For younger baseball fans, the designated hitter, or “DH” for short, has been around forever in the American League and is an accepted part of the game. Not so for the older fans. The DH officially started with the 1973 season, but the idea had been bandied around for decades.
Philadelphia Athletic manager Connie Mack first proposed the idea in 1906 as he grew tired of seeing some of his pitchers flail away at the plate. Mack might have been a little overdramatic about the issue. Charles Bender, one of his best pitchers, a guy who ended with a career record of 212 wins and 127 losses, also hit .212 for his career over 1,287 plate appearances. Eddie Plank, another of Mack’s pitchers, won 326 career games and hit .206 over 1,783 career plate appearances. I’ve seen a lot of modern position players who struggled to stay above .200.
Starting in 1919, Babe Ruth made the home run sexy, and teams rushed to find power hitters. The National League took a serious look at the DH in 1929 and N.L. President John Heydler almost succeeded in getting it adopted.
Momentum to add the DH picked up steam again in the late 1960s as hurlers like Bob Gibson (1.12 ERA in 1968) and Denny McLain (31 wins, also in 1968) had their way with hitters. The American League experimented with the DH during the 1971 spring training season. Former Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley, always one to favor innovation, was all in on the DH. On January 11, 1973, Finley and other A.L. owners voted by an 8-4 margin to use the DH on a three-year trial run. New York Yankee Ron Blomberg became the first official DH to bat in a league game, when on April 6th he drew a bases-loaded walk againat Boston’s Luis Tiant.
The American League has since posted consistently higher yearly team batting averages than their National League counterparts. The Senior Circuit took one more swing at the issue in the fall 1980 meetings. A communications snafu between the Phillies GM and the team owner, who was off on a fishing trip, resulted in the Phills abstaining. The Pirates had decided prior to the meeting to side with the Phillies, so they too abstained. So much for brilliant, independent minds running ball teams. Atlanta, San Diego, St. Louis and New York Mets, wanting more offense, voted for the measure. Codgy old-timers the Reds, Cubs, Dodgers and Giants all voted no. For some mysterious reason the Expos also voted no, even though the DH would have greatly benefited their team. Can you imagine how many more years the great Andre Dawson might have played had he been able to DH? The voted failed to pass and the National League has not held another vote on the issue since.
The Designated Hitter Era kicked off for Kansas City on the evening of April 6, 1973, when they played the Angels in Anaheim. Southern California native Ed Kirkpatrick, affectionately known as “Spanky”, was the Royals’ first DH. Spanky was a versatile and hustling player who was worth over 9 WAR during his five-year Royal career. The Royals played him all over the field. During his 613 games in Kansas City uniform, he played every position except shortstop, second base, and pitcher. Older fans will remember Ed as the baserunner who ran over the Kansas City Athletics Bert Campaneris during Campy’s famous game of playing all nine positions. Fortunately, the collision took place in the ninth inning. Spanky was a solid 200 lbs., though he looked and played bigger. Campy was generously listed at a buck sixty. Campy left the field on a stretcher.
In the first DH game, Kirkpatrick drew a second inning walk against Nolan Ryan. That was the highlight of his night. Spanky hit two ground ball outs and a fly out in his other three appearances as Ryan shut down the Royals with a complete game 6-hitter.
My all-time favorite Royal Kurt Bevacqua was the DH the next evening and Dirty Kurt rose to the occasion, collecting the first Royal DH hit, a third inning single off Clyde Wright. Bevacqua ended the night going 2-for-4 with a walk and three runs scored, part of a 12-5 Kansas City win. The Royals kept shuffling the lineup, with Carl Taylor playing the DH in the third game. The team used Gail Hopkins, Steve Hovley and finally in the ninth game of the season, Hal McRae as DH in the early going. In a sign of things to come, Mac delivered big time, smashing the first Royal DH home run while drawing two walks and scoring three times, helping the Royals lacerate the White Sox by a score of 12-5. The Royals hit four home runs in that game off three pretty decent pitchers: Freddie Patek and McRae took Stan Bahnsen downtown. Kirkpatrick went yard off Goose Gossage while John Mayberry connected off Steve Stone.
Manager Jack McKeon really didn’t have any idea on how to manage the DH. He grew up in the traditional game of the pitcher hitting for himself. The Royals used an astounding 13 players in the DH role that first season, including Fran Healy, Lou Piniella, John Mayberry, Amos Otis, Frank White, Rick Reichardt, Jim Wohlford, and Frank Ortenzio. McKeon would even pinch hit for his DH at times. When was the last time you saw that move?
