History of the Designated Hitter Rule

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Love or hate the Designated Hitter, it’s here to stay. Many baseball fans don’t remember the game without a DH.

Without the DH, we couldn’t have seen Shohei Ohtani perform at a high level the last few years. The two-time Most Valuable Player is a hybrid DH/starting pitcher. In 2024, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ohtani will only DH, which makes us thankful that the National League added the DH back in 2022.

The Designated Hitter (DH) rule in Major League Baseball (MLB) has been a subject of debate and discussion since its inception in 1973. The introduction of the DH marked a significant departure from traditional baseball strategy and has sparked ongoing conversations about the role of pitchers in batting lineups.

Before the DH rule, both the American League (AL) and the National League (NL) operated under the same set of rules, which required pitchers to bat in the lineup. However, the AL decided to experiment with a designated hitter during spring training games in 1973 as a response to declining offensive numbers and attendance. The idea was to add excitement to the game by featuring a player whose primary role was hitting, freeing managers from the dilemma of deciding whether to keep a pitcher in the game for their defensive abilities or replace them for a better hitter.

On April 6, 1973, in a game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the first official use of the Designated Hitter occurred. Ron Blomberg of the Yankees made history by becoming the first DH to step to the plate, drawing a walk against Boston’s Luis Tiant. This moment marked the beginning of a new era in baseball.

The initial implementation of the DH rule was an experiment limited to the AL. However, the success of the rule, both in terms of offensive production and fan interest, led to its permanent adoption in the American League. The National League, on the other hand, opted to maintain the traditional style of having pitchers bat in the lineup.

Over the years, the DH rule has evolved, becoming a defining feature of American League baseball. It allowed teams to maximize offensive output by having a dedicated hitter who specialized in hitting rather than dividing attention between pitching and batting. This specialization often led to increased run production, more home runs, and a faster-paced game.

The DH Rule and Noted Players who Filled the Role

The DH rule also had a significant impact on player careers. Hitters who may have struggled defensively but possessed potent offensive skills found a place in the lineup as designated hitters. This allowed aging players to extend their careers and contribute to their teams in a focused offensive role.

Notable DHs like Andre Thornton, Rusty Staub, Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, and Frank Thomas have left an indelible mark on the game and contributed to the DH position’s legacy. Other players who played the DH “position” for a long period include Chili Davis, Brian Downing, and Cecil Fielder.

One of the first players to make the DH his primary job was Hal McRae, a hard-hitting former outfielder, who ironically started his career in the National League. Under manager Whitey Herzog, McRae was used as a primary DH for several seasons with the Kansas City Royals. McRae was the first player to win the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award.

For years, several teams used the designated hitter role as a way to shuffle position players in and out, giving them a day off. That situation was prominent into the 1990s, when some teams began using a regular everyday DH. Often that was an older batter who was no longer a dependable defender. In rare cases, younger players who were poor defenders, or out of position on their team, were utilized as a regular DH.

Most Games as a Designated Hitter, All-Time

These numbers are for 1973 to 2023, inclusive:

  1. David Ortiz … 2027
  2. Harold Baines … 1643
  3. Hal McRae … 1423
  4. Edgar Martinez … 1403
  5. Frank Thomas … 1310
  6. Don Baylor … 1284
  7. Paul Molitor … 1172
  8. Chili Davis … 1160
  9. Nelson Cruz … 1046
  10. Travis Hafner … 1043

Ortiz holds the all-time record for most home runs as a DH (485), and and most RBI (1,568). He’s also the only player to record as many as 2,000 hits in the designated hitter role, with 2,191.

Controversy over the DH Rule, and Interleague Play

Despite its success in the American League, the DH was a point of contention whenever discussions about expanding it to the National League arose. Traditionalists argue that the designated hitter disrupts the purity of the game and alters the strategic nuances of National League baseball, where pitchers must hit. On the other hand, proponents of the DH argue that it adds excitement, offensive firepower, and player longevity to the game.

Interleague play, introduced in 1997, created situations where American League teams and National League teams faced each other during the regular season. In these matchups, the DH rule was applied in AL parks, while pitchers batted in NL parks, highlighting the differences between the two leagues.

The debate reached a new level in 2020 when, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB adopted a universal DH for the shortened season. This marked the first time the National League implemented the DH during the regular season. While it was a temporary measure for health and safety reasons, it reignited discussions about whether the universal DH should become a permanent feature in MLB.

In 2022 the DH was expanded to the National League, after serving as a topic of ongoing negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.