Though discussed around baseball for most of the 20th century, the Designated Hitter rule did not became official until 1973. Owners and managers weary of watching hapless pitchers struggle through at-bats spawned thoughts of implementing a 10th starting player, and the idea of a DH was proposed in the National League as early as 1929, but went nowhere. In spring training of 1969, following what had been known as the ‘Year of the Pitcher’, both leagues experimented with the idea during some Grapefruit League contests. Oakland owner Charlie Finley led the cause and by 1973 convinced his fellow American League owners to vote in favor of implementing the DH rule on a three year trial basis.
On April 6, 1973 at Fenway Park, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became the Major League’s first designated hitter, walking with the bases loaded against Luis Tiant of the Red Sox. Not exactly the explosive start the league had in mind, but an RBI nonetheless! On that same day, Tony Oliva of Minnesota hit the first home run as a DH, a two-run shot off the A’s Catfish Hunter at the Oakland Coliseum. Oliva, who had some serious knee issues, was able to extend his career until 1976 as Minnesota’s DH, the position he played in his final 406 games.
With the introduction of the Designated Hitter rule, several veterans returned to stardom in 1973. Oliva hit .289 with 16 home runs, and his 91 RBI were tops among all DHs. Future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson of California topped the position with 26 homers to go with 83 RBI. After playing only 41 games in 1972, Baltimore’s Tommy Davis hit .293 with 83 RBI in 127 games. Carlos May of Chicago overcame a thumb injury to hit .307 with 14 homers, and Boston signed future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who battled back from knee problems in ’72 to smash 20 HRs with 86 RBI and a .289 average in 142 games in 1973.
There was no DH rule in place for the ’73 World Series, but maybe the Mets wish there had been: Oakland pitcher Ken Holtzman hit one double each in Games 1 and 7, both times eventually scoring crucial runs in Oakland victories. By 1976 it was decided the DH rule would be utilized in the World Series in even numbered years. The National League Champion Reds were undeterred from sweeping the Yankees, and Cincinnati DH Dan Driessen went 5-14 (.357) with a home run. Since 1986 the DH rule during the Fall Classic is in effect only in American League parks.
In 1974, Tommy Davis rapped out 180 hits as Baltimore’s DH, tied for the most for the position in the decade with Willie Horton of Seattle in 1979. Horton DH’d in all 162 games that year for the Mariners, belting 29 home runs and 106 RBI. The only other player to appear as a DH in all 162 games during the 70s was Detroit’s Rusty Staub in 1978. Rusty did not disappoint with 24 homers and 121 RBI (the 70s most by a DH in a season), finishing 5th in MVP voting. The year before Staub had also been the major’s most productive designated hitter with 22 home runs and 101 RBI. Another player who added years to the end of his career was Rico Carty, who had won a batting title with a .366 mark in 1970 as Atlanta’s leftfielder and then did not exceed 400 at bats again until 1976 when he hit .317 as Cleveland’s DH. In 1978, the 38 year old Carty split his season between Toronto and Oakland and tallied a career high 31 homers (tied with Boston’s Jim Rice in 1977 for tops at the position in the 70s) while driving in 99 runs, all as a DH.
It’s debatable who the decade’s finest designated hitter was, but our pick is Kansas City’s Hal McRae. McRae topped all DHs in Hits (707), Batting Average (.297), Runs (361), Doubles (173), and Stolen Bases(56). Willie Horton (89 HR, 376RBI, .271) and Rico Carty (83-372-.284) also deserve strong consideration.
More than 40 years later, the National League has still not picked up the rule, while the AL has thrived under it, with players such as Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, and Harold Baines playing the majority of their games as Designated Hitters. Purists still insist the rule takes away strategic situations such as sacrifice bunts and pinch hitting decisions, and should be eliminated. Like it or not, the rule has added excitement to the game, and is likely here to stay.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: