High Time For The DH To Go Universal


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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, where the Toronto Blue Jays played “home” games last year, was the first constructed retro-classic ballpark . . .

The Brooklyn Grays and Philadelphia Athletics, members of the American Association that was a major league at the time, played the first Sunday game in New York on May 2, 1886, but the press was displeased by the 19-19 tie, called after eight innings . . .

Although many Supreme Court justices loved baseball, William R. Day, the first appointment of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was believed to be the most fanatical follower of the game . . .

Bill Maher revealed on his HBO show last Friday that he held a minority stake in the New York Mets for 10 years pre-pandemic . . .

Seven different Negro Leagues operated between 1920-48: the Negro National League, Eastern Colored League, American Negro League, East-West League, Negro Southern League, Negro National League II, and Negro American League . . .

Leading Off

Enough Foot Dragging—Bring In The Permanent Universal DH

By Jeff Kallman

Oh, funsie. The 2021 season to come continues, for this year at least, the free cookie on second base to open each extra half-inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, and an expanded postseason. But the universal designated hitter — one repair baseball really does need — isn’t coming back. 

Hear (well, read) me out. For the very longest time, I thought the designated hitter was equivalent to what they used to call a social disease. Don’t pollute my game any further than the American League already did, and all that rot. Except that at long last I started looking into, you know, those pesky old facts. They told me I was bloody well wrong.

My old wrong only began with buying the idea that the DH was an American League plot to prostitute the Old Ball Game. Then I bumped into John Thorn, baseball’s official historian (not personally, alas, though I’d love to meet the man), writing a few years ago about that nefarious DH the National League’s partisans want to keep away from the league permanently once the pan-damn-ic (as I call it) is no longer enough to invite gimmickry.

Four years ago, Thorn wrote a nice single-article history of its origin. In 1891, two things were born that would factor large in baseball history. Thing One: The birth of the company that would switch from soap-making to chewing gum and whose magnate would buy the Chicago Cubs in due course. Thing Two: A baseball owner conceived the DH. William Mills Wrigley carried his fetus to term; William Chase Temple miscarried.

Temple owned the Pittsburgh Pirates. He looked upon his team at the plate and, when it came to a certain lineup slot, he was not amused. One group of five hitters on his 1891 team went to the plate 510 times and collected 78 hits between them in 473 official at-bats. Their collective batting average was .165. 

Show me a group hitting like that today and I’ll show you people wondering what the hell they were doing within ten states of a major-league roster. OK, I just threw you a spitball. The quintet in question were pitchers: Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, plus Mark Baldwin, Silver King, Harry Staley, and Scott Stratton. Knowing that plus the foregoing, are you truly surprised now that Temple impregnated himself with the idea we know as the designated hitter?

It’s not as though the 1891 Pirates were marauders. They finished dead last in that year’s pennant race. Their worst-hitting position player resembled Mike Trout compared to that group of five, hitting 49 points higher than the lot of them. You might have heard of him, but Connie Mack (catcher) didn’t get to the Hall of Fame because he hit them where they weren’t.

Temple didn’t have to look too far past his own team to see other pitchers at the plate who couldn’t hit if you set the balls up on tees. The pennant-winning Boston Beaneaters won the pennant—and their main pitching staff at the plate (.127) made the Pirate staff resemble Murderer’s Row.

A short article in the 19 December 1891 issue of The Sporting Life cited Temple and New York Giants owner J. Walter Spalding agreeing that pitchers had no legitimate business trying to hit. If you want to impeach Temple for daring to suggest such a thing, you’ll wish you could hang Spalding for how he wanted to see and raise: he wanted that lineup slot eliminated entirely, in favor of eight-man lineups.

“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,” said Sporting Life in agreement with Temple. “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.”

Temple didn’t get his wish. The National League’s rules committee of the time voted the proposal down. The American League didn’t even think about it until 1906 when former Pirate catcher Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack was no less thrilled about his A’s pitchers who got into 22 games or more (including Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Rube Waddell, and Eddie Plank) and hit a collective .201 than he was with those 1891 Pirate pitchers hitting worse.

The bad news is that the Tall Tactician proposed a DH at the end of 1906 and the American League turned him down. The next DH impregnated in vitro came 22 years later, in National League president John Heydler, but that time the American League caused the miscarriage. Right here and now you can dispense with the lie that the DH was the American League’s plot to overthrow what’s left of the free world. 

News flash: Pitchers who can hit are outliers. When Charlie Finley finally persuaded then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to let the American League have the DH, it began a season after his A’s pitching staff hit a collective .165 with a .198 on-base percentage and .203 slugging percentage. A position player with that kind of bat would see “career over” stamped on his resume out of high school. 

