From the Baby Bull to Big Papi

David Ortiz slammed his 30th home run for the Red Sox last night in a victory over the hapless Seattle Mariners. Papi, as it turns out, might be the only DH with 30 homers this season. Vlad Guerrero and Luke Scott each have 26 homers, so we will see if they reach the 30 mark. In fact, in many ways, Ortiz is a dinosaur. He is a dying breed: the dedicated designated hitter.

It is appropriate that the singular role of a player as a DH ends in Boston, because it also began in Boston. Most of you are familiar with the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first DH in a regular major league game?”

That would be Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees on April 6, 1973. Facing Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant in his first plate appearance, Blomberg walked.

You may be less familiar with who was the first DH to have appeared in a spring training game?

That would be Larry Hisle of the Minnesota Twins, who hit a three-run homer and then a grand slam.

Then there is the question of who was the first player signed to solely be a designated hitter?

That would be Orlando Cepeda for the Boston Red Sox.

The esteemed baseball writer, Joe Durso, wrote about the new position in the Saturday Evening Post in the July/August 1973 edition:

“when nine of the twelve clubs in the American League drew fewer than a million customers in 1972, the stampede was on. The villain: the 6-foot-4-inch pitcher with overpowering stuff. The victim: the man waving a baseball bat 60/2 feet away. The reason, suggested Gabe Paul: “The pitchers and the stadium grew too big.”

“Larry Hisle didn’t realize it at the time, but that was his cue. Actually, the cue had been sneaking up on him. In 1895, the infield fly rule was adopted to keep smart infielders from tricking unsmart base-runners. In 1901, it was revised to protect the innocent. In 1920, the spitball was outlawed. In 1950, the strike zone was defined (armpit to top of knee). In 1963, it was defined again (top of shoulder to bottom of knee). In 1969, would you believe armpit to top of knee again?”

I don’t want to start the debate flaring again about the value of the DH (for the record, I think baseball is more interesting without it); I just want to explore the changing role of the DH.

The American League turned to the DH to boost flagging attendance and declining offense. At the time of its creation, the NL was filled with more athletic, more exciting stars, all of whom who were drawing crowds. That was why in 1972 only three teams in the AL passed the million mark in attendance and only three teams in the NL did not.

The Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, was very supportive of the Rules Committee who strongly endorsed the “designated pinch-hitter” as it was first called, as well as the alternative suggestion of just having eight-man batting orders.

So it came to pass on January 11, 1973 that the owners of the 24 clubs voted to allow the AL to use a “designated pinch-hitter” to bat for the pitcher without forcing him from a game. The plan as voted on would be a three-year experiment (no unlike Gilligan’s three-hour tour). Another proposal, for regular season interleague games, was turned over to the rules committee. The DH was the most basic change in the rules since 1903 when foul balls were henceforth ruled as strikes.

“I hope it works,” Commissioner Kuhn said after casting the tie-breaking vote, necessary because of the stalemate between the two leagues. Kuhn’s spot in history is assured as another example of poor baseball leadership who actually makes Bud Selig look good.

By the way, before you laud the NL for maintaining the purity of the game, we should not forget that in August 1980 the NL club voted 5-4 against adopting the DH, with four abstentions. A simple majority of 7-5 was needed for the change to take place and I doubt that the vote would be that close today.

When asked to comment about the new rule in 1973, White Sox manager Chuck Tanner said that he would immediately “put in a call to Orlando Cepeda,” the 35-year old first baseman, who had been recently dropped by Oakland. Following knee surgery, the feeling was that Cepeda could no longer run, but he could still hit home runs.

The White Sox and the Rangers very quickly approached Cepeda but on January 18, he signed with the Red Sox, who initially opposed the DH, and became the first player specifically signed in that unique role.

At the time of the signing, Cepeda told the UPI, “I think it’s going to be good for baseball. Every time the pitcher comes to the plate now, people go to the restroom or go for a sandwich. With the new rule, they’ll stay in their seats.”

When asked why he chose Boston, Cha-Cha responded, “Ted Williams. I always liked Ted Williams.” Which makes total sense to me.

Here are all the first designated hitters by team and first appearance:

DH Lawrence

Team Name of Designated Hitter Date
Baltimore Orioles Terry Crowley 04-06-73
Boston Red Sox Orlando Cepeda 04-06-1973
California Angels Tommy McCraw 04-06-1973
Chicago White Sox Mike Andrews 04-06-1973
Cleveland Indians John Ellis 04-07-1973
Detroit Tigers Gates Brown 04-07-1973
Kansas City Royals Ed Kirkpatrick 04-07-1973
Milwaukee Brewers Ollie Brown 04-06-1973
Minnesota Twins Tony Oliva 04-06-1973
New York Yankees Ron Blomberg 04-06-1973
Oakland Athletics Billy North 04-06-1973
Seattle Mariners Dave Collins 04-06-1973
Texas Rangers Rico Carty 04-07-1973
Tampa Bay Devil Rays Paul Sorrento 03-31-1998
Toronto Blue Jays Otto Velez 04-07-1977

This season, there are only six players who qualify as pure designated hitters:

  • Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers, has 468 at bats as a DH and 66 at bats in other capacities. Texas has used 12 different players as DH this season.
  • Luke Scott, Orioles, has 307 at bats as a DH and 102 at bats in other capacities. Baltimore has used 13 different players as DH this season.
  • Johnny Damon, Tigers, has 341 at bats as a DH and 140 at bats in other capacities. Detroit has used 10 different players as DH this season.
  • Hideki Matsui, Angels, has 380 at bats as a DH and 62 at bats in other capacities. Los Angeles has used 13 different players as DH this season.
  • Adam Lind, Blue Jays, has 430 at bats as a DH and 97 at bats in other capacities. Toronto has used 11 different players as DH this season.
  • David Ortiz, Red Sox, has 446 at bats as a DH and 21 at bats in other capacities. Boston has used 5 different players as DH this season.

No team has used fewer players as the DH this season than Boston. In fact, no other team has used less than 10, with the Yankees and the Athletics each using 16 players and the Rays using 15 leading the pack.

And why not use multiple players? It is expensive to have a uni-dimensional player on your ballclub. Gordon Edes, of ESPN Boston reports that his major league sources say that Boston is prepared to pick up the Ortiz option in 2011 for $12.5 million, but does not seem inclined to offer him the extension he seeks.

That to me is a wise move because the trend clearly seems to be flexibility for your team on the field and in its expenses. For example, I think it is very unlikely that the Yankees will have a designated designated hitter next season. The plan will be to give aging stars like Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez a way to rest and still keep their valuable bats in the lineup. The same even would be true for younger players like Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano. The other likelihood in the Bronx next season would be the limitless payroll Yankees signing another CC, in this case Carl Crawford, and integrating him into the current outfield of Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner in the outfield and at the DH slot.

So what began with Cha-Cha Cepeda seems to have come full circle with Big Papi Ortiz. Will the trend toward part-time DHs continue? I think so simply because of the money, but time will tell as the great DH experiment continues.
“With Bobby Bonds in right field and three first baseman, I might as well donate my glove to charity.” – Ron Blomberg