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Reminder: The DH is not a “gimmick”

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A couple of things about last night’s report of potential rules changes, including the adoption of the designated hitter in the National League:

  • It’s all talk at the moment and almost none of it will go into effect this year, if ever. It’s part of a larger negotiation involving more likely rules changes like the adoption of a pitch clock and alterations to mound visit rules which were proposed last year; and
  • Even if there is momentum for this rule change or that rule change, the process for major rules changes is complicated, involving numerous committees and signoff by both owners and union rank and file. What we’re hearing about now are the proposals and counter-proposals from negotiating units.

Which is to say, don’t get super excited and/or angry about anything you’re hearing along these lines yet. It’s a process. The biggest takeaway from which, I think, is that there are constructive conversations happening as opposed to reports of rancor or proposals which are going nowhere.

I will add one bit about the thing everyone is talking about though: the potential addition of the designated hitter to the National League.

Some people like the DH. Some people hate it. Battle lines on that were drawn long ago and getting someone to change their mind about it is about as likely as getting someone to change their religion. I have my own views about it and you do too, but please understand that, to the extent you spend time trying to convince a person that it is aesthetically or qualitatively better or worse than the alternative, you’re probably wasting your time. And yes, I realize most of you will ignore that and do it anyway.

If you do, please do yourself one small favor: don’t make yourself look ignorant. Don’t perpetuate bad information that is objectively wrong. Specifically, don’t call the idea of the designated hitter a “gimmick” or a “relic of the 1970s” and don’t claim that it’d be unnecessary if pitchers did what they once did and actually tried to be good hitters. Don’t do that because both of those things are wrong as a matter of actual fact.

As I wrote three years ago, based on the historical research of Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, the idea of the DH has been traced back to at least 128 years ago. That’s when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and famous executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matte and memorialized their discussion in an article in the publication Sporting Life.

The premise on which they both agreed: pitchers could not hit and it was a terrible bore to fans and teammates to watch them try. Spalding, at the time:

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. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

The statistics bear this out too, by the way. There were always a few pitchers who could rake, but they were exceptions, not the rule, and in the aggregate pitchers were far, far worse hitters than even the worse position players, then as now. So, no, what your dad or your grandpa told you about how, back in their day, pitchers worked on their hitting and were good at it is, like a lot of things they told you, just bull crap.

Spalding and Temple disagreed on what to do about that problem. Spalding proposed simply skipping the pitcher and using an eight-man lineup. Temple “favored the substitution of another man to take the pitcher’s place at the bat when it came his turn to go there,” which is what we have now in the American League.

This was not merely an exercise for a magazine article, however. Temple took the matter to the other National League owners:

We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for.

It would’ve needed eight votes to pass so, as it would do in 1973, when the NL declined to follow the AL into the DH era, the measure just barely failed.

So again: you can hate the DH. You can prefer the game when pitcher bat. No one can tell you that you are wrong for that as it is a matter of personal taste. But you cannot claim that the DH is some gimmick of the Astroturf age, as it was aimed at solving a legitimate baseball problem, first proposed well over a century ago. It was also not adopted because the hippies or whatever gave pitchers moral permission to cease trying to hit well. Pitchers have never hit well. Such stuff is just wrong.

Now, feel free to ignore me. I know half of you are gonna anyway.

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