In 1973, Blomberg said he was coming off a “very, very good spring training” with the Yankees when, a week before the club was set to break camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and open the season at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, he pulled a hamstring. Opting not to go on the disabled list for fear of becoming another Wally Pipp (the Yankees’ first baseman who came out of the lineup in 1925 long enough to allow Lou Gehrig to step in for good), Blomberg took the team charter to Boston.
“[Manager] Ralph Houk and [coaches] Elston Howard and Whitey Ford came up to me and asked me to DH,” Blomberg remembers.
At the time, Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, among others, championed the designated hitter idea. Finley had always been part carnival barker, pushing ideas like the designated runner or the orange baseball as stunts to liven up what some critics perceived to be a slow, dull game. He and other American League owners voted to implement the DH for the 1973 season. And nobody really knew what to do with it.
“At the time we just looked at it as a glorified pinch hitter,” notes Blomberg, who also played the outfield and first base in an eight-season career with the Yankees and the White Sox. He wrote about his experiences in the book Designated Hebrew, which was re-released last year.
In the first game of the season, on April 6, 1973, Blomberg — batting sixth in the lineup — strolled to the plate at Fenway with the bases loaded and the mustachioed Luis Tiant on the mound for the Red Sox. He walked. And thus, history was made.
“After the game, probably 200, 300 writers came up and asked me how it felt to be the first DH,” he remembers. His bat was swiftly abducted by the Yankees’ publicist and sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Although his first at-bat (in what would eventually become a loss for the Yankees) wasn’t much of a demonstration of power, that moment opened the door for others to have careers at the position, including Hal McRae, who started in the majors as an outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds but spent most of his career as a DH with the Kansas City Royals, where he was a three-time All-Star and batted over .300 for six full seasons and during 18 games in 1987, his final year.