DH firmly in place in American League

The designated hitter debuted in 1973. And signs point to it remaining in place for the foreseeable future.

Originally Published: February 3, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

For years, it was the pointed subject of debate, and there was no middle ground.

You either loved the concept of the DH -- designated hitter -- or you hated it. Battles lines were drawn; nobody was right if everybody was wrong.

But as one of the most radical rule changes to the game in modern baseball enters its fourth decade -- it was introduced in 1973 -- it's become part of the landscape.

Edgar Martinez
Edgar Martinez has played his entire 18-year career with the Mariners.

Controversy? What controversy?

Arguing over its merit now seems like a pointless exercise. Perhaps once a year, when the World Series shifts to the National League host city and the DH goes back into the closet for a few games, it becomes an issue.

Otherwise, the DH -- implemented throughout every level of organized ball, all over the world, except the NL -- seems here to stay.

The controversy seems as old as the ones about burning bras and the Panama Canal.

"It never comes up anymore (at owners meetings) -- not at all,'' confirms commissioner Bud Selig of the topic.

These days, owners debate luxury taxes, revenue sharing and a worldwide draft. The DH, once a lightning rod, now seems hardly worth arguing about.

Introduced by maverick owner Charlie Finley -- "The only idea of his I ever voted for,'' jokes Selig -- the DH was intended to boost baseball's offense. Football was making its charge and some owners believed the game could use more runs, more offense and more excitement after a decade in which pitchers (Sandy Koufax, Denny McLain, Bob Gibson) thoroughly dominated.

"The American League, in particular, was hurting,'' recalls Selig, "and the clubs got to like it.''

The impact was immediate. After AL teams averaged 3.47 runs per game in 1972, the number jumped to 4.28 in 1973, the first year with the DH. By comparison, AL teams averaged 4.86 runs per game in 2003.

In addition to boosting the average number of runs scored per game, the DH prolonged careers. Hank Aaron, having broken Babe Ruth's career home record, returned to Milwaukee for a final season as DH. Later, the DH extended the shelf life of aging sluggers like Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson and countless others.

Last month, the Hall of Fame welcomed Paul Molitor, its first inductee to compile more lifetime at-bats as a DH than at any other position. Considered radical upon its introduction, its now closer to a moot point.

Which isn't to suggest there's suddenly a consensus on the matter. Rather, the once warring factions in the game have simply agreed to disagree.

"As Bill Giles (Phillies' chairman) says, 'I like the controversy -- one league has it and the other doesn't,' '' says Selig.

Indeed, while the debate has quieted, the rule's staunchest supporters haven't weakened the opposition. Current National League owners -- none of whom were around in 1973 -- seem duty-bound to carry the fight against the DH forward, like some latter-day Hatfield-McCoy dustup.

As Bill Giles (Phillies' chairman) says, 'I like the controversy -- one league has it and the other doesn't.'
Bud Selig, MLB commissioner, on the DH

"I think they want to keep up the fight because (the current rules) are definitely a disadvantage for the American League team in the World Series,'' theorizes one American League general manager. "It's much tougher (for an AL team) to do without it when you've had it all year than it is to add it when you're not used to it. That's the only thing I can come up with.''

"The National League,'' Selig says, "will never adopt it. And unless something dramatically changes, then this is what we're going to live with.''

The best chance for change came in the early 1990s when baseball went to three divisions and realignment was on the table. Later, when two expansion franchises were introduced in 1998, and radical realignment was again under consideration, the idea was again broached.

Had there been a full-scale overhaul of leagues and divisions, the DH almost certainly would have been legislated out of existence in the interest of harmony. But when Milwaukee was the lone team to switch leagues, the impetus for change disappeared.

Status quo it is.

Not even the elimination of the league offices and the introduction of interleague play has led to a softening of the NL's opposition.

"It's interesting, because the lines (between the two leagues) has been blurred,'' Selig says. "But on this, it's still the same divide.''

If the move to wipe out the DH were to ever gain momentum again, it would still require the approval of the Players Association since the matter must be collectively bargained.

A Players Association source said that owners would have to offer something "substantial'' in return for the "elimination of jobs,'' and that such a tradeoff is unlikely.

In the past, owners floated a number of trial balloons, including an arrangement under which the union would get an extra roster spot in exchange for giving up the DH.

But the Players Association has, in the past, rejected that proposal out of hand, noting that while the 26th man on a roster would likely earn the minimum ($300,000) salary, many DHs are veterans with significant service time and seven-figure salaries.

"It's so entrenched,'' says another major-league executive. "It's just accepted.''

Now, what was all that fighting about again?

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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