Skip to main content
Original Issue

A designated disadvantage

Although Cincy allows no DHs on its Triple A Indianapolis team, the Indians lead in their division with stingy pitching and scraggy hitting

Robert Howsam, the chubby-cheeked president of the Cincinnati Reds, is foremost among those who feel that if God and Abner Doubleday had wanted designated hitters in their box scores, they would have said so. Howsam prefers the game as it is still played in the National League and in five of the 18 minor leagues. "It isn't good for baseball," he says of the rule that has turned many pitchers' bats into kindling. "It doesn't allow the full development of pitchers, it prevents relievers from getting as much work as they need and it hinders the development of minor-league managers."

As a result of Howsam's opposition, the four Reds' farm clubs competing in DH leagues do not use designated hitters. "I'm surprised that other National League teams have not demanded the same," he says.

The reasons they have not are explained by Bill Schweppe, the Dodgers' minor-league director. "We think it's more important to develop hitters, especially at the lower levels," Schweppe says. "Anytime you sacrifice on one end you hope to gain on the other. We also feel that it's in our interest to keep our minor-league teams competitive with the ones they are playing."

In reply Howsam could do no better than point to the success of the Reds' Triple A club in Indianapolis, which has a four-game lead in the Eastern Division of the American Association. Last week the Indians defeated Western Division leader Denver in three of five games, one a 3-1 victory in which Pitcher Tom Hume slapped two singles and drove in a run. The outcome of the series was significant because Denver's powerful hitting had given the Bears five wins in their previous six games with Indianapolis.

"Though I agree with Howsam about the rule I think it's unfair to make his minor-league teams compete without DHs," says Denver General Manager Jim Burris. "But I'll say this: he hasn't been wrong many times, and if Indianapolis manages to win the pennant, he's going to be a hard man to live with."

If the Indians do not win, their general manager, Max Schumacher, will know the reason why. "I think playing without a designated hitter could cost us as many as 10 games over the course of the season," he says. "It's not something you can measure day by day, but overall it's a definite disadvantage. When we used designated hitters last year they averaged .264 and we won the division. We're next to last in hitting this season, so we could use that kind of help. If we didn't have the best pitching in the league we wouldn't be where we are right now."

The Indianapolis pitchers have responded to the challenge in two ways, by limiting designated hitters to a .234 average (compared to the overall league mark of .262) and by hitting a passable .167 themselves. This is not a bad average, considering that at home they take no more than eight to 10 batting practice swings a day. On the road only the starter hits before a game.

Even unlimited batting practice might not help Pat Zachry, who has the dual distinction of being the league's best pitcher, with a 7-3 record and a 2.32 ERA, and its worst hitter—he is oh for April, May, June and half of July.

Zachry, age 23, is a tall, tobacco-chewing righthander from Waco, Texas who says he would not mind pitching against himself every day. "We've adjusted to not having the DH," Zachry said last week after running his hitless streak to 24 at bats. "We just have to suck it up and go get 'em. The DH doesn't bother me as long as I'm getting the other eight hitters out."

No one appreciates this attitude more than Manager Vern Rapp, a former catcher weathered by 27 years of playing and managing in the minors. Rapp feels that if he has a problem it is not the lack of a designated hitter but his own failure to reach the majors. The winner of five division titles and three Manager of the Year awards, including two of each in Indianapolis, he cannot help wondering "what it takes to be recognized. Obviously I'm lacking something in the opinion of others or I'd have made it some time ago."

Rapp's players say that he lacks nothing, that he has been held back by his excellent record for developing minor-league talent. "Vern is very gung ho," says Pitcher Dick Baney. "He preaches positive thinking. Take this designated hitter situation. He makes us believe we can win no matter what. He doesn't want us thinking about it. He says if there's worrying to be done he'll do it."

In the 89-year history of the Indianapolis team none of Rapp's predecessors, including Al Lopez and Birdie Tebbetts, had ever been encumbered by a similar disadvantage. But last week, as Rapp sat within the ivy-covered brick walls of Bush Stadium, he refused to cop a plea. "I'm an optimist," he said. "Early in the season, when we lost eight of 11 games, I didn't think about it once. Baseball isn't designed for the player who can only hit. It's for the player who does everything. Managers with the DH tend to get lazy. I know I did last year. You don't have to make as many decisions. Do I leave the pitcher in or take him out? Do I bunt? Do I use a pinch hitter? With a DH, you don't worry so much about these things. People want me to say I'm at a disadvantage, but I don't feel that way."

Schumacher disagrees, and compares Rapp's dilemma to a man who must play straight poker in a game where deuces are wild. But the general manager can afford to oppose Howsam, since he is paid by the Indianapolis stockholders while Rapp is an employee of the Reds.

Not surprisingly, Schumacher tends to accentuate the negative and Rapp the positive. The former talks of a 1-0 loss to Omaha in which the designated hitter delivered a homer, and the latter counters by discussing a 2-0 win over Iowa in which Zachry squeezed in one of the runs.

Pitchers enjoy batting in much the same way that defensive linemen savor those rare opportunities to run with a recovered fumble. "The DH takes all the fun out of playing," says reliever Joe Henderson, a converted outfielder with two doubles and a home run among his four hits.

Fun or not, the Indianapolis pitchers acknowledge their handicap, even if their manager refuses to. Reliever Bruce Taylor, an unbeaten submariner, misses the "security" a DH would provide. Lorin Grow, a skinny lefthander, does not like being pulled for a pinch hitter in a game eventually won by a reliever.

Grow did not need a pinch hitter against Denver last week, winning 10-3 and scratching out an infield hit. "You scragged that one," the first-base coach told him as he slipped into his warmup jacket. Grow did not mind. When you are batting only .090, even the scrags look good.