collective-bargaining agreement, which expires at the end of 2021.
“It’s a collective-bargaining issue for sure,’’ an industry source said. “More jobs, more players getting paid. It’s something that eventually probably gets done . . . They don’t want it to get out that quite a few [NL] owners want it to happen, too.’’
Evidence-gathering of sorts continues on why the universal DH should be adopted. Mets manager Mickey Callaway was ready to go for it in May after Jacob deGrom suffered a hyperextended elbow while taking a swing. “If it were up to me, the [pitchers] would never take BP and never swing in the game,’’ Callaway said.
Mets ownership has not publicly discussed its position on the DH but is believed to oppose it.
The AL is not thrilled with having its pitchers hit in interleague play, either. The Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka strained both hamstrings while scoring on a sacrifice fly on June 10 and missed a month.
The DH started as a landing spot for aging and injured players but later had star quality in Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas and Paul Molitor, who were able to extend Hall of Fame careers. David Ortiz appeared in 2,408 games, 2,029 as a DH, according to baseballreference.com.
It will gain more validation if former Mariner Edgar Martinez, who had most of his at-bats as a DH, makes the Hall of Fame. He hit .312 in an 18-year career. “He was one of the best hitters ever,’’ Blomberg said. “Nobody ever thought a relief pitcher was going into the Hall of Fame, either.’’
Blomberg’s fame stems from being the first DH. He works for the Yankees as a goodwill ambassador, and when people recognize his name, he gets upgrades to first class on planes, better seats in restaurants and ego gratification. “I make more money doing what I do now than when I played baseball,” he said. “Googled myself and I made $660,000 total,’’ compared to this season’s major-league minimum of $545,000.
Blomberg’s DH debut was at Fenway Park on April 6, 1973. Injuries kept him from playing first base, so Ralph Houk made him the Opening Day DH. Batting sixth, he walked his first time up and went 1-for-3. Had he not batted in a three-run first inning, Boston’s Orlando Cepeda would have become the first DH. In eight mostly injury-plagued seasons. Blomberg played 461 games, 180 as a DH.
On his historic day, he was freezing between at-bats in the dugout and headed for the clubhouse, where he listened to the game on the radio and ate kielbasa, part of the postgame meal being prepared. “I’m thinking this isn’t so bad,’’ he said.
“We lose, 15-5. Now, all of a sudden, everybody’s coming into the clubhouse. Right next to my locker probably around 50 to 60 reporters. I’m saying to myself, ‘OK, maybe I got released. Who got traded?’ Reporters are asking all these questions what was it like to be the DH. All the guys on the team were looking at me. That’s when it hit me.’’
Yankees public relations director Marty Appel later told Blomberg his game bat had been designated for assignment — to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He didn’t want to part with it. “There’s a bat in Cooperstown,’’ he said, “that probably has maybe 75 to 80 good hits in it.’’