“It was a job nobody wanted,” McRae says, “because everybody considered you a ­part-time player. And nobody wanted to be a part-time player. We felt as a part-time player you wouldn’t be as valuable to the ballclub and, naturally, you wouldn’t earn as much salary as a full-time, two-way player. It took probably two years before it was a respectable position and people realized the value of it and who was best suited to it.”

ROYAL SWING: Kansas City's Billy Butler had the highest batting average (.313) among designated hitters in 2012.

It quickly became evident to players that, far from being a source of career concern, the position was instead a cause for celebration. “The American League started taking some National League players on the downslide of their careers and bringing them to the American League,” McRae explains. “American League fans hadn’t seen guys like Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Tommy Davis. When the legs go and you can’t play in the field anymore, you could come to the American League and still put up offensive numbers.

“Then,” McRae adds, “they could also extend the careers of American League stars, too — guys like Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Tony Oliva.”
Since then, a cavalcade of specialized batsmen have distinguished themselves at the job, including Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, Cecil Fielder, Andre Thornton, Chili Davis, Greg Luzinski and Jim Thome. The designated hitter, much derided by purists and the National League faithful, has made it to 40 and shows no signs of exiting the baseball landscape.

“Will they ever take the DH out of the game? No,” says ESPN baseball writer and analyst Buster Olney. “The union won’t let it happen. They want to preserve jobs. If you look at things in terms of what they’re getting paid, they’re doing pretty well. David Ortiz would have no chance at getting paid the type of money he’s getting [without the DH]. He’s been a phenomenal player, but he’d be viewed as much less of a player if he were shoehorned into playing first base every day.”

With that in mind, surely the National League, after 40 years, might finally pounce on the chance to create 15 new jobs from Arizona to Washington while bringing some additional offensive fireworks to its games?

Uh, not so fast. Says McRae: “The National­ League hated the DH. They still hate it.” 

Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer who regularly contributes to American Way as well as to Variety, NBCSports.com, Los Angeles Confidential magazine and other publications. He has been known to knock a few out of the park.