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The Designated Hitter: 40 years and counting

By Tony Adams

Sports Editor

 Many people in the community were very young when the American League instituted the designated hitter rule. They didn’t have the experience of the true feel of baseball prior to the advent of the rule change in 1973.

 Major League Baseball rule 6.10 went into effect 40 seasons ago in the American League. Most high school, college and professional leagues use the designated hitter. The two most prominent leagues that do not use the designated hitter are Major League Baseball’s National League and the Nippon Professional Baseball Central League.

 The only time the designated hitter is not used in a ball game is in games played at National League ballparks, whether in interleague play or postseason play.

 From 1973 to 1975, all World Series games were played under National League rules, with no designated hitter and pitchers batting.

Then from 1976 until 1985, the rule applied to all games in a World Series, but only in even-numbered years.

 From 1986 up until now, the DH rule is used in games in the American League.

 In All-Star Games, the DH has been used by both teams since 2010.

 The rationale for the designated hitter rule arose comparatively early in the history of professional baseball.

 It was observed that, with a few exceptions — most notably Babe Ruth, who began his career as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox— pitchers are usually selected for the quality of their pitching, not their hitting, and that most pitchers were extraordinarily weak hitters who had to be batted ninth in the batting order and pinch-hit for late in games when their team was trailing.

   The designated hitter idea was raised by Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack in 1906, though he was not the first to propose it.

The rumors were that he grew weary of watching Eddie Plank and Chales Bender flail at pitches when at bat. Mack’s proposal received little support and was even lambasted by the press as “wrong theoretically”.

   In the late 1920s, National League president John Heydler made a number of attempts to introduce a 10th man designated hitter as a way to speed up the game, and almost convinced National League clubs to agree to try it during spring training in 1929. Many youth leagues today utilize a 10th hitter into lineups to increase in-game participation.

The momentum to implement the DH did not pick up until the pitching dominance of the late 1960s. In 1968, Denny McLain won 31 games and Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA. The Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 average.

 In comparison, only three batting champions between the two leagues hit less than .320 in the 45 years since Yaz hit .301 for his title in 1968: Tony Gwynn hit .313 in 1988 for San Diego (by far his lowest average of his eight batting titles), Rod Carew hit .318 for Minnesota in 1972 (by far his lowest average of his seven batting titles) and Terry Pendleton hit .319 for Atlanta in 1991. 

 After the season, the rules were changed to lower the mound from 15 to 10 inches and change the upper limit of the strike zone from the top of a batter’s shoulders to his armpits. In addition, in 1969 spring training, both the American League and National League agreed to try the designated pinch hitter (DPH), but they did not agree on the implementation.

 Most NL teams chose not to participate. On March 6, 1969, two games utilized the new DPH rule for the very first time.

 Two newly formed expansion teams, the Montreal Expos (now known as the Washington Nationals) and the Kansas City Royals, would participate in one such game. The other game was the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators (now known as the Texas Rangers).

 On March 26, 1969, Major League Baseball did away with the idea for the a couple of seasons. Like other experimental baseball rule changes of the 1960s and ‘70s, the DH was embraced by Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley.

 In January 1973, Finley and the other American League owners voted 8–4 to approve the designated hitter for a three-year trial run.

The first official designated hitter was Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees, who faced the Red Sox’ Luis Tiant on April 6, 1973. Blomberg walked against “El Tiante”.

 Major League Baseball presents an annual award to the most outstanding designated hitter of the season, called the Edgar Martinez Award.

Renamed for the former Seattle Mariners DH after his retirement in 2004, the Outstanding DH Award was introduced in 1973 and has been handed out every season since. Martinez won the award five times and David Ortiz has won the award six times.

 “The DH takes away from the short game, in a purists sense,” said Belton head baseball coach Eddie Cornblum. “The DH adds more excitement to the game and contributes more offense. Fans are treated to having an added bat in the lineup that contributes potentially 20 to 30-some odd extra home runs a year.”

Another local talent that spent a portion of a career as a designated hitter is former Belton Tiger and professional baseball player Toby Rumfield.

 Rumfield, a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1991, played 1,310 games in 14 seasons in the minor leagues. He hit .272 with 139 homers and 726 RBI in his career.

 The former farmhand for the Reds, Braves, White Sox, Cardinals and Marlins, as well as one season each in the Central and Frontier Independent Leagues, saw over 200 games at designated hitter. He also managed three teams in five years following his playing days.

 “As a player, it’s awesome,” said Rumfield. “It prolongs a player’s career. Look at Jason Giambi (oldest player to hit a walk off home run in a game at age 42) and David Ortiz.”

 But as a manager, the challenge is different.

 “A good hitting pitcher in the lineup always helps the way a manager manages his game,” said Cornblum. “With having the pitcher hitting in the lineup, bunting is utilized more. It changes the aspect of how you manage a game. I like the DH and having that extra hitter in the lineup. But the opinions vary so much, depending on your view of the game.”

 “As a manager, I am not a fan,” said Rumfield. “It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together. For the fans, it’s great. In the American League, you can just fill out your lineup card and send it in.”

Designated hitters have generally not made much impact on the MLB MVP Award or MLB Hall of Fame voting. It’s because of the rareness of a full-time DH and the fact that the DH does not contribute on defense.

No player who has played the majority of his games at DH has achieved either of these honors. Among the MVP winners, Don Baylor came closest in 1979, as he played 40 percent of his games at DH that season.

Among Hall of Famers, Paul Molitor and Jim Rice are the only inductees to even have played 25 percent of their games at DH.

  If Frank Thomas is elected, he will be the first Hall of Famer to play the majority of his games at DH. Martínez is currently on the ballot and received 35.9 percent of the vote in 2013.