Only one way the DH is un-American

Game action batting of Cincinnati Reds Dan Driessen, 1978

Dan Driessen—the National League’s first designated hitter, when the DH rule was used for both combatants in the World Series for the first time, in 1976.

Amidst the hoopla over the Major League Baseball Players’ Association seeming to support bringing the designated hitter to the National League as soon as this season, there’s been what you could call the expected contingency of purists denouncing the DH as, yes, un-American. Well, they can relax for the time being. Commissioner Rob Manfred says it would be economically unfeasible to bring the DH to the National League so soon.

When you hear that you should probably take it with two grains of salt and a beer chaser. Because when a commissioner says something’s “economically unfeasible,” it usually means the owners wanting to let the players have something less than what they want for themselves, namely making more money.

The good of the game isn’t always the same thing as making money for either the owners or the players, and bringing the DH to the National League would be good for the game when all is said and done. So would penalising tanking teams by costing them choice draft pick positions, another proposal the players’ association has but Manfred thinks is economically unfeasible for now.

Manfred would rather talk about those things when it really is time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires after the 2021 season. The players’ association is in a marvelous position from which they can force the issue on such things as Manfred’s itch for a pitch clock (he wants it as soon as possible for the Show) and a three-batter minimum for pitchers. They could tell him that if he wants those, he needs to give these, never mind that Manfred can by baseball’s rules impose the pitch clock when he damn well pleases.

But back to the “un-American DH” for now. Which isn’t as un-American as you think it is. Actually, in one sense it is: it’s an un-American League creation. The historically minded would like to remind you one and all that it wasn’t something the American League dreamed up after a man on a flaming pie descended upon an owners’ meeting proclaiming, “From now on, you are the DH league with a D.” The original idea was first the brainchild of an owner in the National League.

That would be William Chase Temple, who owned the Pirates in the late 19th Century and also provided the Temple Cup awarded to the National League’s postseason champion. You can look it up, and I did. Baseball historian John Thorn delivered it in 2016, when rumours wafted up that the National League was actually going to consider adding the DH. Thorn unearthed the story on the suggestion of a reader who felt there was a good story behind the idea even though said reader opposed its arrival.

Temple came up with a designated hitter concept identical to the one the American League brought to the Show in 1973. “There had been a widespread concern among baseball men with the game’s declining offense,” Thorn wrote. (Sound familiar?) Returning from a pre-season meeting of National League owners in 1892, after the league expanded to twelve teams by way of admitting four from the fallen old American Association, Temple told the Pittsburgh press that the DH got only a 7-5 vote, not enough to implement it.

The first time the DH crept into the mind of anyone in the American League was 1906, when Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack proposed it after he tired, apparently, of watching his pitchers such as Hall of Famers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender swinging as though they had cardboard tubes instead of bats. The idea went nowhere, but the National League flirted with it again in 1928, when its president John Heydler advocated for it . . . but the American League turned it down. The National League gave it a try in a few spring exhibitions that year but ultimately rejected it.

And there the matter stayed until the 1960s, when several minor leagues including the AAA-level International League adopted it. That may have prompted both the National and American Leagues to give it a try during select spring exhibition games in 1969, but they chose not to stay with it. Not for long, anyway. Because the staying power of the DH in the minors caught the attention of Charlie Finley, the twice-removed successor owner of the A’s who’d moved to Kansas City and then Oakland.

Say what you will about Finley otherwise, and plenty have, but after the 1972 season Finley noticed two things in particular: 1) American League attendance had dwindled considerably enough in light of lesser run production than he saw the National League enjoying; and, 2) in 1972, Oakland pitching couldn’t hit with garage doors: the A’s pitchers hit a collective .165 with a .198 on-base percentage and a .203 slugging percentage. (There was one A’s pitcher who could hit that season: Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers, who batted .312: six hits in nineteen at-bats.)

The rest of the league didn’t hit much better. The ’72 Orioles, to name one, had a .155 batting average among its pitching staff. (And I’m pretty sure that nobody even thought of paying their pitchers for their batting skills—not when every regular Oriole pitcher that year, starters and relievers, posted a collective 2.53 ERA.) And if the American League was looking for more run production, Finley not only had the answer, he had an unlikely ally.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn usually considered Finley about as pleasurable as unanesthetised root canal, but this time Kuhn was willing to let Finley have his head. Kuhn allowed the American League to introduce the DH on an experimental basis for 1973. (A Yankee first baseman/outfielder, Ron Blomberg, became the league’s first DH to bat in the regular season; his first time up, he worked a full-count walk off Luis Tiant on Opening Day.) And in year One A.D.H. the American League out-hit the National League. What a surprise that the American League and practically all minor leagues, even those affiliated to National League clubs, adopted it permanently.

The National League got close to adopting the DH again in 1980. Unfortuately, Kuhn advised them that the proposal would bring the DH in for 1982. That’s when things got interesting and dicey at once, because:

* The Phillies’ vice president Bill Giles, who’d represent owner Ruly Carpenter at the voting meeting, had no idea how Carpenter wanted him to vote—because Carpenter was incommunicado on an extended fishing trip.

