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Original Issue


Suffering at plate and gate, the American League split paths with the National and, in a revolutionary move, put another man in the game

Yes, operator, that's the party I want. Hello, Bob? Bob Newhart? Yeah, it's me again—Abner Doubleday. I thought you might remember. It sure has been a long time. Yeah, we sold the game I was telling you about. The one with the pillows, the chalk lines and the guy standing up with the stick in his hands. Merchandised the hell out of the thing. We put it indoors in Houston and outdoors everyplace else. We've drawn about 250 million with it over the last 10 years. The big guy right now is loony about the colors green and gold, and he does a lot of dancing on top of these little buildings we call dugouts. There are 23 fellows who will turn their lights on so the guys can play at night and one who won't, but that's old news. Brother, we did something today that is really going to frost your glass. Half of the teams are now going to play with nine guys and the other half with 10.

"I knew that would make you laugh, Bob. I'll certainly admit it isn't your basic, hard-core merchandising. A customer in the Bronx is going to see a different product than the customer in Queens. People on the North Side of Chicago won't know what the guys on the South Side are talking about. In Los Angeles they already think we are trying to teach an octopus to skip rope.

"Sure, I'll call you back if we do anything else with it. You slapping your knee, Bob? Don't blame you. After 103 years of doing things in a way everybody understood, we are really spinning the old swizzle stick on 'em. You think it sounds like madness, eh? Well, if I'm still around in the middle of October, I'll try to get back to you."

It was just past four o'clock at the Sheraton-O'Hare Motor Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. last Thursday afternoon when major league baseball fessed up to the fact that it was going both mod and mad. Owners and general managers representing every team in the American and National Leagues came streaming out of the Lancaster Room, and each looked as if something dire had been done, something revolutionary, something bizarre. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn told what: the American League was going to run a three-year test on DPH—designated pinch hitter. The National League had said no thanks, not for us.

Oh, the leagues had split before. A dozen years ago, for example, the American League expanded and the National League did not. The American League schedule was 162 games, the National 154. But that was a smallish matter. The acceptance of the designated pinch hitter by the American League and its rejection by the National separate the leagues radically. The DPH permits the American League to play with 10 men on a side while the National League continues to field the hallowed nine, and that is at least half a brand-new ball game, as Madison Avenue might say.

The DPH bats for the pitcher. There is just one reason for his existence: to increase hits and scoring. He never fields and the pitcher never bats. The DPH has come into being because of the prolonged scoring slump in baseball and the fact that, with few exceptions, pitchers are lousy hitters.

The new rule reads in part:

"A pinch hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game. A designated pinch hitter for the pitcher must be selected prior to the game....

"He shall not take a position in the field nor shall he appear as a pinch runner.

"Pinch hitters for a designated pinch hitter may be used. Any substitute pinch hitter for a designated pinch hitter himself becomes a designated pinch hitter. A replaced designated pinch hitter shall not re-enter the game in any capacity."

There are some who will say that the American League merely has a brand-new rope with which to hang itself, because the DPH will be allowed in neither the World Series nor the All-Star Game, prime events by which the public tends to evaluate the strengths of the two leagues. The American League has managed to win three of the last five World Series, but has lost nine of the past 10 All-Star Games. People have been saying nasty things about the American League. With reason. Since 1963 the National has outdrawn the American by more than 30 million paying customers and has been either fortunate or farsighted enough to build seven new stadiums with vast parking areas. In 1972 only three National League teams—Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco—failed to reach one million in attendance, but only three American League franchises—Detroit, Boston and Chicago—hit that total, and there have been reports of red ink here and there. The Oakland A's drew 921,323, becoming the first world champions to fall below a million in more than a quarter of a century. The New York Yankees (966,328) dropped below the million mark for the first time since 1945. The Texas Rangers played to only 662,974 in their first year in Arlington. The Minnesota Twins, one of the league's brighter franchises, drew a paltry 797,901, which compares very poorly with their 1,483,547 in 1967. In Baltimore, where Oriole management had felt a good divisional race would improve attendance, the good race came but the fans did not. Baltimore's attendance dropped to 899,950 after three consecutive million-plus years with runaway winners in the AL East.