Maybe you can be persuaded if you see some evidence that pitchers historically make Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle at the plate. Here are their batting averages at the end of each decade from the end of the dead-ball era to the end of the Aughts:

Notice the 1940 numbers that represent the end of the 1930s. That was a decade in which batting statistics overall were off the charts, with the Show’s sixteen teams averaging about five runs per game and batting .267 with a .726 OPS.

Notice, too, that all that comes to about a .166 batting average for pitchers over an entire century’s worth. Quick: Name the National League owners who’d sign any position player hitting that feebly even if he could play defense like Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente. According to how many defensive runs saved above their league averages they were, those are the greatest fielders at all non-battery positions in baseball history. All but one of whom could hit a bit. A few could hit a lot.

Take my word for it, though you can look it up: Mark Belanger was the absolute worst hitter among that crowd. It’s not even close. The only reason a Hall of Fame Era Committee paying more attention to run prevention isn’t even going to think about Belanger—even though he’s the arguable greatest-fielding shortstop who ever suited up—is because he couldn’t hit if he swung a garage door.

Belanger received 22 intentional walks in his 18-season career and 18 of those walks were handed to him when he batted eighth in his Oriole lineup. You think the other guys were putting him on because they were afraid he’d hit one clear into downtown Washington and they’d rather have lesser bats try the clutch hitting? 

Try again. They were putting Belanger on to rid themselves of the Jim Palmers, Mike Cuellars, Dave McNallys, and Pat Dobsons for side retired. In Year One B.D.H. (1972), that redoubtable Oriole starting rotation hit a death-defying .161 together and—for those who still think strikeouts are worse than hitting into double plays—struck out 151 times between them.

Palmer was the most consistent hitter of the group with a whopping .224 traditional batting average. Unless you’ve got that man who’s Electrolux in the field, or unless you’re a tanking masochist, you’re not going to sign .224 hitters for the rest of your batting order or bench any time soon if you can help it.

“It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” wrote Thomas Boswell about two years ago. “But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

So why would you insist on keeping a group that hit .166 over the past century in that number nine slot? You want “strategy,” we all do. So why wouldn’t you want that lineup spot opened up for a possible second cleanup-type hitter or a possible extra leadoff-type hitter? It’s been tried before and, when you put the right bats in those roles, it pays off handsomely enough.

Do you want more bunts (a.k.a. wasted outs) and more speed? Special bulletin: the lack of bunts doesn’t have to mean the lack of speed. The only time you should want to see bunts anymore is against those defensive shifts leaving acreage of yummy open real estate onto which batters can drop bunts profitably. Show me the batter who shenks the Sacred Unwritten Rules and bunts into that delicious open expanse and I’ll show you a man on first practically on the house.

Would you like to know whose DH’s did best during last year’s truncated, pan-damn-ically inspired irregular season? The Beaneaters’ descendants, in Atlanta. In the National League. With a .316/.411/.589 slash line. And, a 1.000 OPS. Hitting more home runs than everyone else (17) except the Minnesota Twins (19). Getting more base-hits period (73) than everybody else’s DHs. With the highest DH batting average on balls in play (.403) by 44 points. Did I mention Braves DHs knocked in the most runs (55) of any team’s DHs?

Let me go to my Real Batting Average metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. Now, let’s look at how the National League’s DHs fared versus the American League’s last year:

The National League DHs batted five points higher in RBA than the American League despite batting 44 fewer times. (They took a lot more for their teams, too, if you noticed the hit-by-pitches.) Do you still miss those .128-hitting pitchers with their .178 RBAs? Are you still that alarmed because today’s deeper proliferation of regular-season interleague play means the National League having to use the DH often enough?

Are you still okay with this off-season free agency market having been paralyzed to some extent by the lack of movement on the universal DH that made it look as though the Nelson Cruzes, Marcell Ozunas, and others would have unreasonably harder times finding new jobs? (Speaking of which, the universal DH wouldn’t create new additional jobs, but it would create jobs in-house for guys on the bench who can swing but are defensive liabilities.)

To those “purists” who persist in rejecting the “gimmick” of the DH, how fine are you with the true gimmickry of the free cookie on second to start the extra half innings, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, and—especially—the continuing expanded postseason . . . which was expanded enough and dilutional already?

How deeply did you “purists” standing athwart “gimmickry” fall in love with even an irregular season sending six second-place teams, three third-place teams, one fourth-place team, and two teams with losing records to the championship rounds last year?

“[I]f the bar to reach the postseason is lowered,” wrote MLB Trade Rumors’ Steve Adams last month, “some clubs won’t feel as compelled to spend for an extra couple of wins to push themselves over the top. The margin for error is much greater when nearly half (or even more than half) of the teams in the game qualify for postseason play than it is when only a third of clubs do. That’s especially true when at any given point, there are a handful of teams tanking and actively doing everything they can not to win games.”

