The man can still sit. Forty years later, he remains in repose, a world-class sitter, compelled to sit by muscle memory. "We did so much sitting around," says Ron Blomberg, sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston. "We sat on airplanes and buses. Guys would sit and play cards before games. Catfish and Sparky and I would sit in a clubhouse and just talk and talk and talk after games. It was so much fun. We'd sit in hotel lobbies like this for hours. We were responsible for our own incidentals, and we'd charge our meals to the rookies' rooms. When it was time to check out, we'd sit and watch the rookies try to settle their bills."
These were the New York Yankees of the 1970s, for whom Blomberg was both dedicated sitter and designated hitter, job descriptions that were often indistinguishable.
In a three-hour game, a designated hitter's competitive exertions might occupy three minutes of his time. For Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, the best DH in baseball, those precious moments will earn him $14.5 million this season. But 40 seasons ago, when he became baseball's first designated hitter, Blomberg was paid 1/290 of Big Papi's salary. "We didn't make a lot of money," he says, still sitting on a red-velvet chair in that five-star hotel. "But what we had was time. Golly Pete, we had a lot of time."
Time is the infinite resource of prison lifers and designated hitters. Once upon a time Blomberg—it's pronounced BLOOM-berg—was the next Jerry West, or possibly Jim Brown. In 1967, at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, Blomberg was a Parade All-America in football who signed a letter of intent to play basketball for John Wooden at UCLA in the early years of the Bruins' dynasty.
But when the Yankees made him the No. 1 overall draft pick in the nation that spring and gave him a $105,000 signing bonus, Blomberg chose baseball instead. By 1972 he was a distant descendent of Lou Gehrig, a regular first baseman in the Bronx, where Blomberg lived year-round, in Riverdale, as a long-awaited figure: The Jewish Yankee.
In that role he made a second living in the off-season as a paid guest at countless bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. In his downtime he loafed around the Garment District with his Riverdale neighbor Willie Mays, who would buy a dozen Nehru suits in an afternoon, the two of them sitting down together in various joints where their pictures graced the walls: Gallagher's, Ben Benson's, Sardi's, the Friar's Club. "The Stage Deli named a sandwich after me," says Ron Blomberg, speaking of The Ron Blomberg, a triple-decker combination of corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, with a Bermuda onion.
He didn't know it yet, but all that loafing, the hanging out and the sitting down, was off-season training. For Blomberg pulled his hamstring legging out a single in the final week of spring training in 1973, and on the flight from Fort Lauderdale to Boston for the season opener Yankees manager Ralph Houk informed him that he was in the next day's lineup not at first base but at designated hitter, the new position created that winter as a three-year experiment in the American League.
"We didn't pay any attention to it," says Blomberg, who hadn't played a single game at DH in spring training. "Nobody thought it would last."
Forty years later, the designated hitter has transformed baseball in ways large and small and irreversible. "It seemed to correct a flaw in the game," as one longtime American League scout recently put it. "And that flaw is: Most pitchers can't hit."
Most never could. "Pitchers are absolutely useless as batters nowadays," said one baseball executive when proposing the rule change. That executive was John Heydler, president of the National League, speaking in 1928 on behalf of a new position: a permanent pinch hitter for the pitcher.
"Many games are spoiled by taking out a pitcher who is going well for a pinch hitter in a close game," Heydler argued 85 years ago. "The change will liven up the game and put more initiative in it.... When a pitcher is going good, it is unfair to take him out."
Then as now, many disagreed. "With the lively ball, short fences and abolition of all freak deliveries," Pirates manager Donie Bush replied, "the pitcher has a hard enough time as it is without putting another tough hitter in the lineup for him to face."
And so the rule change was voted down, but baseball, moving at its glacial pace, revisited it in spring training in 1969, 41 years later, following the pitcher-dominated, watershed season of '68, in which Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title hitting just .301.
Four minor leagues tried the DH as well, and each saw a predictable offensive surge. By 1973 the American League—slipping in attendance, and less hidebound than the senior circuit—was urgently interested. And so it came to be that on Jan. 11, 1973, after a seven-hour meeting in the Lancaster Room of the Sheraton-O'Hare Motor Hotel in Rosemont, Ill., American League owners voted 8--4 for something they called the "designated pinch hitter for the pitcher," or DPH, an abbreviation quickly abbreviated again to DH.
