The First Day of Designated Hitting

Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda was the Red Sox's first designated hitter. (via Ruben Stein)

Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda was the Red Sox’s first designated hitter. (via Ruben Stein)

In January of 1973, the franchise owners of American League teams voted 8-4 to institute rule 6.10, allowing a team to choose to designate a player to hit in the place of its pitcher. While that was intended to be a three-year trial run, the designated hitter rule has stuck and been a source of debate among baseball observers ever since. This brief history is in no way attempting to adjudicate that debate. Rather, this is an attempt to shine a little light on our first designated hitters.

Ron Blomberg has received the most designated hitter attention over the years, as he was technically the first DH, beating Ollie Brown of the Milwaukee Brewers to the dish by about a half hour. And while Blomberg also registered the first run batted in, there were seven other “first” designated hitters for their respective teams back in 1973, and some have pretty interesting stories.

Ollie Brown might be best known as the San Diego Padres’ first overall pick in the 1968 expansion draft, selected from the San Francisco Giants. That turned out to be a pretty shrewd pick. After hitting just .232 with no home runs over 100 plate appearances in an injury-shortened previous season with San Francisco, “Downtown” Ollie Brown brought a big stick to San Diego. In his first season as a Padre, he hit .264 with 20 home runs and 61 RBI, and followed that up with a .292/.331/.489 line with 23 homers and 89 RBI in 1970. His production fell off in the coming seasons and he’d see himself traded to the Oakland Athletics in 1972, and then selected off waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers (who were then part of the American League) in June of 1972.

Brown was just 29 in 1973, but his limitations in the outfield were enough that he would be their primary designated hitter entering that season. On Opening Day, April 6, he would bat sixth for the Brewers as their DH, going 0-3 against Dave McNally, who threw a complete game shutout for the Baltimore Orioles. Brown managed to hit .280/.355/.392 that season with seven home runs over 333 plate appearances. He’d share duty at DH with Joe Lahoud and Bobby Mitchell, and was ultimately traded along with Lahoud to the California Angels in October of 1973. The Brewers put their DH stock in Mitchell for the following two seasons.

Purchased by the Houston Astros days before the 1974 season, and subsequently taken off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies in June of that year, Brown would never DH again and he was out of baseball by 1977.

Opposite Brown was Baltimore’s DH, Terry Crowley, who went 2-for-4 with a run scored, batting out of the eighth spot in the order. Crowley was a 26-year-old left-hander who could play a little outfield and a little first base, neither particularly well. Crowley’s career spanned three decades, starting as a 22-year-old in 1969 and finishing up at 36 in Montreal in 1983, yet in 15 years as a major leaguer he averaged just 117 plate appearances per year.

Crowley was a classic platoon hitter with 90 percent of his career plate appearances coming against right-handed pitching. Even so, he never inflicted much harm against them, with a triple slash of .250/.348/.378 versus right-handers. Crowley made brief stops in Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Montreal, but he spent 12 years with Baltimore—and of his 228 career games played, 85 percent of them saw him appear as a designated hitter. For a guy without much of a platoon split and defensive liabilities, Crowley certainly had a long tenure in the major leagues—and he probably owes that to the advent of the DH.

At the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, the Athletics used their DH — speedster Bill North — as their leadoff hitter. He was the antithetical designated hitter, not that he couldn’t hit, but he wasn’t a defensive liability with power. Rather, North was just 25 in 1973 and was one of the prize offseason trade acquisitions for the A’s, coming over from the Cubs for Bob Locker. North would go 2-5 against Bert Blyleven, who turned out to be pretty tough for the Minnesota Twins that day, twirling a complete game with seven strikeouts, giving up two earned runs.

On the season, North hit .285/.376/.348, stealing 53 bases along the way. He would twice lead the league in stolen bases over the next three seasons with 54 in 1974 and 75 in 1976 and he won World Series rings in 1973 and 1974 (though he didn’t play in the ’73 postseason). In his 11-year career, he’d steal 395 bases, but he’s probably best known as the guy who fought Reggie Jackson in 1974.

Besting the A’s and Catfish Hunter were the Minnesota Twins, who used eight-time All-Star and 1964 Rookie of the Year Tony Oliva as their DH. Oliva was the prototypical DH, a 34-year-old power hitter with terrible knees who just couldn’t be relied on in the outfield anymore. Oliva would amass 624 plate appearances in 1973—all of them as a designated hitter. Oliva had the most productive Opening Day of any DH that year, going 2-for-4 with a home run, three RBI, a walk, and a run scored. He’d finish the year at .291/.345/.410 with 16 home runs and 92 RBI. Oliva played 15 seasons—all with the Minnesota Twins, and the DH role almost certainly allowed for the last three. He would finish his career with a .304/.353/.476 slash line.

