There’s almost no middle ground when it comes to the designated hitter rule. Admit it: You probably either hate the DH or love it.
It seems to split mostly down party lines, like Democrats and Republicans, dog lovers vs. cat lovers. It comes down to whether the team you cheer for is in the National League or the American League.
What side are you on? And why?
If you love the DH, it’s likely because YOUR team is in the American League. You and your like-minded friends say something like this: “I don’t pay good money to see some pitcher come to the plate for an automatic out. There’s more offense and excitement in the AL with the DH.”
But if you hate the DH—no, if you absolutely DESPISE it—it’s likely because you root for a National League team. You and your friends say, “The DH is not real baseball. It’s just a gimmick that’s been around too long. We like real baseball. There’s more strategy in the National League because the pitcher has to hit. Besides, that’s what the pinch hitter is for.”
The way baseball was played.
What DH supporters forget is that baseball is that pitchers used to be well-rounded players and real hitters. One of the best home run hitters and greatest players started out as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox—but he was too good of a hitter not to be an everyday player. His name was Babe Ruth.
What DH detractors forget (and don’t know) is this: Legendary Athletics Manager Connie Mack had the idea of a designated hitter in 1906, and in the late 1920s, the president of the National League tried unsuccessfully to introduce a 10th player/designated hitter as a way to speed up the game.
Why and when did this all begin?
On April 6, 1973, Ron Blomberg of the Yankees became the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history, against Red Sox right-hander Luis Tiant. He walked. In 2003, 30 years later, Blomberg said, “I screwed up the game of baseball. Baseball needed a jolt of offense for attendance, so they decided on the DH. I never thought it would last this long.”
In 1972, the American League owners took action to do something about what they viewed as a big problem for the game—not enough runs were being scored, the game seemed boring and fans were losing interest. This was just a few years after the late ’60s—considered the greatest era of pitching—when pitchers such as Gibson, Drysdale, Palmer and 31-game winner Denny McClain were still in the game.
Out of that concern came the designated hitter, which was intended to be a short-term experiment. It’s been around for more than 30 years now, which means that all American League baseball fans under the age of 35 have known it all their lives…except for a few Interleague games each year, the World Series and the All-Star Game.
The DH today.
At the start of this season, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright hurt his Achilles heel when he came out of the batter’s box after hitting a ground ball. Some fans said, “That wouldn’t happen if he were in the American League! He should have never been in the batter’s box.”
Fair point, but is it valid? Wainwright himself said he could have just as easily injured himself running to first to cover a throw, or coming off the mound to field a bunt. In fact, the act of pitching is doing more damage to pitchers than running the bases is, but no one is calling for pitching machines to take the mound.
Wainwright said as much to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “It was a fluke thing and baseball needs to stay exactly where it is.”
National League fans can be a bit full of themselves too, though. They say American League fans “should get to experience the fullness of the game” that National League fans do.
What does that mean? Do National League fans get misty-eyed and sentimental when their pitchers come to the plate? No. The most they do is hope for something unexpected to happen when the 9-spot comes up. Like when Clayton Kershaw, batting for himself, came up to the plate against the Giants on Opening Day of 2013: top of the 8th, a scoreless tie and he proceeded to hit the first pitch over the centerfield fence. It was extra-memorable because it was an Opening Day game between two long-time rivals.
But a DH supporter would say that the reason a pitcher hitting a home run is memorable is because it happens so rarely. It should be pointed out that Kershaw had only one extra-base hit in his career up to that point.
Thoughts of an unbiased, real baseball fan under 30.
As mentioned before, many fans under 30 don’t have as much history with the game as it was played 40 or 50 years ago, so the DH isn’t such a big deal. One 28-year-old die-hard baseball (and National League) fan puts it like this:
“Without any emotion or deep feelings, the DH just seems to make more sense. National League pitchers don’t know how to hit, so isn’t it better if a real hitter takes his place? Isn’t the pinch hitter just a version of the designated hitter anyway? It also gives players who have lost a step on defense a chance to still be a valuable part of a team. Even players with only minor injuries could probably DH. Besides, if the NL adopted the DH, it would make the World Series Games, All-Star Games and Interleague Play more balanced, instead of it always being awkward for one of the teams.”
Baseball is a crazy game. According to Baseball-Almanac.com, on June 11, 1988, Rick Rhoden, pitching for the Yankees, became the first and only pitcher to start a game as the designated hitter. His sacrifice fly that day contributed to the defeat of the Orioles, 8 to 6. Go figure.
The professionals speak up.
Here are a handful of opinions on the designated hitter from a variety of baseball experts. Somewhere in this perhaps is a middle ground:
“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.”
– Former Oakland A’s Owner Charlie O. Finley
“I like having that extra offensive guy in my lineup and the extra possibilities it gives me (like giving a guy a ‘day off’ by making him the DH). I realize a lot of fans don’t like the DH, but it’s a chance for a guy like Rickey Henderson to play another year. It’s great for players who’ve had success in the game, but maybe can’t take the grind of playing a full season at the end of their careers. It allows them to stay in the game—and that’s a good thing.”
– The late Tony Gwynn, on ESPN.com
“The designated hitter rule is like letting someone else take Wilt Chamberlain’s free throws.”
– Rick Wise, former National and American League pitcher
“Baseball is simply a better game without the DH. The loss of strategy and the over-emphasis on power at the expense of some of the game’s subtleties is simply too great a price to pay for the advantages of the DH. Besides, anyone who has so short an attention span and so little appreciation for baseball that he can’t bear to watch a pitcher bat is probably beyond hope, anyway. The fact is the National League plays a more interesting game. The American League should try it, too.”
– Bob Costas, in USA Today Baseball Weekly
“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.”
– Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in Bull Durha