* The Pirates’ general manager Harding Peterson was instructed to side with the Phillies. Oops.

* The Braves, the Mets, the Cardinals, and the Padres voted in favour of the DH. The Cardinals’ then-general manager John Clairborne was the DH’s most vocal supporter among the National League teams.

* The Cubs, the Reds, the Dodgers, the Expos, and the Giants voted against. (Which showed how forgetful the Reds were of their own recent history: the DH’s first World Series appearance was 1976, when it was applied to both combatants and Reds first baseman Dan Driessen got the job—thus was he the National League’s first-ever designated hitter—for the entire Series, a four-game Reds sweep in which you could argue the DH helped the last Big Red Machine team against the revived but overmatched Yankees.)

* The Phillies, the Pirates, and the Astros abstained. And five days after the vote failed to allow the DH in the National League, the Cardinals fired Clairborne and named manager Whitey Herzog to hold the dual jobs of manager and GM.

CBS Sports’s Jonah Keri isolates one potential sticky spot if the National League accepts the DH now: it may not be the revenue pool enhancer the players’ union may think it to be. Citing Los Angeles Times writer Bill Shaikin’s observation that only two full-time DHs (Nelson Cruz and Khris Davis) qualified for the batting title in 2018, Keri says making the DH a central issue “risks wasting a bullet on a minor roster issue.”

Mega-sluggers who can’t play the field like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez are practically unicorns in today’s game. Instead, teams typically use the DH spot to give position players quasi-rest days or to take pressure off minor, nagging injuries. From a pure labor perspective then, adding a mandatory universal DH merely grants NL teams the same ability to shuffle players across positions, but does not dramatically open up a new source of widespread, high-paying jobs.

For those purists who insist (wrongly) that the DH “impedes strategy,” shuffling players across positions actually has its strategic enhancements, particularly in things such as double switching in high-leverage late-game situations, not to mention the enhanced options pre-game or even pre-series in terms of differing defensive as well as offensive matchups when about to face particular pitchers.

Keri notices that if the DH came to the National League this seasons, three teams would benefit right out of the chute: the Mets, with a second base overload including aging Robinson Cano and injury-prone Jed Lowrie but also last year’s impressive rookie comer Jeff McNeil; and, the Nationals and the Rockies, who could find more at-bats for such part timers as Matt Adams (the Nats) and Mark Reynolds (the Rockies). They wouldn’t be the only teams.

The single most automatic out in baseball is the pitcher and has been for too long. Since the DH’s advent it’s gone all the way down to junior high schools, never mind college and the minors, so pitchers going untrained even minimally with a bat or on the bases didn’t begin with the turn of the century. The world hasn’t imploded because of it. If the world implodes, it’ll be for reasons having nothing to do with whether you didn’t get to see Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, or Josh Hader at the plate.

Nor will the world implode if some of the other changes being pondered by the commissioner and the union come to pass. I can’t really object to the pitch clock anymore, either. I’ve seen enough minor league games where it’s been used a long enough time to know that it isn’t hurting anyone. Not the pitchers, not the hitters, and certainly not the quality of the game. There should be transporter aimed at the mound  through which to send pitchers waiting the 21st second to an underground tub of Jell-O. Name it the Baez Transporter, for the Dodgers reliever who takes so long between pitches you can read the closing stock prices and Amazon’s quarterly report.

(While we’re at it, how’s about cutting out the eight warmups for relief pitchers coming in for the first hitter or inning’s work, since they should already be plenty warm? Thought you’d escape without me bringing that up again, didn’t you?)

But I’d throw in a batter’s box clock, too. You get only one chance to call time per plate appearance, adjust your gloves, rub up a little more pine tar on the handle, knock the dirt out of your cleats, needle the catcher, congratulate the ump on the new arrival, insult the third baseman creeping down the line, whatever you like doing when you call time and step out of the box. Install a transporter likewise for the batter’s boxes to trigger when the batter tries for a second time-out in the same plate appearance. Name it Hargrove’s Hazard, after the former player-turned-manager who wasn’t nicknamed the Human Rain Delay because he liked to rush pitchers into throwing to him.

Meanwhile, back at the DH ranch, I’d like to remind you what happened when the now-late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson prepared for the first game he’d manage as baseball’s first black manager, for the 1975 Indians. He gave in to Indians brass who suggested strongly that the fans in Municipal Stadium (a.k.a. the Mistake on the Lake) wanted to see him in the lineup as well as managing, and put himself into the number two lineup spot against Yankee righthander Doc Medich.

With Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, in the house, Robinson batted with one out in the bottom of the first and hit one over the left field fence to bring down the house. If you can think of a better way for a brand-new player-manager to launch the second half of his new job description, feel free to send it this way. But add a third element to that day’s job description. Robinson penciled himself in as the Indians’ DH for the day. Who says DH’s can’t help pioneers pioneer?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s