In Anaheim, playing the then-called California Angels, the Kansas City Royals were in town and Ed Kirkpatrick had the unenviable task of hitting against 26-year-old Nolan Ryan, who would throw a complete game with 12 strikeouts to open the season. Kirkpatrick batted sixth behind Hal McRae and in front of Lou Piniella and he’d go 0-for-3 with a walk. Kirkpatrick was drafted by the Angels in 1962, and actually made his debut that year at the age of 17. He was traded to the Royals in 1968 along with Dennis Paepke for Hoyt Wilhelm. While in Kansas City, Kirkpatrick played all over the place—including the outfield, infield and catcher, and in fact saw action at DH in only eight games in 1973, and just 16 games in his 16-year career.

In 1973, he hit a pretty light .263/.333/.375 with six home runs, although he did set a career high with 24 doubles. He’d play for Pittsburgh, Texas and Milwaukee over the next four seasons. He retired at 32.

The Angels had traded for their DH, Tommy McCraw, less than a week before the season started in 1973. McCraw came over from the Cleveland Indians with minor leaguer Robert Marcano for “Mr. Automatic” shortstop Leo Cardenas, ostensibly because the Angels felt they had their shortstop of the future in a kid named Bobby Valentine. McCraw batted fifth on opening day behind Frank Robinson (who ultimately became the go-to DH in 1973 for the Angels) and managed a single off starter Steve Busby. He’d go on to hit just .265/.343/.326 with three home runs in fewer than 300 plate appearances—appearing as a DH in only nine games that year. In that sense, he was the least designated of these designated hitters. He was traded back to the Indians early in the 1974 season and he’d retire a year later at the age of 34.

In Boston, the Red Sox ran 35-year-old Orlando Cepeda out as their DH to face Mel Stottlemyre, who had his worst start of the season on this Opening Day, giving up six earned runs over just 2.2 innings pitched. He’d go on to finish 1973 with 16 wins and a 3.07 ERA. Cepeda, signed as a free agent in Boston in January of 1973, batted fifth with Rico Petrocelli and Carlton Fisk behind him (Fisk hit two home runs). He’d go 0-for-6 with a pair of strikeouts, but his squad would ultimately beat the Yankees, 15-5. Cepeda, of course was in the twilight of what would be a Hall of Fame career, but even at 35, he produced a .289/.350/.444 season with over 600 plate appearances, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 86. It would be his last productive season; he played sparingly for the Kansas City Royals in 1974, hitting .215 with one home run.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This brings us back to “Boomer” Ron Blomberg, the “first” DH in baseball. He’d bat sixth in the lineup between Graig Nettles and Felipe Alou, going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk off opposing pitcher Luis Tiant, who threw a complete game despite giving up five earned runs. Blomberg split time between first base and designated hitter that year, sharing his DH duties with Jim Ray Hart after the Yankees traded for him in the first week of the season. In 338 plate appearances, Blomberg was pretty productive, slashing .329/.395/.498 with 12 home runs and 57 RBI. That would turn out to be his best season, as knee and shoulder injuries limited him over the next several years. He missed almost all of the 1976 season as well as the whole 1977 season because of various ailments, and made a comeback with the Chicago White Sox in 1978. He hit .231 with five home runs over 169 plate appearances, and retired at age 29.

All in all, designated hitters hit .263/.331/.399 in 1973, good for a wRC+ of 104, only slightly besting the rest of the league, which hit .261/.330/.386 (wRC+ of 100, of course). But if it was more offense or perhaps entertainment AL owners were hoping for, the DH slash line was infinitely more productive than National League pitchers that season. They hit .150/.191/.189. So in that sense, it must have felt like a success, even if—like today—not all of the first DHs were really that special with a baseball bat in their hands.

Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.
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M. G. Moscato
8 years ago

Very smartly, efficiently structured piece here w/ some nice research about something so often taken for granted–that is, by those of us who no longer debate the DH rule.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

I cannot help but play the “what if” game with pre 1973 players and wonder if they could have hit a lot more home runs were the rules in play then. Mantle probably would have hit a lot more home runs had he not had to chase so many fly balls while he was three sheets to the wind. Ditto Babe Ruth.

Graham Clayton
8 years ago

“Oliva would amass 624 plate appearances in 1973—all of them as a designated hitter”

Is this a record for the most plate appearances in a season by a DH without batting as a position player?

