On January 11, 1973, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter Rule. Contrary to popular opinion, the DH was not a new concept. In 1906, Connie Mack first suggested the idea of replacing the pitcher with a permanent pinch hitter. Ironically in 1928, John Heydler, National League President, reintroduced the idea. Again, ironically, the rule was shot down by the American League.
In the early 1970s, Charlie Finley, the owner of Oakland A’s, became the designated hitter rule’s most outspoken advocate, though the DH would add more offense to the game and would draw more fans to the game. Finley, also wanted to institute Day-Glo orange baseballs, Finley said:
“Why the hell play with a white ball,” he asks, “when we’ve got one you can see a lot better?”
On January 11, 1973, an 8-4 vote made the DH a part of baseball in the American League. Initially, it was to be a three-year trial. Finley added,
“The average fan comes to the park to see action, home runs. He doesn’t come to see a one-, two-, three- or four-hit game. I can’t think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up, when the average pitcher can’t hit my grandmother. Let’s have a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher.”
Finley was a master showman in the style of P.T. Barnum. In the midst of back-to-back-to-back world championships, Finley was the trying to get fans in the ballpark. On April 6, 1973, Ron Bloomberg of the Yankees became the first DH to bat. He promptly walked against Luis Tiant of the Red Sox. Over the next 27 years, the DH has become a fixture in the game in all but the National League. From Little League to high schools to colleges, the DH is used to get extra players in the game. When I coached fresh/soph baseball, I used a DH to get one player an at bat while another played the field. I was not a fan of it. In high schools, usually, the best athletes pitch and play several positions. It would be unwise to use the DH strictly for a pitcher at that level.
The time has now come to evaluate the impact of the DH on the game. In the next 10-15 years, there will be several players who have elongated their careers through the DH and are eligible to voted in to the Baseball Hall of Fame. First up is Edgar Martinez. Last week, Edgar Martinez, formerly of the Seattle Mariners received 191 votes (32.9%) for enshrinement in to the Baseball Hall of Fame. While well below the needed 75%, Martinez’s surprising show of support in his first year bodes well for his enshrinement in the coming years. However, there are those who believe Martinez will not reach 75% because he was a DH. Sure, Martinez played 1B and 3B, but the majority of his career was as a DH and he was one of the best pure hitters of his era. But is being a DH going to be enough? My friend, Dave, says it is. I don’t think it is. For one, Martinez, never had 3000 hits and nor did he hit for a lot of power. There is no denying his eye as a batter but will that be enough? Martinez’s greatest detriment was that he did not become an everyday player until he was 27. The resulting 14 years did not allow him to approach the gaudy numbers of his contemporaries. There are other cases to examine in the coming years
Frank Thomas – Played mainly at first base for the White Sox. He hit for power and average. He did play a substantial portion of his later years (when healthy) in the DH role. However, I think Thomas will make the hall.
Jim Thome – Like Martinez, Thome played as a position player in youth. As his career began to wane on defense as a Philadelphia Phillie, Thome judiciously stepped into the DH role for the White Sox, and most recently, the Twins. Thome is approaching 600 next season and he will most likely do it as a Twin. Like Frank Thomas, Thome has always been a “Big Boy” (What I call Country strong), the cloud of playing well in the steroids has never dogged the two. I think Thome, like Thomas, will get in.
David Ortiz – First Big Papi came up with the Twins. When he was released, Ortiz signed with the Red Sox and went on a great run helping Boston win two championships as a 1B and as a DH. Unfortunately, Ortiz has a positive steroid test on resume. Where does Ortiz fit for the Hall of Fame? At the moment he is well south of 400 home runs, yet he was an undeniable force for the past decade. I don’t think Ortiz will get in. At 35 and only 349 home runs, he is too fragile to get to the prerequisite 500 home runs or even close to 3000 hits.
Adam Dunn – As Dunn has now moved to the American League to play for the White Sox, Dunn’s name will come up as a reason not to vote someone in as a DH. A fielder, Dunn is a nightmare waiting to happen. As a batter, he hits monstrous home runs, drives in runs, and has a high OPS. If he could steal bases and hit for average, he would be the ultimate fantasy baseball player. Dunn is 31 and has 354 home runs. Let’s say he averages 35 a home runs (a very conservative estimate) a year playing for the White Sox. This puts him over 520+ home runs and he will still have 3-4 more years value and could approach the same statistics Thome is now eyeing. Does Dunn’s ineptitude as fielder exclude him from being in the HOF? However, Dunn, like Thome and Thomas, has always been a large physical specimen and has never faced any steroid criticism. Does that fact work in his favor? Right now, I would say no for Dunn. It’s a shame too because he can rake.
The main argument against a DH going in to the hall has been they only play one side of the game. The ultimate argument for the inclusion of designated hitters is, “Well, so do pitchers.” Ozzie Smith never went into the HOF because of his bat. He went because of his spectacular defensive skills. Tom Seaver was not a great hitter, but he was a dominant pitcher for 15 years. Part of me says, yes, designated hitters should go into the hall, and part of me says no. Ultimately, I think it just depends on the player.