Seven days later the Red Sox called Orlando Cepeda, the 35-year-old slugger whose knees were shot after 16 seasons spent mostly with the Giants.
"They asked me if I wanted to be their DH," recalls Cepeda. "And I said, 'O.K. What is a DH?'"
The Golden Age of Sitting dawned on a frigid Friday afternoon, April 6, 1973. Red Sox righty Luis Tiant loaded the bases in the top of the first, bringing up Boomer, the first man to play a new position in more than a century of professional baseball. With the count full, Blomberg drew a base on balls, driving in the first run of the season by first sitting and then walking.
After Felipe Alou doubled in two more runs, Thurman Munson flied out to end the inning, stranding Blomberg at third base, where he stood for a moment at the end of that long rally, waiting for a teammate to bring him his first baseman's mitt. Dick Howser, the Yankees' third base coach, had to remind him that, for the first time in his or any other starter's life, he wasn't playing the field.
"What do I do now?" said Blomberg, the first of hundreds of designated hitters to wonder the same thing. "I can't just sit and watch Opening Day like I'm the president." Instead, he retreated to the relative warmth of the visitors' clubhouse to bide his suddenly abundant time. There were no indoor batting cages, no TVs, not even a solitary exercise bike to occupy him.
"But Vince, the clubhouse guy, made the best kielbasa and sauerkraut," says Blomberg, and its aroma drew him in like a ma√Ætre d'. Between every at bat, he withdrew to the clubhouse and ate. "I'd eat a kielbasa, get a hit off Luis Tiant, go back to the clubhouse and eat another kielbasa," he says. "I was 24 years old. The DH was supposed to be for guys with one or two years left in their careers. But I started thinking, Hey, this is fun."
And so Blomberg's teammates—Gene Michael chief among them—mocked him for playing an old man's position at a young age. Munson, Fritz Peterson and Sparky Lyle took his first baseman's mitt and wrote us steel across it in Magic Marker. That is still a shade better than his successor at DH for the Yankees in 2013, Travis Hafner, who was told this spring—only partly in jest—not to bother bringing his glove to the ballpark at all.
Blomberg's mitt was not the only piece of his playing equipment that was forever altered. In the kielbasa-redolent visitors' clubhouse that April afternoon at Fenway, after the Yankees lost 15--5, team publicity director Marty Appel confiscated Blomberg's bat and dispatched it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Hey, Marty," Blomberg called across the clubhouse, at the end of a day that seemed more laughable than historic. "If they don't have the DH in 30 days, go to Cooperstown and get my bat back."
It remains in the Hall of Fame a Louisville Slugger under heavy security, in humidity-controlled retirement, still the most famous artifact associated with designated hitting.
Part of the problem, of course, was the name—designated hitter—a phrase that evoked committee meetings and bureaucracy. "It never sounded like a baseball term," says Blomberg, but in spite of that—or more likely, because of it—the phrase instantly entered the popular culture. Yankees benchwarmer Ron Swoboda was quickly called a "designated sitter." White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, the President's stand-in at press briefings, was suddenly "Nixon's designated pinch hitter." Gaylord Perry, renowned for throwing doctored pitches, was called the game's "designated spitter." And on and on it went.
By Christmas 1982, when the National Transportation Safety Board urged holiday partygoers to use a "designated driver," the DH was embedded not just in the American League but in the American lexicon. It was part of the national landscape, like it or not—and many still did not.
"I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone," says Crash Davis, in Bull Durham, in one of cinema's most famous monologues. "I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter...."
Many agreed. In 1985 a musician and sportswriter in Watertown, Mass., named Howie Newman sold DUMP THE DH bumper stickers by mail to critics as far away as Saudi Arabia. An NBC poll that same year showed 58% of Americans were opposed to the DH.
Throughout that decade, the position was held down by a mixed bag of men: hobbled sluggers like Greg Luzinski, free swingers like Dave Kingman and clutch pinch hitters like Hal McRae, a defensive liability who broke his leg as a Red but found new life with limited mobility with the Royals.