8 years ago

Loved Ollie Brown during his stint with the Phils. Had legit power. Guy also had a great arm and could really unload a throw from the OF.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

Mantle’s problem was not so much being drunk as being hurt-perhaps there is a connection but not necessarily. For example, he missed about 40 games in 1962 and about 90 games in 1963 due to injuries; one being a broken ankle suffered when he crashed into the chain link fence in Baltimore chasing a ball. That probably cost him 40-45 home runs. Being able to DH would presumably have enabled him to get more at bats when he was too injured to play the field but, more importantly, it would have let him play longer. He was only 36 when he retired and, while his performance in his last few years was below his career standards, this was at least in part due to the reduced offense in baseball generally. Mantle probably would have benefitted from the post-1968 rule changes.

Michael Bacon
8 years ago

This is the best indictment of the DH I have ever read! “Brown was just 29 in 1973, but his limitations in the outfield were enough that he would be their primary designated hitter entering that season.”

“Crowley was a 26-year-old left-hander who could play a little outfield and a little first base, neither particularly well. For a guy without much of a platoon split and defensive liabilities, Crowley certainly had a long tenure in the major leagues—and he probably owes that to the advent of the DH.”

“Cepeda, of course was in the twilight of what would be a Hall of Fame career…”

Without the absurd Dreaded Hitter rule most of these guys would not have even been in MLB, and if hey were they would be pinch-hitting.

I do not think about the “pre-1973 players and wonder if they could have hit a lot more home runs were the rules in play then.” I wonder about the post DH AL players who cannot be compared to previous players, or even compared to the current NL players, the only “real” MLB league. One of the great things about baseball was that stats of players of different generations could be compared. This is no longer the case in the inferior AL, and has not been since the stupid introduction of the player who would not otherwise be on the field, called names like, “Big Poopi.” Why not wonder how players like the Poopster would have done in the 60’s while also having to field a position, as did Dick, Dr. Strangeglove, Stuart?

Why not discuss why the AL implemented the ridiculous rule in the first place? They did it because the AL was an inferior league because of racism. If the AL had signed people of color, as did the NL, they would not have had to resort to the gimmick now call DH. And the sad fact is that the AL is STILL AN INFERIOR LEAGUE!

And as for the Mick, Jane Leavy writes in her book, “The Last Boy” that Mantle played almost his entire career without an anterior cruciate ligament! And yes, he drank to dull the incredible and unbelievable pain. The greatest MLB player of all-time? Consider for a moment how your choice would have fared having to play on only one good leg, while the other had intense bone on bone pain EVERY MINUTE OF THE MICK’S LIFE!

8 years ago

Great stuff. How does a guy like Terry Crowley have a 24 year MLB career? Hard to see that happening today. Must have agreed to some low paying contracts. And Orlando Cepeda played for the Red Sox? And the Royals? Frank Robinson played for the Angels? Who knew!?

Matty Zero
8 years ago
Reply to  Christian

It was quite common for teams in the past to employ 1 or 2 guys as strictly pinch-hitters. Now those are bullpen roster spots.

8 years ago

Hey… Michael Bacon… chill ! LOL

Just so you know, Ollie Brown played the rest of his career in the NL (all 4 years AFTER 1973), as a respectable corner OF. That 1973 season was the ONLY time he played DH, and he even played a little RF that season too.

For his career, Ollie had a league average range factor, and had a significantly above average arm (including those years after he DH’d). So, while no one would be lining up to give him a gold glove, he was respectable, and had a plus-plus arm, in RF (primarily).

So calm down with all your racial bias and “NL is better” stuff, OK?

I’m also from a NL only town (Philly), and I used to think a bit like you… that the DH is completely bogus. But you know what? I’m tired of watching pitchers bat. They’re horrible, and just getting worse. They don’t do it in most other leagues… just fyi… pitchers batting is now the anachronism. Not the other way around.

And don;t think I’m some young guy… I’m 53.

Its just time for all the leagues to play by the same rules. And frankly, I’m done watching pitchers “try” to hit. Its just over.

I’m converted to the DH for all teams now.

8 years ago

I do not like the DH and I am young and very non-traditional.

Why should you have a different rule for a SINGLE position just because increased specialization has lowered the value of the offensive ability for a pitcher?

It is not a lot different from the shortstop position, or any other defensive specialization, just a lot more extreme.

There should be a consistent rule either way, and if there were a DH for pitchers it should be for every position.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Speaking of Terry Crowley, here is Weaver’s opinion of his value:

Go to the 1:20 mark

Warning: the language is not suitable for young fans.