Feeling the pinch, the American League has designated a pinch hitter as a gate attraction. Although the well-off National League declined to go along, it may elect to do so as early as 1974 if the DPH is a hit. There is no disputing the National's superiority at the plate—a league average of .248 to the American's .239 in 1972. It is in run scoring that the difference suddenly has widened to a shocking degree. The Nationals, who scored 129 more runs than the Americans in 1971, amassed 824 more last season.

The main trouble with the American League has not been in itself but in its stars. There were 17 players who drove in 80 or more runs in the NL in 1972 but only six in the AL, and of those Dick Allen of the White Sox and John Mayberry of Kansas City had just switched leagues.

Will the designated hitter increase scoring in the American League? Absolutely. How much? Maybe two runs a game, maybe more. And because the American League is utilizing the DPH while the National League is not, the rule will attract much more attention than if both leagues had adopted it simultaneously. Imagine that you are a devout Chicago Cub fan just returned from a year in Afghanistan, and you are wondering at the wisdom of the trade sending Starting Pitcher Bill Hands to Minnesota for Reliever Dave LaRoche. You have just come from Wrigley Field and seen LaRoche belted around in the late innings by the Pittsburgh Pirates. You turn on the television set to discover that the Twins and Angels are tied at 5-5. Bill Hands is still pitching for the Twins. Well, wonders never cease in baseball, but it crosses your mind that a starting pitcher is not usually around when the score is 5-5. Especially Bill Hands. "Who manages the Twins?" you ask the friend who went to the Cub game with you. "Frank Quilici," he answers. "Frank Quilici," you say, "is an idiot."

Hands gets the final out of the inning and walks from the mound. The ninth man in the batting order is due to lead off for Minnesota in the bottom of the eighth. In your dear little Cub heart you know that Bill Hands gets about one hit every season and that he ruins so many rallies the CIA is considering him for permanent employment. But of course you never see Bill Hands. It is Harmon Killebrew who steps up to the plate to start the bottom of the eighth, and Killebrew homers. You think now that Quilici is no dummy at all because he has kept Harmon for the right pinch-hitting spot in the game.

"That's the third homer of the day for Killebrew," says Announcer Curt Gowdy. Obviously he meant "year." It is only when you see Hands back on the mound in the ninth that your head starts to whirl. "How is he still in the game? I just saw them hit for him," you react in puzzlement. And then you remember something vaguely from an old letter about the American League having gone daffy.

In less than a month baseball teams will be going to spring training (barring a players' strike), and the new rule will be tested for the first time on March 3 at Tinker Field in Orlando. Minnesota will be playing the Detroit Tigers and that game, as well as one played the following day between the same clubs in Lakeland, is certain to draw a lot of both fans and reporters.

Since the new rule does not apply to inter-league exhibition games, managers are going to have to learn quickly what they want to do with their DPH and how they want to shape their clubs in relation to him. The Boston Red Sox have splendid options in Tommy Harper, a hitter with speed and power, and a superior defensive outfielder named Rick Miller whom they could play in center field when they want to use Harper as the DPH.

The rule gives Billy Martin much more maneuverability with his Detroit Tigers. For several seasons Detroit has had an oversupply of outfielders, some a little long in the tooth. But Martin now can field a team that will seem a lot younger than it is. He has Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Willie Horton, Paul Jata, Ike Brown, Gates Brown and Frank Howard—all of whom have played in the outfield. Some have fielded very well (e.g., Kaline and Stanley) and others not so well (Howard, Gates Brown). At first base Norm Cash, Howard, Kaline, Bill Freehan and Duke Sims all have had experience, but none is going to bring memories of Hal Chase rushing to mind. The Tigers have asked Rich Reese, a talented defensive first baseman released last year by the Twins, to come to spring training. Reese has hit three grand-slam homers as a pinch hitter; no American League player ever hit more. Think, oh think, of the possibilities. It will be amazing if Mickey Lolich or Joe Coleman, Detroit's top pitchers, ever come to bat. Last year the two of them had a total of 15 singles in 171 times up.

