This Day In Sports: The DH can’t be 50 years old, can it?

April 6, 1973, 50 years ago today: Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees becomes the first designated hitter in baseball history, and he draws a bases-loaded walk on five pitches against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Purists were horrified at the use of a DH, while the American League was trying to revive its sagging offensive numbers. It worked. In the three seasons before the DH, the AL batting champion hit .329, .337 and .318—in the three seasons following, the AL batting average leader hit .350, .364 and .359.

It took three years for the designated hitter to affect the World Series. Then from 1976-85, the DH was deployed in even years in the Fall Classic, and pitchers remained in the batting order in odd years. Beginning with the 1986 Series, the designated hitter rule was in effect in AL parks and not in NL parks.

The National League resisted the implementation of the full-time designated hitter for 49 years, finally instituting the rule in 2022. The turning point for the NL was the abbreviated COVID season in 2020, when it used the DH as a health and safety measure. The league did have experience with the DH, though. When interleague play was introduced in 1997, National League teams played by American League rules when they visited NL parks. And on June 12, 1997, the San Francisco Giants’ Glenallen Hill became the first National League DH in a regular-season game, when the Giants played the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark in Arlington.

There are exceptions to every rule, and L.A. Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani’s unique success forced this one. The Angels would start Ohtani simultaneously as a pitcher and designated hitter when he debuted in the majors in 2018. He would have to leave the game or move to another position if he was relieved as a pitcher. So when the universal DH was implemented last year, so was an exception now dubbed the “Ohtani rule,” allowing a starting pitcher who was also the DH to remain in the lineup as a hitter if he’s relieved as a pitcher.

We can’t wrap up today’s feature without a nod to former Seattle Mariner Edgar Martinez, one of the most prolific designated hitters of all time. Martinez logged a career batting average of .312 with 309 home runs, but he played over 70 percent of his career as a DH. Many derided his worthiness as a Baseball Hall of Famer, and it showed in voting. Martinez was first eligible for the Hall in 2010. Nine years later, he finally got his due and was enshrined in Cooperstown.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)

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