The History of Baseball’s Designated Hitter Rule: Or, The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization?

Traditions won’t take care of themselves. They’re living creatures that require our careful tending to survive across time. But the care and feeding of traditions is a tricky job. Alter a tradition too much and you can undermine its value. Leave it untended and it can lose its meaning and become an archaic curiosity.

We could offer hundreds of examples of the challenge of maintaining tradition, but this week is the anniversary of a particularly good example: the 1973 introduction of the Designated Hitter Rule to major-league baseball.

<em>Baseball's 10th Man</em><br />by Joseph Durso<br />July/August 1973
Baseball's 10th Man
by Joseph Durso
July/August 1973

Keep in mind that baseball continually changes. It has altered so much since its earliest form that a game played by 1880 rules looks oddly quaint to modern viewers. Year after year, the baseball commission had imposed rules to improve the game: making it safer, more competitive, and more enjoyable to play and watch. Some of the changes, though, were made to increase the profitability of the baseball. The Designated Hitter (DH) Rule falls into this last category. Team owners hoped that the DH would boost scores and, more important, revenues.

The rule was a response to a generally accepted fact of baseball: pitchers were generally the weakest batters on the team. They might be able to hurl thunder and lightning across home plate, or make a ball dance slowly toward home plate to seduce batters into fevered swinging, but they rarely had the additional talent for hitting the ball. So when it came time for a pitchers turn at bat, it was often the sleepiest part of the game.

The DH rule allowed a team to add a 10th player who would go to bat for the pitcher. Inevitably, the DH was a powerful batter who would rarely play the field. The first DH stepped into the batter’s box in 1973. Larry Eugene Hisle batted in place of the Minnesota Twins’ pitcher in a pre-season game and hit a home run with two men on base, then a grand slam.

According to a Post article,

“when nine of the twelve clubs in the American League drew fewer than a
million customers in 1972, the stampede was on. The villain: the 6-foot-4-inch pitcher with overpowering stuff. The victim: the man waving a baseball bat 60/2 feet away. The reason, suggested Gabe Paul: “The pitchers and the stadium grew too big.”

“Larry Hisle didn’t realize it at the time, but that was his cue. Actually, the cue had been sneaking up on him. In 1895, the infield fly rule was adopted to keep smart infielders from tricking unsmart base-runners. In 1901, it was revised to protect the innocent. In 1920, the spitball was outlawed. In 1950, the strike zone was defined (armpit to top of knee). In 1963, it was defined again (top of shoulder to bottom of knee). In 1969, would you believe armpit to top of knee again?

“Then men walked on the moon, the Mets won the pennant and the redink wretches of the American League began clamoring for somebody, anybody, to put more clout into the old ball game. Enter the tenth man: the ‘designated hitter.’

“He arrived in 1969, during the same summer Neil Armstrong arrived on the
shore of the Sea of Tranquility, but nobody paid much attention. Still, in places like Rochester and Syracuse and Toledo, he was often the talk of the town: the man who did nothing but bat for the pitcher… He was experimental that summer, his stage was the [highest level of the minor league] and his impact on the seas of baseball tranquility was immediate.

“Batting averages in the league promptly rose by as much as 17 points for the first-place club. More runs were scored. The designated hitters collectively batted 120 points higher than the pitchers they replaced. The pitchers — who were allowed to stay in the
game strictly as pitchers — began to stick around a lot longer.

“Also, since nothing takes so much time in a baseball game as changing [an exhausted] pitcher, the games zipped along: ten minutes shorter on the average. The fans, reported George Sisler, the league president, “overwhelmingly liked it” when polled.”

Today, the support is far from overwhelming. Many fans still refuse to accept the idea. To them, the DH rule is the worst change ever introduced to the game. They consider the DH an alien on the team — a creature spawned in the box office to ruin the spirit of the game.

Fortunately, baseball offers an alternative: the DH Rule is used by only half of the major-league teams; there are no designated hitters on National League teams. So when fans debate the virtues and evils of designated hitters, they can compare the performance of teams between the two leagues.

You don’t have to be a rabid baseball fan to see an intriguing question beneath the controversy. The Designated Hitter Rule is a fundamental controversy that can be found in art, goverment, philosophy, and religion: is it better to change the rules to achieve desired results, or should we improve our performance within the existing rules? This question in this controversy is similar to that which launched the Reformation and split the artistic community over Modernism.

We can argue that altering the game of baseball to make it more appealing will ensure the survival of the sport. We can also argue that a game that’s changed to make it more amusing is no longer the original game. When we change the form of a baseball game, we also change its substance. And after 36 years, a lot of people don’t like the new substance that is Designated Hitter baseball.

At one level, it is just an argument about what makes good baseball. At another level, though, it is a debate about playing with tradition.

Some will say baseball is a metaphor for life. We believe what the learned theologian Rev. Arthur Heinze says: “Life is a metaphor for baseball.”

The Designated Hitter Debate

We wanted to do justice to the complexities of the Designated Hitter Rule, so we asked two Post staff members—both baseball fans—to take opposing sides in the debate. We found their exchange enlightening—and amusing.

(Batting for the “Pro” side is Aaron Rimstadt)
Pro 1. Fans like home runs. Purist may enjoy watching intricate, defensive games, but casual fans, kids, and people who put together highlight reels love homers. DH’s provide them the fireworks they want in a game.