Earl Weaver, manager of the Orioles, doubts that many of his pitchers will get to the plate, either, even though he has a good hitter by pitchers' standards in Jim Palmer (.224). "The pitcher seldom hits more than .220," Weaver says, "and teams are going to go for more offense. The designated hitting rule is also going to cut down on bunting. You will tend to go more for the big inning rather than scratch around for a run. You won't eliminate the bunt in the late innings, of course. Teams will still be scuffling to get one run ahead from the seventh inning on."

In a strange way, the new rule may be of special benefit to the Orioles. Baltimore's excellent starting staff pitched 62 complete games in 1972. "I think that if the rule had been in effect then," Weaver says, "we would have had 100 complete games. Very often Mike Cuellar or Pat Dobson would give up a run early and then get stronger as he went along. The fact that we didn't score much often meant that the starter had to come out when he was behind 2-1 or 1-0; we had to try to get a run. Now the pitcher will not have to come out in such circumstances." Overnight Baltimore gains a big plus.

"Since the rule is new nobody knows exactly how it will work out," Weaver continues. "I think you might use a player with 10 or 12 years of experience as your designated hitter—one who is slow in the field or maybe has a sore arm. That way you wouldn't lose his bat when you would normally take him out for a defensive replacement in the game. It may be possible to carry fewer pitchers. Instead of 11 or so you might need less. Still, if you play a Saturday game and have to come back with a doubleheader on Sunday, and you get pretty well chewed up in that Saturday game, you are going to use a lot of pitchers anyway."

Elements of baseball that have been treasured by purists are going to undergo some drastic changes. A good-hitting pitcher like Terry Forster of the White Sox (.463 over his first two seasons in the majors) would appear to be penalized, though a really good-hitting pitcher could be declared a designated hitter for a poor-hitting pitcher. Forget about applauding the starting pitcher when he comes to bat late in the game. He won't be coming to bat. He will have to get his hand as he goes to or from the mound. The stalling of the lead-off man before he steps into the batter's box so that the pitcher can get a breather in the dugout after his batting chore will also be a thing of the past. And that tedious business of whether the pitcher is or is not going to wear his jacket in those rare instances when he reaches first base will blessedly be abandoned. Best of all, the game's dreariest dead moment—the reliever's ride from the bullpen to the mound—will occur far less frequently.

Retaliation against a pitcher who throws at hitters is another fascinating matter that will need some thought. How to accomplish it? A man can show a ton of courage if he is able to knock hitters down without fear of finding something stuck in his own ear.

The Angels could be one of the teams most helped by the rule. In 1972 they compiled a set of remarkably frustrating statistics. California actually outhit Oakland, Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore, but was the worst in the majors at scoring runs. Bob Oliver led the Angels with 70 runs batted in (in 134 games, after being traded from Kansas City), but nobody else had as many as 50.

"Speaking from a selfish point of view," says Angel General Manager Harry Dalton, "I like the rule. When Frank Robinson feels up to working only half a day, he could be our designated hitter. So could Oliver or Vada Pinson. I do not see the designated hitter always hitting in the nine hole. Far from it. I can see him in the three, four and five spots, too. And the fans are going to do a lot of guessing about who the designated hitters are going to be."

Absolutely. It seems the American League has said something very important to the National: "It's time for a change, and we are going our own way." Right now, three very big men in baseball are standing on a hilltop with skis on. Their names are Bowie Kuhn, who backed the play; Joe Cronin, whose American League will reap the harvest or the whirlwind; and Chub Feeney, the president of a National League that chose to stand fast. In early April they all start down the hill. It is going to be some kind of ride.



Commissioner Kuhn, who spoke and voted for the designated hitter, faces the opening salvo in a barrage of post-decision questions.



Two progressives, K.C. Owner Ewing Kauffman (center) and Cincy's Francis Dale (right), discuss DPH with Negotiator John Gaherin.



A working session at the Sheraton-O'Hare. At right is Cub Owner Phil Wrigley, American League President Joe Cronin at his elbow.



Baseball's chiefs rise to the occasion. Cronin (left) and NL Boss Feeney flank Kuhn.