DH'ing still wasn't for everybody. Wade Boggs, among others, knew that a good night in the field could act as consolation for a bad night at the plate. "It's a good thing I'm not the DH," he once said. "I would have committed suicide a long time ago."
But a litany of stars who once played the field—Don Baylor, Harold Baines, Dave Parker—extended their stellar careers at the position, returning to the clubhouse between at bats not to eat sausage but to study video, keep warm in a batting cage and make the best of their new roles. In the decade from 1981 to '90, each won the Outstanding Designated Hitter award two times, after which the trophy would more or less become the permanent property of one man.
Edgar Martinez played his first full season in the big leagues in 1990, for the Mariners, at the advanced age of 27, and hit .302 while playing third base. He hit .307 the next year and in '92 won the American League batting title with a .343 average. In the final exhibition game the following spring, he tore his hamstring stepping into a seam in the artificial surface at BC Place in Vancouver, and thus were conjoined two of Crash Davis's least beloved creatures: Astroturf and the designated hitter.
"The hammy was a big part of the decision to become a DH," says Martinez, now 50 and still living in Seattle. "I thought I could come back and be healthy, that DH'ing was a temporary thing. I wasn't too open to change. I didn't want to go from being the regular third baseman to DH. I'm a third baseman, I've been playing in the field since I was a kid. It happens a lot with players who have to make the transition. It's tougher mentally than it is physically."
While Martinez would make the transition exceedingly tough on himself physically, he first had to stop thinking he was half the man he used to be. "My options were either get traded or embrace this position," he says. "Lou Piniella became the manager, we started playing well, I could see that we were better defensively with [Mike] Blowers at third, and so—eventually—I embraced it. And that made all the difference."
Martinez took to the position like no one before or possibly since. In doing so, he transformed the DH—its expectations and reputation and maybe even its compensation. Instead of a half-time job, Martinez worked more hours than anybody else on the team, taking one week off after every season, then working out with weights and in the cage every day thereafter, his car the only one in the Kingdome lot over the winter holidays.
On game days, which is to say nearly every day from April to October, he avoided taxing his eyeballs in any way. That meant no reading, no TV, no video games. In addition to his regular calisthenics, he did eye exercises before going to the park, and again at seven before night games. He was still required by baseball custom to sit around the clubhouse, but as he did, he was weighing his bats on a grocer's scale. "When you recognize the ball, you then have to swing at a certain speed to get from A to B," he says. "I always felt if the bat was a little too heavy, I would miss a lot of fastballs."
All the while, Martinez persisted in taking infield on the exceedingly off chance—13 times between 1998 and 2004—that he might be required in the field.
Finally allowing himself to strain his eyeballs gazing into the rearview mirror, Martinez lets out a small laugh and says, "Looking back, I was a bit too much of a workaholic."
In that role he became the exemplar of the professional DH, winning two batting titles, driving in 145 runs in 2000 and achieving the 21st-best on-base percentage in major league history, three spots ahead of Stan Musial. He has the highest career batting average, on-base percentage and OPS of any DH with 1,000 at bats. But his crowning achievement was the glorious ALDS of 1995, when Martinez hit two home runs and had seven RBIs in Game 4, forcing a winner-take-all showdown against the Yankees. With two on and his team down a run in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 5, he hit a double—still known in the Pacific Northwest as The Double—that drove in Joey Cora and Ken Griffey Jr., and briefly drove Seattle insane.
That game is credited with building public support for Safeco Field, on Edgar Martinez Drive, and where Martinez now has a food stand called Edgar's Cantina. He is also a partner in the state's first Hispanic bank and oversees the Martinez Foundation, which helps students of color become schoolteachers.
He has the affection of his city, the love of his family and everything a man could want, save enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where Blomberg's bat resides but Edgar's bust does not.
It is not his style to complain. "Oh, I think people think that it's not a position that should be in the Hall of Fame," says Martinez, who got 35.9% of the vote this year, virtually the same as Barry Bonds. "There are always going to be different opinions about the DH. I think eventually it will get more credit. Yes, it's been 40 years now, but the game is still much older than the position."
