September 2022

The Designated Hitter Rule:
A Legacy of Racism, A Stratagem of Greed

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

A momentous change has occurred in Major League Baseball: for the first time in the game's history, pitchers are not allowed to bat. For this season, both the American and National League employ the designated hitter rule in which another player bats for the pitcher while allowing the pitcher to stay in the game.

A mere rule change hardly sounds important, but the designated hitter is an ugly vestige of the American League's recalcitrant racism throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

When Jackie Robinson integrated the game by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Major League Baseball could finally tap a vast reservoir of professional talent previously proscribed by its own bigotry: the Negro Leagues. Some American League teams quickly availed (the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, the AL's first black player, in 1948), but the league as a whole lagged shamefully behind the National League. 

George Weiss, the Yankees General Manager from 1947 to 1960, once said: "The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee standards is found." Try as he may, Weiss couldn't find a worthy black player until 1955, when he hired a taciturn catcher named Elston Howard. (Weiss was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.)

Always second to the Yankees on the field, the Red Sox outdid them in discrimination, refusing to allow a black player to don a Boston uniform until 1959 when they signed infielder Pumpsie Green.

Calvin Griffith, who moved his Washington Senators to Minneapolis in 1961, made no attempt to hide his racism:

    I'll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here . . . We came here because you've got good, hardworking, white people here.

Griffith said that in 1961, not 1861.

Meanwhile, the National League boasted Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Monte Irvin, Frank Robinson, and, of course, the great Jackie Robinson, among others.

By the early 1960s, the National League played a vastly superior brand of baseball and the American League's racist hiring practices showed up in box scores and attendance tallies.

The National League won the All-Star Game every year from 1960-1970 and from 1972-1982. A National League team won the World Series in 1959, 1960, 1963-1965, 1967, 1969, and 1971. But most importantly to American League owners, by 1973 the NL had outdrawn the AL for eleven straight seasons.

So the AL owners, led by Oakland's Charles O. Finley, acted in desperation, campaigning for the designated hitter rule in order to generate more offense and thus make their games livelier and more attendance-worthy.

On April 6, 1973, Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees took his place in the batter's box, becoming the first DH in baseball history. Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant walked him.

For 49 years, baseball in the Major Leagues was played under two sets of rules; the National League—the older league and the one which first allowed African-Americans to play—refused to adopt the DH. The reason they did so in 2022 has nothing to do with racism. It's about money.

Baseball purists dislike the DH for many reasons. As the manager of the Durham Bulls sarcastically explains to his woeful players in the film Bull Durham, "this is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." I'll add that you also run, which means a designated hitter performs one quarter of the game's required tasks but still collects a fat paycheck like the other guys who are complete players. And that's exactly why the Major League Baseball Players Association embraces the DH: it allows more of its members to stick around the game, pad their statistics, and add digits to their bank accounts.

What started as a legacy of racism in the American League has metastasized into both leagues as a stratagem of greed.

The oft-quoted observation of American cultural historian Jacques Barzun bears repeating here: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Next time you're watching a ballgame, hear the DH announced, and see an overweight bruiser step to the plate, a player who should've been designated for assignment to a cow pasture, you'll know both.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. He served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division of the
U.S. Army. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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