Writer's note: Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the designated hitter, I wrote a column on just how much I hated the DH and how I felt it cheapens the game. My feelings haven’t changed much. Right now all I can do is applaud the last strong bastion of baseball purity, the National League for staying the course.
“Mr. Parkman, you're a good ball player, but I want to say, that you're standing on the tracks and the train's about to come through, bonehead.” - Rube Baker in Major League 2
Sometimes it seems a lot like that. Baseball changes. The train comes through and the game is never the same. Usually the fans hate it at least initially, be it batting helmets, instant replay, sabermetrics or back in the day, even the advent of the baseball glove, banning of the spitball or the move away from throwing chin music, but eventually those things became entrenched in the game and people don’t even remember the game before those things became an integral part of the game.
Yet not all changes are good. Barry Bonds in his batting armor leaps to mind so do steroid enhanced ballplayers and of course the designated hitter. We’ve done away with body armor, baseball is working on taking down the steroid cheats, but the DH seems be standing firm.
It’s been 40 years since Ron Blomberg strode to the plate for the Yankees as baseball’s first DH. The American League has never been the same. For the first time in a game the pitcher never came to the plate but watched from the dugout as his role was diminished. Instead of playing the game of baseball, he only got to play half of it. The DH was supposed to create more offense and to counter the dominance of pitching in the game, and it, plus the lowering of the mound, surely did.
And the idea spread like some sort of plague. Colleges adopted it, minor leagues adopted it, it spread to leagues overseas in Korea and Japan, it spread to amateur baseball, even down to high school and club games (where in at least one case -- that of the National Federation of State High School Associations it has been bastardized even further -- the DH doesn’t have to hit for the pitcher but can be assigned to hit for any weak hitter).
And while more runs may be scored by having a DH, it robs the game of a huge amount of the strategy that made baseball great throughout its history. Ruth’s teammates, Mantle's teammates, Williams’ teammates, Banks’ teammates all batted. In fact most of the legends of the games including most of the greatest pitchers of all time did.
In fact plenty of pitchers were good hitters and contributed significantly to their teams' success. Among the notables Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, who had a .333 average in the World Series; Bob Gibson whose World Series resume included two home runs and Christy Mathewson, who hit .281 in his 11 World Series games.
But all that was forgotten, dismissed by the AL when they instituted the DH.
The National League doesn’t stand alone. Double- and Triple-A baseball teams if they are national league affiliates can choose to play without a DH if the teams agree, the Central League in Japan plays without a DH and Japanese high school baseball doesn’t use the DH. But that’s it.
And the odds are that those leagues would throw in the towel on the DH if the NL does. Yet the NL has stood firm, and we can hope it always will.
The DH may never leave the game, but for right now, as long as the National League and its fans keep the faith, that train is never coming through and the NL can proudly say that real baseball, with all its strategy, the game on which legends were built, is still played here.
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