Blomberg is self-conscious about the presence of his bat in Cooperstown in the absence of every other DH. It was a stroke of luck that enshrined him there, a product of an early start time 40 years ago—1:35 p.m.—and a Yankees rally that saw Blomberg, the Yankees' number 6 hitter, bat before Cepeda. "I got in the Hall of Fame the wrong way," he told Cepeda when they met in May. "You got in the right way."
"Oh, no," replied Cepeda, a 1999 inductee. "DH'ing helped me get in. I got 500 at bats as a DH, and every one of those helped."
The closest thing Cooperstown has to a full-time DH is Paul Molitor, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2004 who played 44% of his games at the position. So, for now—at least until '14, when Frank Thomas, who played 59% of his games at DH, becomes eligible—there is no such thing as a "Hall of Fame designated hitter."
"Nobody thought relief pitchers would get in the Hall of Fame," says Blomberg. "Relief pitchers used to grab their cup of coffee in the eighth inning and head to the bullpen. Sparky Lyle did that. I saw it. Being a relief pitcher was like that 40 years ago. Mariano Rivera couldn't grab a cup of coffee today, throw 12 pitches, get three outs and save the game. But that's what Sparky did."
And now there are five Hall of Fame relievers, just as one day there will be a Hall of Fame DH, whose bronze bust should be cast in seated form, like a statue of Buddha, sitting.
Ah, yes—pitchers. The designated hitter robbed them—instantly and comprehensively—of the chance to bat. After a lifetime taking their hacks, only 11 American League pitchers batted in 1973. Years after their final plate appearances, some could still feel that Louisville Slugger in their hands, like the phantom limb of an amputee.
"You tell Bob Gibson he can't hit," says Blomberg. "Tell Don Drysdale. Those guys wanted to smash." And as National Leaguers, they still could. But what of all the other pitchers who still wanted to smash?
Gaylord Perry had 980 plate appearances in 11 seasons before 1973, and precisely zero in the next five years. By 1983, he was 45, playing out the final season of his career with the Mariners. Despite no hope of ever hitting in a game, he insisted on taking daily batting practice.
"He would come into the Kingdome clubhouse 20 or 30 minutes before BP started and see me and say, 'Come on, let's go hit,'" recalls Karl Benson, who was Seattle's batting practice pitcher from 1978 to '83. "It was just the two of us, and some batboys shagging. We'd take a bunch of brand-new baseballs, and Gaylord, who was 6'6", 240, would hit—I am not exaggerating—nine out of every 10 balls into the leftfield bleachers."
On days when he was the starting pitcher, Perry would write his name into the regular BP rotation, in which the nine hitters on the lineup card would bat in groups of three. Perry always inked his name into the last group, making it a foursome. "I pitched BP to him on the night he won his 300th game," says Benson, who still shudders at the memory of Perry, forearms lathered with sweat, lining lasers into the Kingdome bleachers.
Safe behind his L-screen, Benson served up 70-mph gopher balls to the ancient Mariner: "I just teed it up waist high and he swung hard, and—I am serious—his ratio of swings to home runs was as high as anybody I have ever pitched to."
Benson is now 61 and the commissioner of the Sun Belt conference, but back then he was the 30-year-old baseball coach at Fort Steilacoom Community College in nearby Lakewood. He got 25 bucks a game and free parking from the Mariners, with his own locker in a big league clubhouse and a chance to sweat on a baseball infield for the first time since college, at Boise State, where he played a variety of infield positions until his senior year, in 1974, when the NCAA adopted the designated hitter rule and Benson became the Broncos' first DH—the anti-Gaylord, never again in need of a glove.
Too soon he was also robbed of the terrifying joy of pitching to Gaylord Perry. "George Argyros was the owner of the Mariners at the time and was known as [being] real tight, a skinflint," says Benson. "I was finally told by management that I could no longer pitch early BP to Gaylord because he was depositing 20 or 30 brand-new baseballs into the leftfield stands each night."
Deprived first of batting, and then of batting practice, Perry retired at season's end to his farm in North Carolina, eminently aware that the DH left pitchers—not just hitters—to play the national pastime part time.
There were also a lot of pitchers who didn't like to hit," says Blomberg. "They'd get nervous. If they drilled someone, they worried about getting drilled back. On our team Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson were decent hitters, but they said to me, 'If we drill someone now, they're gonna come after you.'"
