|Thursday, March 27
Updated: April 4, 1:42 PM ET
Blomberg first permanent pinch-hitter
By Jeff Merron
Special to ESPN.com
Thirty years ago -- at 1:53 p.m. on April 6, 1973 -- Ron Blomberg, batting sixth in the Yankee lineup, came to bat with the bases loaded on a cold, windy Opening Day at Fenway. Facing Luis Tiant, he walked on a full count to force in a run.
It wouldn't do the Yankees much good -- they would lose the game 15-5 -- but it was a historic moment. By three strokes of fate -- a pulled hamstring, the schedule and a wind-blown double -- Blomberg came to the plate as the first designated hitter in baseball history.
The moment was a long time coming. Connie Mack had suggested the rule as early as 1906. NL owners had approved the DH rule back in December 1928, but it was nixed by the AL. In 1940, California's Bushrod Winter League, an amateur circuit, first put the rule into effect. In 1969, the International League gave the DH a trial run, but that lasted only a year.
AL owners put the DH rule -- initially a three-year experiment -- into place for three reasons: 1. to pump up the offense; 2. to give aging sluggers the chance to shine for a few more years; 3. to increase attendance.
All three missions were accomplished. In 1972, AL teams combined for 6,441 runs. In 1973, that figure ballooned to 8,314. In 1972, AL clubs blasted 1,175 home runs; in 1973, 1,552 balls flew over the fences. The AL batting average jumped an astounding 20 points from .239 to .259. League attendance rose from 11.4 million to 13.4 million. And certainly some older stars, unburdened by the physical and psychological pressure of playing defense, extended their careers.
The eccentric A's owner, Charlie O. Finley, was perhaps the strongest advocate for the AL's adoption of the DH rule.
"The average fan comes to the park to see action, home runs," Finley said. "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."
Blomberg clearly wasn't the model the owners had in mind. At 24, he wasn't old although he wasn't far from the end of his career. He had hit 21 homers and driven in 80 runs in 504 career at-bats before he stepped to the plate in the DH role. Not shabby power numbers for those days. But not the kind that would knock a pitcher's socks off, either.
Mel Stottlemyre started for the Yankees the day Blomberg came to bat as the DH.
"All the pitchers were upset," Stottlemyre said. "We wanted to hit. But the players didn't have much of a voice back then. Whatever the owners did, we basically went along with it."
Blomberg, a first baseman, hadn't played in the DH slot at all during spring training. He was placed there by manager Ralph Houk because Blomberg had a pulled hamstring. If Matty Alou, batting third for New York, hadn't doubled with two out, the top of the first would have been over and Orlando Cepeda, the Red Sox DH, could have made the history books.
Instead, two more walks brought Blomberg to his historic plate appearance. He finished the day 1-for-3, his hit a broken-bat single. Blomberg's RBI came with his walk.
Still, the Red Sox won 15-5, racking up 20 hits. Cepeda was of no help. He went 0-for-6, the only Red Sox starter to go hitless in the game.
Cepeda was much closer to the ideal DH the owners had in mind. Just a week shy of his 35th birthday, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Cepeda had been a first baseman most of his career. Coming into the season, he had 358 career homers, and had driven in more than 100 runs five times in his career.
The rest of Cepeda's season went much better than Opening Day. He played 142 games at DH for the Red Sox, with 20 homers, 86 RBI, a .350 on-base percentage and not a single chance in the field. He won the first Associated Press Designated Hitter award.
Opening Day 1973 didn't bode well for designated hitters throughout the AL. In the six openers played on April 6 and 7, the DHs went 10-for-47 (a .212 average) with one homer and 10 RBI. Minnesota's Tony Oliva had the best day by far, slugging the first designated homer and finishing his afternoon 2-for-4 with three RBI in a Twins win.
Blomberg went on to have his finest season at the plate in 1973, with a .329 batting average, 12 homers and 57 RBI. But he played in only 100 games, and was the DH in 55 of those appearances.
Arguments about the pros and cons of the DH still rage on. Opinions are strong. Many prefer the extra strategy that comes into play when the pitcher bats.
Others love the rule -- the extra offense and longer pitching appearances by effective starters are just two of the benefits.
Then there are those who absolutely ridicule the idea. Earl Weaver, for example, had a lot of fun in 1979. On 21 occasions, his lineup card listed a pitcher as DH. Then he would send up a pinch-hitter for the DH in the first at-bat.
Hence, Steve Stone was a DH one day when the Orioles faced the Tigers in Detroit. The thing was, Stone wasn't there. He wasn't at Tiger Stadium. He wasn't in Detroit. He wasn't even in the United States. Steve Stone, Oriole DH, was in Toronto prepping for his start the next day against the Blue Jays.
Jeff Merron is a regular ESPN.com Page 2 contributor.