While the controversial introduction of the designated hitter 40 years ago continues to divide baseball, it's given American League supporters something to cheer about.Imagine a job that pays full-time wages for part-time work; that involves first-class travel and a per diem; that attracts cheers, albeit with some jeers; and that features about three to four months off a year. Oh, and it even comes with a uniform.
In 1973, Ron Blomberg couldn’t imagine it at all. “Nobody had any idea what it was,” he recalls.
He’s referring to the role of the designated hitter, which turns 40 this year. Yes, it’s been 40 years since the American League came up with the then-cockamamy notion of taking the bat out of the hands of pitchers — who are notoriously feeble hitters, generally speaking — and giving it instead to a player whose specialty is swinging it. The National League was aghast at the idea and remains so, treating the DH like a crazy uncle it has to tolerate on special occasions, such as the All-Star Game and the World Series, as well as during interleague play.
But the designated hitter has turned out to be more than an attraction in the American League — it’s also an economic wonder for veteran batters seeking to prolong their careers.
David Ortiz, the designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, earned a $14.5 million salary in 2012. Travis Hafner pocketed $13 million last season as a DH for the Cleveland Indians; he’ll fill the same role for the New York Yankees this season for millions more. Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox banked $14 million. Across the American League, the designated hitter today is not a gimmick to cover for players who can’t hit — it’s another opportunity for players who can.
Because most of today’s top designated hitters bat in the heart of the lineup, they command salaries that keep with their value as producers of hits and runs batted in. Any stigma of being considered one-dimensional has been obscured over the years by large stacks of greenbacks.
“Generally a DH is a power hitter,” explains Dennis Gilbert, once one of the top player agents in baseball who counted former designated hitter Jose Canseco among his clients. “In the National League, you have your eighth hitter in the lineup followed by the pitcher behind him. In the American League, the DH may be batting third, fourth, fifth in the lineup. So that person will naturally make more money than an eighth-place hitter in the lineup.
“For a while, Jose Canseco was the highest-paid player in the game.”
And yet, even with all of the financial benefits of the DH that exist today for American Leaguers in terms of lucrative, long-term contracts, Blomberg can’t help but refer to his role in its inception as “the day I screwed up baseball.”