Boomer hit .329 in 1973, and .311 the following year, but tore his right rotator cuff while swinging in the final game of the season. It never healed properly, and it wasn't until '76 that the Yankees had Dr. Frank Jobe surgically repair it. Blomberg sat out all but one game of that pennant-winning season. By then, sitting was no longer a joy.
In spring training the following March, in a game against the Red Sox in Winter Haven, Fla., Yankees manager Billy Martin inexplicably—perhaps vindictively—put Blomberg in leftfield. Carl Yastrzemski sliced a ball down the leftfield line, and Boomer crashed into the unpadded concrete wall there, tearing a gash in his right knee that exposed the bone. His ACL was torn. The lenses of his sunglasses were shattered and embedded in his face. He lay motionless on the grass. Some teammates thought he had died, and Yaz strolled around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
And so Blomberg sat out the 1977 season too, at the end of which the Yankees won the World Series. Blomberg wasn't restored to any semblance of health until he became a free agent before the '78 season, when the White Sox offered him a four-year contract and an additional carrot: Owner Bill Veeck flattered Boomer by asking him to play first base every day.
The Yankees sought to re-sign him, "but I was so depressed," recalls Blomberg. "So depressed. I just told myself, I'm gonna [explore] free agency. [Owner] George [Steinbrenner] was upset I was leaving"—he had paid Blomberg for two seasons while he rehabbed his injuries—"and it was a mistake to leave. But Bill Veeck was a wonderful, wonderful human being. So I go to Chicago and meet with him and [general manager] Roland Hemond in Veeck's office at Comiskey Park. And Veeck has a wooden leg. And I just keep staring at the ashtray in it. He has an ashtray in his leg. He's sitting there smoking and stubbing out cigarettes in his leg, and I'm sitting there like, God, this is great! This is a no-brainer! I have to be a part of this!"
He would play only 61 games in Chicago, all but seven at DH, taking daily cortisone shots for his shoulder and the kind of anti-inflammatories given to thoroughbred racehorses for his knee. He retired at the end of that 1978 season, grateful for that one sensational memory of Chicago—of Bill Veeck sitting in his office, and Boomer across from him, also sitting.
Thirty-five years later, he is telling that story in the lobby of the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, where he's been doing what he did for the bulk of his major league career: sitting for three hours.
When his Yankees teams used to play in Boston, they would sit around in the lobby of the Sheraton. In Minneapolis, it was the Leamington Hotel. For a few glorious seasons, Blomberg sat in every clubhouse in the American League, eating between at bats. "The clubhouse guy in Minnesota made the best deviled eggs," he says with a wistful smile.
Tonight, a limousine will pick Blomberg up and drive him two blocks to Fenway Park, where he and Cepeda will be honored as the first two designated hitters. He will be given a number 10 Yankees jersey to wear onto the field, even though he wore 12 with the team. (He wore 10 with the White Sox.)
He will be walked onto the field by Red Sox DH David Ortiz, six-time winner of the Outstanding Designated Hitter trophy. Only now it's called the Edgar Martinez Award, renamed in 2004 for the man who won it five times.
And then the first DH will exchange a handshake and a bro-hug with the reigning god of that position, bridging 40 years, Boomer and Papi, kielbasa meets que pasa.
"I know you," Ortiz will say by way of greeting. "You helped me get started in my career. Thank you very much."
In addition to sitting, Ortiz can ride an exercise bike in the Red Sox clubhouse, watch video of opposing pitchers, take hacks in the indoor cages. "Ortiz embraced the position, too, and is probably the most consistent over time that I've seen at DH," says Martinez. "He just keeps producing numbers at that position."
After posing with Papi for a photograph, Blomberg—with Proustian memories of Fenway's clubhouse kielbasa—will retreat to a sky box and then to a restaurant to do what he did 40 years ago in the prime of his playing career, between at bats, as a serial killer of time: He will sit and eat.
He is 64 now. Time is no longer an infinite resource. But he is as content as he's ever been, the architect of a wonderful life, a story told in his engaging autobiography, Designated Hebrew, the same phrase he has instructed his two children to put on his tombstone.
