[Pitcher Ian Anderson batting for Atlanta. Note in the closed caption, the announcers were discussing that this World Series may be the last time pitchers bat. 10/29/21 Fox, Photo: David Kramer]
Game five of the 2021 World Series may be the last time Rochestarians see a major league baseball pitcher bat. This series, the designated hitter is not used in the National League’s Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park for games three, four and five.
Most likely, in 2022 the National League will adopt the DH rule. So at some point in game five, the last ever pitcher may come to the plate to bat.
This season we saw the oddity of Shohei Ohtani batting for himself when pitching as the Angels elected not to use a designated hitter. The 2022 rule will probably follow the college format where a player can both pitch and DH: listed as DH-P in the box score. Pitchers like Ohtani will undoubtedly pinch hit, pinch run or play the field. But the position “P” in the box score will disappear for ever.
Actually, in 1969, the Rochester Red Wings were part an International League experiment with the designated hitter, an experiment that only lasted one season but helped pave the way towards Game Five of the 2021 World Series and the elimination of the pitcher as hitter.
Four years after the International League experiment, The American League used the DH on a three year trial basis.
In 1976, the rule became permanent and that years’ Worlds Series — Reds, Yankees — saw its first designated hitter. In the pandemic shortened 2020 season, both leagues used the DH. The new collective bargaining agreement is expected to make the universal DH permanent. You can, however, still watch pitchers bat in Japan’s Central League, now the last holdout.
I think a universal designated hitter is a bad idea. I enjoy both variations of the game. When the pitcher must bat, like chess players, managers must look an inning or two ahead, plotting bunting, intentional walks, double switches and pinch hitting strategies.
And when the pitcher can hit well, everything changes. In the 70s and 80s, I loved watching the Phillie’s Steve Carlton help his cause when on the mound (3 home runs and 15 rbi’s and a .268 average in ’77) and also pinch hit.
As for the DH, prolonging the careers of aging stars is a good thing, such as when Henry Aaron DH’d for Milwaukee and Tony Olivia for Minnesota and, more recently, A-Rod for the Yankees. Prolonging the careers of aging stars feels more appealing the older I get. Before pitchers were yanked after a set number of pitches, the DH allowed for more phenomenal pitching duels as neither pitcher had to be removed for a pinch hitter if his team was trailing late in the game.
The use of the DH was most interesting in previous decades when starting pitchers went longer and teams used more position players. In the 70s, the A’s carried 16 position players. Not having to save batters to pinch hit for the pitcher, the A’s carried defensive and pinch running specialists, including the track star Herb Washington.
In 1980, “Fast Food” [my nickname] Herb would open a McDonalds in inner city Rochester. Eventually, he owned 4 restaurants, including one in Pittsford and one at the airport.
The A’s also used the second base position almost like the pitcher’s spot, using multiple weak sticks/slick gloves like Dick Green and Ted Kubiak in tandem with immobile pinch hitters like Jesus Alou and Rico Carty and pinch running specialists like Washington. Earl Weaver pulled a similar tactic. In away games, outfielder Royle Stillman would officially start at shortstop and bat in the top of the first, promptly replaced by the real shortstop, the woeful hitting Mark Belanger, in the bottom of the inning. Weaver would also list a starting pitcher from the previous game as the designated hitter in the lineup, on the odd chance the other team changed pitchers before the DH game to bat, whereby Weaver could select a DH of his choice. The practice was eventually outlawed.
Ultimately, eliminating pitcher’s batting is an unnecessary rupture with the game’s past. Baseball is all about history and some sense of continuity. I hope the universal DH becomes, like in 1969, a one year experiment. But I doubt it. So enjoy that last pitcher at the plate come game five.
On April 25th, 1969, at the Silver Stadium home opener, Rochestarians saw history. That day, Wing’s manager Cal Ripken gave the umpire a lineup card in which the 9th place hitter was not the starting pitcher, Marcelino Lopez, but instead was Jim Campbell, penciled in as Designated Pinch Hitter.
