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MLB: DH rule celebrates 40th birthday

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 12:27 a.m. CDT
The designated hitter rule in the American League has allowed players like David Ortiz to maintain long careers by not subjecting them to playing the field. MLB is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the DH this season.

OAKLAND, Calif. – Former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg was honored at Fenway Park this week as the first designated hitter in baseball history.

The DH rule turned 40 this year, and it was Blomberg who paved the way in Boston on April 6, 1973, with a bases-loaded walk in the first inning against Luis Tiant.

One small step for Blomberg. One giant step for aging sluggers everywhere.

But if Blomberg, now 64, were to tip his cap, he ought to do so in the direction of Oakland.

It was Charlie O. Finley, the A’s maverick owner, who sponsored Rule 6.10 – the one that still riles purists 4 decades later.

“I try to remind fans how the DH was our idea,” Nancy Finley, the late owner’s niece, wrote in an email. “We fought hard for the DH.”

Charlie Finley didn’t invent the concept of replacing the pitcher in the batting order.

The DH had been proposed for the big leagues as early as 1928 by National League president John H. Heydler. Too radical at the time, the movement started gaining traction in 1969, when baseball began experimenting with the DH in Triple-A leagues.

They were searching for ways to reignite stagnant offenses.

Finley pushed hardest. For one thing, the American League’s batting average in 1972 was .239.

For another, the A.L.’s attendance lagged more than 2 million behind the N.L.’s.

“The average fan comes to the park to see action, home runs. He doesn’t come to see a one-, two-, three- or four-hit game,” Finley said during his crusade. “I can’t think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up, when the average pitcher can’t hit my grandmother. Let’s have a permanent pinch hitter for the pitcher.”

Finley persuaded his fellow owners to adopt the radical change on an experimental basis for the 1973 season.

At the Plaza Hotel in New York in December 1972, the DH was born. (Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee later called it “the bastard son of Bowie Kuhn and Charlie Finley.”)

As it celebrates its 40th anniversary, there’s no indication it’s going away.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was at the Plaza Hotel, representing his Milwaukee Brewers, when Finley made his pivotal pitch at that 1972 meeting.

“Charlie’s mood in those days was such that he was firing orange baseballs at us when we walked into the meeting,” Selig recalled in a 1996 interview.

“I don’t think anyone expected the experiment to last this long, but as much of a purist and traditionalist as I am, I think it’s a way of life and worked out well.”

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