Designated Hitter: The Controversial Rule Turns 40 Years Old

Ron Juckett@ronjuckettContributor IIIJanuary 11, 2013

David Ortiz
David OrtizJared Wickerham/Getty Images

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most controversial rule changes in baseball history—the American League's adoption of the designated hitter.

On Jan. 11, 1973, the American League owners voted 8–4 to add a non-fielding hitter. The original plan was for a three-year trial. 2013 will mark the 41st season of that trial.

The reasons for such a drastic change were obvious.

Baseball, once the king of all American sports, had fallen behind in popularity to the National Football League. One of the reasons for this was the lack of offense in the game.

After the 1968 season, where only one American League hitter hit .300, the pitching mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10.

That did help boost batting averages and runs scored—averages went from .230 to .246 and runs per game went up from 3.41 to 4.09—but as the '70s dawned, the dominance of the pitcher had returned.

Runs per game had fallen back down to 3.47 in 1972, and the league collectively hit an anemic .239.

While more and more young kids were starting to prefer football, baseball knew it had to do something.

That something was to create more offense. Taking the pitcher out of the lineup did just that.

Runs per game jumped up to 4.28, the highest average since 1962, and batting average climbed 20 points to .259.

The traditionalists hated it. The National League never even implemented it.

While the move did do what it was supposed to in creating more offense, baseball has yet to reclaim the crown as king of American sports.

What it did for the American League, however, was create a distinct strategy of playing the game differently than the National League.

National League offense turned into a game of precision. Pitching, speed and baserunning became the hallmarks of how to win games, with the home run just another tool.

American League baseball, on the other hand, turned into a power game. Getting runners on base and trying to hit a three-run home run became the dominant strategy of the DH era.

The other major result of the designated hitter was that older players played longer.

Sluggers such as Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Paul Molitor, Frank Thomas and others were able to move out of the field and stay in the lineup after their defense was gone.

Batters like Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz became All-Stars because of their hitting abilities in the DH spot.

To this day, the argument goes back and forth on whether the DH is a good or bad thing. One thing is for sure: The fans love offense, and the DH gives them exactly that.


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