The DH: baseball’s dumbest idea
Today marked the 50th anniversary of one of sports’ darkest days.
Two words: DESIGNATED HTITER. 😡😡😡😡😡😡
Four days after Mark James Robert Essex killed three policeman and four civilians at the Downtown Howard Johnson’s hotel in New Orleans and three days before Super Bowl VII, the 12 owners of the American League adopted what was known then as the “designated pinch hitter”. The word pinch was soon eliminated, and the letters DH became baseball’s shame.
The drive to adopt the DH was spearheaded by that lovable owner of the Oakland A’s, Charles Oscar Finley. He prevailed upon his Junior Circuit brethren to give it a try, as the American League had fallen behind the National in terms of offense and attendance.
In 1972, National League teams scored 824 more runs than their American League counterparts. Nine of 12 NL teams drew more than one million fans, while only three did so in the AL.
Finley tried to get the AL to adopt a designated pinch runner rule, but thankfully it was rejected. Despite this, the A’s signed the infamous Herb Washington in 1974, who is most remembered for getting picked off in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1974 World Series by the Dodgers’ ace reliever, Mike Marshall.
The NL did not adopt the DH, although Cardinals general manager Bing Devine begged and pleaded with his colleagues to do so. Fortunately, old-liners like the Dodgers’ Peter O’Malley, the Giants’ Horace Stoneham and the Reds’ Bob Howsam pushed back. Pitchers would continue to bat in the Senior Circuit.
At first, the DH was to be a three-year experiment. Following the 1975 season, the AL could revert to the rules it had played under from its formation in 1901 through 1972, or it could keep the DH permanently. The NL could adopt the DH at any time if it so desired.
By the end of 1975, baseball had too many other problems to worry about the DH. Arbitrator Peter Seitz issued his famous ruling in the case involving pitchers Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally, the former Oriole ace who was exiled to the Expos after playing out his option in Baltimore. He ruled the reserve clause to be an illegal restraint of trade, and free agency had arrived in Major League Baseball.
The DH stayed in the AL. The NL did not adopt, until it almost did in August 1980.
John Claiborne, who succeeded Devine as Cardinals GM, tried again to get his fellow NL owners to adopt the DH. It was first believed the DH would take effect for 1982, but Claiborne insisted he could convince commissioner Bowie Kuhn to force its implementation in 1981.
He had support from the Braves’ Ted Turner, the Padres’ Ray Kroc and the Mets’ Nelson Doubleday, who took over ownership of the franchise earlier in the year from the estate of Joan Payson.
O’Malley and Bob Lurie, who bought the Giants from Stoneham in 1975 and kept the team from moving to Toronto (one year before the Blue Jays began play in the AL), led the opposition. The Reds, the oldest professional sports team in North America, remained opposed, as did the Cubs and Expos.
It would come down to the Astros, Phillies and Pirates.
John McMullen, who bought the Houston team in 1979, declined to vote, leaving it up to the Pennsylvania teams, which had possibly the most bitter rivalry in the sport in the late 1970s.
Pirates GM Harding “Pete” Peterson was told by ownership to follow the lead of the team to the east on the Turnpike.
Problem was, Phillies GM Bill Giles, son of former NL president Warren Giles, could not reach owner Ruly Carpenter on 13 August, the day the issue came to a vote.
The final tally: five nays, four yeas, three abstentions. No DH in the NL.
When he found out Claiborne led the push for the DH, Cardinal owner Gussie Busch was furious. Claiborne was fired, and new manager Whitey Herzog was given double duty.
The DH was not used in the World Series until 1976, and even then, it was only used in even-numbered years.
After the All-Missouri World Series of 1985, Kuhn’s successor, Peter Ueberroth, made a change.
The DH would be used every year in the World Series, but only the AL team’s park.
This format was also used when regular season interleague play began in 1997.
The fact that AL pitchers now had to bat sometimes when they weren’t used to it was a sore point for owners in the Junior Circuit. They demanded commissioners Bud Selig and Rob Manfred force the DH upon the NL.
The drumbeat got loudest in 2008, when Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang suffered a season-ending foot injury while running the bases in Houston. Hank Steinbrenner, son of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, was furious, fuming the NL needed to join the modern age.
The commissioner’s office did not have the power to force the DH upon the NL, nor did it have the power to eliminate it in the AL. That would have to be collectively bargained in the basic agreement between the owners and the MLB Players Association.
The DH came to the NL full-time during the pandemic-shortened season of 2020. It did not remain in 2021, but when the owners and players hammered out a new basic agreement to end the 2022 lockout, the DH was in the NL to stay.
I have always hated the DH. I will never like it.
Baseball is a game of specialization, but hitting is one thing which was universal to all positions prior to the scourge of the DH.
Today, specialization has spread across baseball like horse manure. It stinks.
And now players who spent nearly all of their careers as a DH are in the Hall of Fame: Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Frank Thomas and Harold Baines, who shouldn’t be in the Hall, period. Thomas played first base before the White Sox made him a part-time player, but Martinez and Ortiz barely played the field. Big Papi was a larger-than-life figure in Beantown, but does it mean he deserves his plaque in Cooperstown? I think not.
Sure, the DH allowed my Brewers (before I was born, thankfully) to bring in Hank Aaron as a museum piece for two seasons, and extended Carl Yastrzemski’s career in Boston a few years, but both would have made the Hall of Fame had they never taken a single at-bat as a DH.Reggie Jackson considered the DH an affront. He wanted to be a complete baseball player, and to Mr. October, it meant playing in the field as well as hitting. Sure, he would DH occasionally to give his arm and legs a rest, but he was an outfielder first and foremost.
Same with George Brett and Robin Yount. Both switched positions later in their careers to stay in the field.
I won’t stop watching MLB. Doesn’t mean I have to like players who can only do one thing earning $40 million a year.