40 Years of Designated Hitter History

To this day, baseball purists still scorn the designated hitter. But by now the DH is as engrained in the game as peanuts, cracker jacks, and steroids.

When the final out of this year’s World Series is recorded, it will mark the conclusion of the 41st season in which American League pitchers (mercifully, some might say) only came to bat a handful of times. The number of players in the Major Leagues who were even alive when the DH was instituted is seriously dwindling.

With the position established in 1973, Sports Illustrated published a 40-year retrospective earlier this year. A must-read for any baseball fan, here are three interesting takeaways from designated hitter history.

1. The designated hitter was first proposed in 1928 (!), more than 40 years before the rule was instituted.
As SI’s Steve Rushin reports, the justification back then was the same as it is now: “‘Pitchers are absolutely useless as batters nowadays,’ said one baseball executive when proposing the rule change.” That executive, ironically, was National League president John Heydler.

2. The DH was originally instituted as a three-year experiment.
“We didn’t pay any attention to it,” Ron Blomberg, the first ever DH told SI. “Nobody thought it would last.” Blomberg, a first baseman by trade, was plugged into the New York Yankees’ lineup at DH after pulling a hamstring late in spring training. (Larry Hisle, arguably, has a stake to the claim: He was the first person to ever take to the batter’s box occupying the new position, but in a spring training exhibition.)

3. In 1985, an NBC poll showed that 58 percent of Americans were anti-DH.
The rule remains controversial. But more recently, polls (and they’re few and far between) have shown a little more positivity. While 40 percent of fans in 2005 said they would abolish the position, 59 percent either thought the National League should adopt the DH or the existing rule — wherein the American League uses the position and the National League lets pitchers hit — should remain in place. (If you want to get into the real nitty gritty, have fun. Turns out Democrats, at least in 1997, were way, way more likely to support the DH than Republicans or independents.)

No full-time designated hitter has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz set the record for most hits from the position in July.

photo credit: Keith Allison, Creative Commons/flickr