Most baseball fans know the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973, primarily as a way to increase offense and lengthen the careers of older star players, like Henry Aaron, who could bat without having to play the field.
Less well known is that in 1969 the International League used the designated hitter in a one year experiment. The season before saw offensive numbers plummet during the so-called Year of the Pitcher. The IL’s President George Sisler Jr. agreed to adopt the DH so the major leagues could evaluate its effect.
At first, there was confusion as to what the new position should be called. When the experiment was discussed the previous winter, it was called the “Wild Card.” In his column on the home opener, George Beahon referred to the position as the Designated Pinch Hitter. The box score lists Campbell as the DPH, as did Ripken when he filled out the lineup card. The next day, IL President Sisler explained the proper name was the Designated Hitter (DH), and the appellation stuck.
After reviewing columns and accounts of the 1969 season, I was surprised the tradition breaking rule was not the subject of more controversy and debate, and more condemnations from purists. After all, pitchers had been batting for themselves for a hundred years.
More probably, minor league fans realized that AAA is a primarily a training ground and incubator for players to reach the majors. The parent club puts a low emphasis on the farm teams won/loss record, instead dictating how players are used. So being the subject of an experiment did not seem to bother the fans who were accustomed to being guinea pigs.
In August, Sports Illustrated‘s Bill Legget visited Silver Stadium when writing “Rx: A DH FACTOR FOR BASEBALL ILLS “. Legget was also surprised that the innovation (or abomination to purists) was getting little media attention. Four years later, in his 1973, “The 10th Man Cometh,” Leggett described an end of the season survey taken at Silver Stadium:
The most important factual document pertaining to the DPH [sic] is kept in a desk drawer in the office of Carl Steinfeldt, the 32-year-old general manager of the Rochester Red Wings of the International League, which experimented with a DPH rule during the 1969 season. On the last three days of the season 5,000 questionnaires were given out to spectators at Rochester. The fans were asked to return them at their own expense, and 3,322 were completed. The verdict was 59% in favor of the DPH, 31% against and 10% on the fence. By Presidential election standards, that is landslide popularity.
Apparently, Red Wing fans — at least those who answered the survey — were not diehard purists.
As mentioned in two articles, the biggest drawback was the rule put some players at a competitive disadvantage.
When an International League pitcher advanced to the majors, he may not have batted all year. Also, position players worried that if they were the DH too many times, they would be viewed as one dimensional with less value in the majors where the position did not exist. For example, Jim Campbell , who had the most DH at-bats for Rochester, would only play briefly in the majors, logging 13 at bats as a pinch hitter for St. Louis in 1970. Perhaps fittingly the Wings first “Designated Pinch Hitter” never played the field when he had his cup of coffee in the big league.
One of that seasons’ most prominent players, Thurman Munson of the Syracuse Chiefs, did benefit from the rule. Munson was the starting catcher, but when not catching he was the designated hitter, allowing him to have a full slate of at bats and lessening the wear and tear of catching.
Ultimately, the experiment was discontinued after one season. Sisler was a strong advocate, noting the increase in offense that fans seemed to want. Batting averages climbed from .251 to .269. In “Distinguished History” (1993), Sport’s Illustrated‘s Steve Wulf thinks the IL “bowed to the pressure of baseball purists” when discontinuing the DH.
No doubt Wulf is right that purists objected. But, more likely, the discontinuation of DH was a more prosaic decision. With no DH in the major leagues, it did not make sense to employ the DH in the minors. Ultimately, pitchers would be unprepared as hitters and designated hitters could less easily develop their fielding skills to the disadvantage of the parent club. Nonetheless, 1969 certainly paved the way for 1973.
Finally, one of Rochester’s fan favorites may have watched some designated hitters at work: Cal Ripken Jr. Cal Jr. was nine years old at the time and, during the summer, often traveled with his father, Wings Manager Cal Ripken Sr.
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