Hal McRae, who ended up having one of the great DH careers ever, finally started to claim the position in 1974, when he DH’d in 90 games. McRae always had what I considered an unfair reputation as a bad fielder. He spent most of 1975 in left field before moving back to DH for 117 games for his breakout 1976 season. The one thing you could always take to the bank about Hal McRae was that no matter where you played him, he was going to give you 100% effort. Ask Dick Green or Willie Randolph. Mac took the DH position to another level in 1982, when he appeared in 158 games as DH and slashed .308/.369/.542 with a league-leading 46 doubles and 133 RBI. He put up an OPS+ of 147 that summer and finished fourth in the MVP race.
There were some other oddities on those early Royal teams. Freddie Patek never appeared as a DH in his Royal career. George Brett didn’t make his first DH appearance until the 1977 season.
Starting in that 1973 season, the Royals went on a major nostalgia bender trying to extend the careers of once glorious hitters past their prime by sliding them into the DH role. The first was onetime bonus baby Reichardt who appeared in 41 games, hitting .220 with 3 home runs. The next reclamation project was Orlando Cepeda in 1974. “Baby Bull” got off to a hot start before Father Time made his obligatory appearance. Cepeda hit .215 over his 33 game Royal career. Kansas City went all-in on Harmon Killebrew for the 1975 season. The 39-year-old Killebrew, once one of the most feared power hitters in the game, was just a shell of his former self. Nonetheless, the Royals gave him 106 games during which he hit .199 with 14 home runs.
During the 1976 season, they brought aboard Tommy Davis. That experiment lasted for 8 eight games. All of those players had been marvelous hitters during the primes of their careers. The four combined to hit 1,221 home runs and drive in 4,446 runs in their careers. Davis led the National League in hitting twice. Cepeda was Rookie of the Year, won an MVP and led the league in RBI twice. Killebrew only led the American League in home runs six times and won an MVP. But by the time they pulled on a Royals jersey, they were running on fumes. None of them ever played another major league game after their Royals careers ended.
Finally, in 1976, The Royals brain trust saw the light and moved Hal McRae into the full-time DH role. Mac had been with the team since 1973 and had served as DH on many occasions, while also shuffling between left and right field.
McRae was the first great DH in history. There have been some since, Edgar Martinez, Jim Thome, and Frank Thomas come to mind, but Mac made the position cool. McRae hit over .300 six times and narrowly missed that mark on three other occasions. He nearly won the A.L. batting title in 1976 and was a three time All-Star and picked up MVP votes in five seasons. Sure, you’d occasionally see a Dave Nelson here or a Pete LaCock there, but from 1976 until he retired in June of 1987, McRae was the Royals DH. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1989 and managed the club from 1991 to 1994, compiling a 286 and 277 record.
Change has always been difficult and slow for baseball. The most recent change was the base runner on second starting with the tenth inning. Corporate calls it the “Automatic Runner.” Fans have taken to calling it the phantom runner. I’m not a big fan of this change. It smacks too much of Little League baseball for me and nearly every manager should be able to coax a run out of this situation.
I am on board with having a pitch clock. I do like a leisurely day at the ballpark, but intensely dislike having to watch a .200 hitting step out of the box after every pitch to adjust his batting gloves. Mike Hargrove, who had a fine career from 1974 to 1985, was the poster boy for this type of behavior. Hargrove even earned the nickname “The Human Rain Delay”.
The other change I would love to see would be to institute an electronic ball/strike system. Purists will probably scream bloody murder about this one. I’m certain the umpire’s union will but I think the time has come. With more pitchers than ever throwing in the high 90s and even touching 100, and with the insane spin rates and breaks that pitchers today get on the ball, I think that it’s surpassing the human eye. It’s no fault of the umps, there are a lot of pitchers today who have absolutely nasty stuff. Catchers also do a better job than ever of framing pitches. It’d be a tough job, calling balls and strikes. Keep the home plate ump back there to manage the flow of the game and make calls at the plate. Let the electronics make the ball-strike calls.
The designated hitter still remains a point of contention between fans. Purists argue that the DH has taken away the strategy and integrity of the game. American League fans, by and large, call that a load of crapspackle. The DH is used in the All-Star game, interleague play and in the World Series when the games are played in the American League park. The bottom line is this: most pitchers are terrible hitters. Sure, once in a while a guy like Zach Greinke comes along, but Greinke still only has a .225 career batting average over 600 plate appearances. Shohei Ohtani of course is the unicorn. That guy will always be the unicorn and hopefully there’ll be more like him in the future, but until then the great DH debate will continue.