The Designated Hitter: a venerable idea of the 19th century

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Whenever I fight with people over the designated hitter — a position which I don’t personally favor for subjective reasons but which I have come to accept as a useful and necessary innovation which should be universal — my opponents tend to focus on its “gimmicky” nature.

They talk about how it was invented in the early 1970s and was akin to other harebrained ideas of that somewhat unfortunate time in our nation’s creative consciousness. They allude to it in the same way people talk about frozen dinners, suspended ceilings, cheap polyester clothing and the Chevy Vega. Things which were temporarily useful but which, with hindsight, were properly seen as cheap and desperate strategies which ignored the lessons of history and which eschewed grand traditions.

A second line of defense is that while pitchers are demonstrably horrible hitters these days, such was not always the case. Rather, baseball has merely chosen not to emphasize pitchers hitting, in large part due to the advent of the designated hitter itself. If pitchers were required to hit, they contend, they would become better at it and no one would be advocating for the perpetuation, let alone the expansion, of the abominable designated hitter.

Neither of these contentions, however, is true. The DH is not some gimmick dreamed up by shortsighted members of the Me Generation and was not the cause of poor pitcher hitting. Rather, as Major League Baseball’s historian John Thorn writes today, the DH was conceived of and considered nearly 100 years before its adoption. For the very same reasons it was ultimately adopted in 1973 and still exists today: pitchers of the 19th century, just like pitchers today, couldn’t hit a lick.

Thorn dates the idea of a DH to 1891, when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matter, as memorialized in an article in Sporting Life. The two men differed on how, exactly, to get around pitchers hitting, but they certainly agreed on the need to do so:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

Spalding was in favor of simply skipping the pitcher. Temple was in favor of a substitute hitter we today call the DH. For various reasons it was not adopted then. But just because it took another 82 years to come online doesn’t mean it was a gimmick and doesn’t mean it was a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, it was one of the few examples of an innovation implemented in the 1970s that was long overdue and which has stood the test of time.

I do not suspect that this will make DH-haters change their views on the matter. But they most certainly will have to change the justification for their views. Because contrary to what they so often say, when it comes to the DH, tradition is not on their side.