HOUSTON – The Houston Astros have made it to the World Series to take on the Washington Nationals. American League versus National League. And that means one of the most interesting quirks in worldwide sports: the presence or absence of the designated hitter (DH).
Today's American League features a DH, who substitutes for the pitcher permanently in the hitting roster. The National League does not allow for the DH, and the pitcher bats along with the rest of the lineup.
As many Houston sports fans know, the Astros franchise has been in both leagues. They were in the National League from 1962 -- when they debuted as the Colt 45s -- until 2012, when they then switched to the American League. As of this writing, they are still the only franchise to have won both the American League and National League pennants.
As even a casual viewer knows, today's major-league pitching game requires full-time devotion, and that doesn't necessarily leave much time for batting practice. Doesn't it make sense, then, to designate someone to hit in the pitcher's spot in the order full-time?
Not on your life, many baseball purists say. Hitting is part of the game, and pitchers need to do it just like everyone else. Managers, in turn, argue that taking pitchers out of the batting lineup detracts from a major strategic component of the game, ruining the sport's integrity. On the other hand, some may argue that fans shouldn't be forced to watch pitchers with low batting averages engage in countless displays of futility, just for the sake of tradition. Let the crowd see more hitters, more home runs, more excitement.
But what's the history and rationale behind the DH rule, and why the split between the two leagues?
Well, the DH in its modern form arrived in 1973 (more on that later), but the basic idea of a hitter designated specifically to replace a poorly hitting batter goes back well before that. In fact, it goes back to the previous century.
According to a December 1891 issue of the periodical Sporting Life, lumber baron William Chase Temple, a part-time owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, became one of the first to call for a hitter whose sole purpose was to bat in place of the pitcher. The author of the write-up wasn't shy, remarking that "Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball."
According to John Cronin, who wrote about the DH rule for Baseball Research Journal, the issue even went to a vote in March of 1892 among the 12 teams at the time, but it was narrowly defeated 7-5.
Cronin suggests that the desire for a designated hitter may have come from changes in pitching rules, which morphed the pitcher from merely someone who got play started to someone who was a vital defensive specialist. Pitchers were suddenly devoting much more time to their craft, leaving less time for batting practice. That meant pitchers' batting averages dropped steeply, while non-pitchers' averages remained more consistent.
The pitch, so to speak, for a designated hitter came up again 14 years later. In a February 1906 column called "Why the Pitcher Ought to Bat," Sporting Life cited Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack as an advocate. The column clearly disagreed, stating "It is a cardinal principle of baseball that every member of the team should both field and bat. Instead of taking the pitcher away from the plate, the better remedy would be to teach him how to hit the ball."
Already, opinions were split as to the integrity of the DH. In the following decades, Babe Ruth himself, who posted stellar numbers as both a hitter and a pitcher, expressed dismay at the idea of pitchers avoiding their hitting duties, although he acknowledged the difficulties of devotion to both. By contrast, in the 1920s, National League president John Heydler lamented the lack of offense from pitchers and called for a 10-man line-up rather than the traditional nine. Needless to say, that didn't happen.
The big push for the modern DH came in the late 1960s. And modern readers may wonder: why the split? Why does the American League use the DH while the National League doesn't?
Well, as Cronin discusses, the 1960s featured stellar pitching, lower batting averages, and as a result, lower attendance. In short, people wanted to see hitting, not pitching. In response, the pitching mound was lowered and the strike zone diminished. In an effort to revamp crowds, the American League took their cue from some minor leagues, who started to experiment with the DH. The powers that be in the National League, however, weren't interested.
It was a tussle between NL purism and an AL desire to revitalize the game.
And on January 11, 1973, the owners of all 24 Major League teams took the first step towards the modern DH as we know it. As the New York Times reported, the teams agreed to a three-year trial in which American League teams could use a "designated pinch-hitter" who could bat for the pitcher without forcing him to exit the game as per the usual rules. NL president Charles S. Feeney summed up his league's position succinctly: "We like the game the way it is."
Regardless, on April 6, 1973, New York Yankee Ron Blomberg officially became the first-ever designated hitter in a Major League game. (In case you're wondering, he walked.)
Since its inception, the rules regarding the DH have varied. From 1973 to 1975, there was no DH in the World Series. But after the three-year trial period, the American League opted to keep the DH, and the two leagues tried to strike a compromise. From 1976 to 1985, both World Series teams were allowed DHs, but only in even-numbered years. Then in 1986 began the current practice of playing by the rules of the home ballpark, a practice also used in today's interleague play.
As such, since Games 1 and 2 of this World Series will be played at Minute Maid Park, both teams will be allowed DHs. Games 3, 4, and, if necessary, 5 would be played in Nationals Park under National League rules, which means the Astros would not be allowed a DH.
So, to DH or not to DH? Who's right on this issue? Silly question, of course. Ask a large enough sample of baseball enthusiasts, and you're likely to get close to a 50-50 split. There's the argument for purity and integrity. There's one for better offense and more excitement. There are arguments on both sides for strategy.
Astros fans were certainly split over the move to the American League when it happened in 2013, some citing distaste for the DH. But it got us a World Series and will hopefully net us another one -- or more -- in due time.
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