MLB History: The Designated Hitter Comes to Baseball

One of the most debated rules came into effect on this day in 1973, as the designated hitter came to the MLB.

It is easy to understand why few people would want to see pitchers attempt to hit. With a few exceptions, that spot is typically an automatic out in an MLB lineup. While players like Madison Bumgarner can hit home runs, and Bartolo Colon entertains whenever he is in the batter’s box, it is usually a time to refill the chip bowl or grab a beer.

Boredom with pitchers hitting, and a desire to increase scoring in baseball, dated back to 1906, when Connie Mack first proposed the idea. Tired of watching his pitchers, notably Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, Mack came up with the idea of the designated hitter. Even though it was met was scorn, the idea cropped up again in the 1920’s, when National League president John Heydler almost convinced teams to try a designated hitter during Spring Training in 1929.

However, after the 1968 season, the lack of offense in the game brought the idea back to the forefront. Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson dominated with a 1.12 ERA, and Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average. Suddenly, the designated hitter, which had been laughed at for so long, seemed to be a viable option.

Discussed for a couple of years, the designated hitter officially came into existence on this day in 1973, passing by an 8-4 vote. It would have a three year shelf life, at which point in time the rule would be revisited. Ron Bloomberg became the first designated hitter to appear in a game, doing so on April 6th. Facing Luis Tiant in that plate appearance, Bloomberg drew a walk.

The goal of adding offense to the game came through. The American League had a higher batting average than the National League in all three years, leading to the designated hitter to be a permanent fixture in the AL. While the NL is starting to consider adding the position, it still remains governed by those rules from 40 years ago.

Even though it has been 44 years since the designated hitter came into being, there are still questions as to how it should be regarded. Players like Edgar Martinez, who may well be the best at the position, are not in the Hall of Fame. The designated hitter still has not gotten the respect that it deserves.

Perhaps some day, the designated hitter will be in both leagues. On this day in 1973, it became a reality in the American League.

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