(The “Con” is handled by Kelsey Roan)
Con 1: Fans may love a homer, but fans also love a stolen base, and the National League (the one without Designated Hitters) has more of the latter on average. National League hitters—including pitchers—are not willing to waste energy on a slim chance to fire the ball out of the park. Instead, they wisely choose to slap smart hits into the field and run them out. Designated Hitters and other big sluggers are slow and cumbersome. Base hitters are crafty and fast, making energetic leaps and dusty slides to get their base. Call me a purist, but that’s more enjoyable baseball than watching a bulky, overpaid old player hitting another home run.

Pro 2. Great Designated Hitters like David Ortiz, Frank Thomas, Paul Moliter, Harold Baines, Carl Yastrzemski. ‘Nuff said.

Con 2: Don Drysdale, Rick Wise, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Cy Young, BABE RUTH. That’s right, we’ve got the Babe himself.

Pro 3. Who wants to see a bad hitter hopelessly flail at the ball? Or watch a good hitter get intentionally walked because the pitcher knows he can strike out the opposing pitcher who is up next?

Con 3: Who wants to see a good hitter hopelessly flail at a ball? Sluggers are considerably more likely to strike out swinging, because they will swing at anything that looks right—and there are many pitches in even a mediocre pitcher’s arsenal that exist only to trick the eye. (Also, people love to argue that pitchers can’t hit, but a DH can’t field for beans. I, for one, prefer to see smart fielding than big hitting.)

Pro 4. The NFL—by far the most popular sports league in America—uses specialized players for offense and defense. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is struggling with attendance. Why not use specialized players? What’s wrong with a manager utilizing various players’ specific talents?

Con 4: The charm of baseball is that all the players are versatile. Specializing players sucks the soul out of the game. Instead of talking about a great all-around player who hits and fields like a champ, fans find themselves asking “Who’s that? Oh, the guy who bats seventh.”

Pro 5. The DH lets aging stars and fan favorites play a few more years. A 10-time all-star who has lost the quickness needed for fielding can still fill seats with his hitting. In fact, the DH provides a one-two punch for ticket sales. He provides more offense, and he extends the careers of marketable players.

Con 5: It allows aging stars to play well past their primes. Everyone likes to see a big name play, but the best baseball is played by the young guns, who bring fresh enthusiasm and athleticism to the game. An aging star is big and bulky and can no longer run well. Give me a rookie any day.

Con 6: The DH Rule robs managers of a key bit of strategy: the double switch. If the pitcher is due up in a tough patch like the bottom of the ninth with two men on and two outs, the manager can push the pitcher to a different section of the batting order, and move a good hitter into that key segment.

Pro 6. Well, the DH Rule lets managers use a strong hitter instead of waiting to send in a pinch hitter in the ninth inning. In fact, it allows the manager to not have to worry about his worst batter at all.

Con 7: The DH Rule started with the intention of making baseball more flashy and exciting. Yet, there is not a great difference between the stats in the American League, where they use Designated Hitters, and the National League, where the pitcher must take his turn at bat. The American League tends to accumulate more wins in interleague play, but the general stats are inconclusive. If one league has a superiority over the other in any area, the difference isn’t large enough to matter to anyone but the most scrupulous statistician.

Pro 7. The batting averages for the American League have been better than the NL every year between 1973, the year that the DH was instituted, and 2008. In 2009, the three teams with the best batting average (Angels, Yankees, and Twins) were in the AL. So were the top two HR teams (Yankees and Rangers), top three scoring teams (Yanks, Angels, and Red Sox), top four in total hits (Angels, Yankees, Twins, and Blue Jays), top three in RBI’s (Yanks, Angels, and Red Sox), and top three in On-Base Percentage (Yanks, Red Sox, and Angels). Admittedly, the difference in batting averages between the two leagues has been relatively small every year (for example, the AL edged the NL in ’07 with a batting average of .271 versus .266), but the fact that it has done so every year is significant.

Pro 8. The American League has better teams. It won six of the last 10 World Series, and it is hard to believe that the DH didn’t help. The Red Sox might not have won two titles in the past decade without a certain DH known as “Big Papi.” Another all-time great, Frank Thomas, helped the White Sox to their ’05 title as a hit-only player.

Con 8: The American League also has worse teams. They may have the Yankees and Red Sox (which are only as great as they are because they spend outlandish amounts of money for big players), but they also have the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland A’s. The DH Rule has made the AL a real hit-or-miss league, instead of fostering a strong, stable league. When teams in a league are closer together, there is more excitement because it is not completely clear who will come out on top.

For our last inning, we’ve reversed the batting order.

Con 9: The National League sells more tickets. Isn’t that the whole goal of the Designated Hitter Rule: to bring in more fans? Why is it, then, that the American League doesn’t sell nearly as many tickets as the National League, despite keeping a Designated Hitter at the ready? Maybe it’s that people would rather see baseball than a Home Run Derby. I know I would.

Pro 9: History tells us that the DH actually improved ticket sales. In 1972, the year before the DH rule, nine of the 12 AL teams drew an attendance of less than a million. In ’73, there were only four. Two of those four were over 900,000 (seven AL teams were under 900,000 in ’72). Attendance also went up for the NL in ’73, probably because the new rule created a buzz around the game in general. Considering that teams from the AL have also won more World Series (the AL boasts a 21 to 15 advantage since ’73, including eight of the last 12 champs), they will have benefited from the increased revenue from jersey sales, corporate endorsements, etc.