When old Doc Adams, with a little help from Alexander Cartwright but none from Abner Doubleday, designed baseball, it was decided that nine players on a team would be just right. And for 125 or so years, it was.
Then, along came the designated hitter.
With offenses bottoming out in the 1960s, it occurred to the proprietors of baseball that something had to be done. It was Charley Finley, one of the game’s great innovators, who decided that putting an extra batter in the lineup would solve the problem. Pitchers were woeful hitters anyway – Don Newcombe (.271 career average), Warren Spahn (35 career home runs) and Tony Cloninger (two grand slam homers in one game) notwithstanding — so we will replace them with a batter, and we will call him the designated hitter.
Traditionalists were outraged with tampering with the greatest game ever invented. One by one, however, leagues surrendered to the idea. Now, after high school ball, there is only one holdout left – the National League.
By God, the owners argued, we’ve played with nine men since we got into the baseball business in 1876 and that’s how we’ll stay.
National League stubbornness led to a crazy quilt design for the grand old game. American League teams, built with a roster that included the DH, are at a disadvantage when they play World Series games in National League parks where the DH is not allowed. Inter-league games in AL parks include the DH, but not in NL parks.
Soon, however, these problems will disappear. Change is coming. There is a robust movement afoot for the National League to get into lockstep with the rest of organized baseball and adopt the DH. The cacophony is getting louder and it seems that sooner or later, the NL will accept the DH. And that will be a dark day.
The DH destroys a significant part of the strategy that makes baseball such a compelling game. Bunts are already obsolete because that is usually the pitcher’s job when they bat with runners on base. One manager who shall remain anonymous to protect him from embarrassment, explained that he ignored an obvious bunt situation – winning run on first base, none out — because his hitter had never bunted before.
The DH eliminates the need for pinch hitting for the pitcher. When he managed in Oakland, Billy Martin destroyed his pitching staff because he never was faced with a situation where he had to pinch hit for a hurler. So his pitchers pitched and pitched and pitched until they were pitched out.
The DH created an interesting argument for the Hall of Fame. The DH is a one-dimensional player who never plays the field. That hurt worthwhile candidates like Edgar Martinez (.312 batting average, 309 home runs) although he’ll probably make it next year, his final year on the ballot
We are now 35 years into the DH rule. Baseball has decided it is here to stay, whether the National League agrees or not. And soon, their agreement will be a moot question.