Those children are both doctors, son Adam an anesthesiologist and daughter Chesley a speech pathologist. Their father remains in demand to speak. He is alternately baffled by and grateful for his enduring stature as the nation's First DH, a title—like First Lady—that has become an honorific.
He recently called Delta to arrange a trip to New York, and the reservation agent said, "Are you the designated hitter?"
On that trip he visited the Bronx one weekday morning, taking out his phone to place a call just so he could report: "I'm sitting in leftfield at Yankee Stadium right now watching them mow the grass and reading a magazine! What a life!" The man can still sit like nobody's business.
But back in that hotel in Boston, sitting happily in the lobby, he marvels at the enduring appeal of that first plate appearance. "That one at bat screwed up the game in '73," he says of its symbolism. "Now, it's an accolade. Ask people if they know who Davey Concepcion is, 90 percent have no idea. Who was the first pitcher? Who was the first first baseman? Who was the first-ever batter in the history of major league baseball? Nobody knows. Who was the last pitcher in the AL to get a hit before the DH went into effect? You don't know. Nobody does. A guy named Larry Gowell was the last pitcher in the American League to get a hit before there was a DH rule. I would've thought that was a nice thing. You'd think people would know. They don't. But they can still tell you who the first DH was."
With that fact hanging in the air, Blomberg rises from his chair for the first time in three hours. He's wearing a Yankees cap in the town Ted Williams owned, and as he strides silently across the soft carpet, headed toward the gilded elevators, everyone within eyeshot is thinking the same thing: There goes the greatest sitter who ever lived.
"My options were either get traded or embrace the [DH] position," says Martinez. "I embraced it."
"I know you," Ortiz told Blomberg. "You helped me get started in my career. Thank you very much."
Who's Who in the Opening Picture
1. Chili Davis
2. Hal McRae
3. Darryl Strawberry
4. Richie Zisk
5. Adam Dunn
6. Eddie Murray
7. Cecil Fielder
8. Larry Hisle
9. Tony Oliva
10. Dave Parker
11. Jim Thome
12. Jeff Burroughs
13. Vladimir Guerrero
14. Mike Piazza
15. David Ortiz
16. Don Baylor
17. Ron Kittle
18. Dave Kingman
19. Harold Baines
20. Billy Butler
21. Greg Luzinski
22. Orlando Cepeda
23. Ron Blomberg
24. Travis Hafner
25. Frank Thomas
26. Jonny Gomes
27. Willie Horton
28. Edgar Martinez
29. Brian Downing
30. Gorman Thomas
31. Oscar Gamble
32. Bobby Murcer
The Pastime, Part Time
The era of the designated hitter has seen its highs, lows—and a few pitchers who could still swing it
1892 Pirates president William Chase Temple proposes a rule exempting pitchers from hitting; NL owners vote it down 7--5
1973 In a letter to The New York Times, a fan argues the DH reflects "the spreading desire among Americans for quick action and easy results that lead [to] ... drug abuse and environmental pollution"
1973 On April 6, Minnesota's Tony Oliva is the first DH to hit a home run
1973 Pitchers love the DH—or at least the lack of pinch hitters: The AL (led by Wilbur Wood's 24 victories) has 12 20-game winners, the most ever
1974 Some pitchers don't love the DH: Red Sox righty Rick Wise sneers, "The designated hitter rule is like letting someone else take Wilt Chamberlain's free throws"
1976 The Reds' Dan Driessen goes deep in Game 3 to become the first DH to homer in a World Series
1978 Detroit's Rusty Staub is the first player to play 162 games in a season and do nothing but DH
1980 Orioles manager Earl Weaver lists pitchers as phantom DHs, then pinch-hits to get favorable matchups. A rule is passed: starting DHs must bat once
1988 Yankees righthander Rick Rhoden, who hit .300 three times while pitching in the NL, starts a game at DH for the Yankees—he's the only pitcher ever to do so—and drives in a run with a sacrifice fly
1991 Led by Frank Thomas's 1.006, DHs have the AL's highest OPS by position; it's the last time that will happen
1995 Seattle's Edgar Martinez leads the AL with a .356 average; he's still the only DH to win a batting title