The postseason needs to be shrunk, not expanded. We need to eliminate the wild cards. We need to make the division series a best-of-three, with the division winner showing the best season record having a bye while the other two winners slug it out. We need to make the League Championship Series—between the bye team and the LDS winner—a best-of-five again, the way it was born. And it would restore the World Series’s true primacy.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so damn simple a child of five could do it. Sit back, watch the tanking teams run out of excuses to tank because you either win or be gone, and watch all those “competitive” teams realize they can’t settle anymore for stirring the blood and delivering the thrills, chills, and spills fighting to the last breath to see who finishes . . . in second place.

But no. We’ve got to keep sending pitchers to the plate risking injuries and collaborating on rally-killing while watching the Show’s championship round devolve even further. All because too many still think it’s wiser baseball to send guaranteed sub-.200 hitters to the plate on behalf of nebulous fealty to “tradition,” false fealty to “strategy,” or even the owners’ reluctance to “add” jobs that would actually go to players they’re already paying to ride the pine when they could add to their lineups’ run production.

Now, somebody send for a child of five. (Thanks again, Groucho.) Then, send him or her to Commissioner Nero and his owners’ Senate with instructions to keep the universal DH. Which did you one of the biggest favors baseball was able to do for you during last year’s otherwise pan-dam-ically-putrid year. Even if you didn’t know it and didn’t want to hear about it.

Jeff Kallman is the author of the blog Throneberry Fields Forever, a life member of the IBWAA, and a freelance editor/writer/blues guitarist living in Las Vegas. The poor fellow has been a Mets fan since the day they were born. Portions of the preceding essay have been published previously. Contact Jeff via e.mail address easyace155@outlook.com.

Cleaning Up

‘Sweet Caroline’ — a Fenway Park Keeper Since 1977

By Dan Schlossberg

Every team has a shtick for the Seventh-Inning Stretch.

The New York Yankees play God Bless America, the New York Mets play Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and the Boston Red Sox sweeten the Fenway Park experience with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.

That’s a puzzlement, since the song isn’t about Boston or its most famous Caroline, was written and performed by someone not native to the city, and has uplifting lyrics that belie the city’s gritty, maybe even cynical reputation.

The Carolina Panthers play it after every victory. Teams in England and Australia use it too – normally after games – and Americans across the country who don’t mute commercials heard it in Hyundai ads.

What gives?

Introduced in 1969, the song made its Fenway debut eight years later. But it wasn’t brought on specifically to mark the 30th anniversary of the team’s “Impossible Dream” season.

According to accounts from MLB.com, it started rather innocently – because of a baby named Caroline.

Amy Tobey, one of several team employees charged with picking ballpark music in 1997, simply played the song because a friend had a baby named Caroline. Played only when the Bosox were beating their opponents, Sweet Caroline became a staple after Dr. Charles Steinberg became Red Sox executive VP of public affairs in 2002.

Realizing the response the song generated by Red Sox fans who sang along, Steinberg decided the team should play it every day, even if Boston was losing. He thought it might rile up the crowd and, in turn, energize the team.

By 2013, Steinberg told The Boston Globe that the song was “as much a part of a visit to Boston and Fenway Park as having clam chowder or a lobster roll.”

It has its detractors, including tabloid columnists who dissed the idea of playing the tune when the Sox were getting trounced, but Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg – no relation, by the way – is not among them.

“I have to thank her for the inspiration,” said Diamond, who saw a magazine picture of the 9-year-old Caroline standing next to her pony. “She was dressed to the nines in her riding gear. I immediately felt there was a song there.”

Forty-one years later, Neil Diamond sang Sweet Caroline at Caroline Kennedy’s 50th birthday party. “It was a No. 1 record and probably the biggest, most important song of my career,” he said. “I have to thank her for the inspiration. I thought she might be embarrassed but she seemed to be struck by it and really, really happy.”

Years later, however, the singer changed his story. In a Today show interview, he said the song was written for his wife-at-the-time Marsha but he substituted Caroline because he needed a three-syllable name.

No matter which version is true, Diamond wasn’t deterred from delivering the song in person at Fenway Park. He also announced at the time that he would donate royalties from the song to One Fund Boston in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Because of that incident, other major-league teams – to show solidarity with Boston – also played Sweet Caroline in their ballparks for months afterward.

Even though time heals all wounds, it’s not likely the Red Sox will ever give it up.

HERE’S THE PITCH Weekend Editor Dan Schlossberg is a former AP sports editor who writes baseball for Forbes.com, Latino Sports, Ball Nine, Sports Collectors Digest, and USA TODAY Sports Weekly. His latest book is The New Baseball Bible: Notes, Nuggets, Lists, and Legends from Our National Pastime. E.mail Dan at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Trevor Bauer’s $40 million guarantee for next year, his first with the Dodgers, exceeds the entire payroll of the Pittsburgh Pirates . . .

Some football player named Tom Brady was once drafted as a catcher by the Montreal Expos . . .

Bet the Kansas City Royals get good results after signing starter Ervin Santana and closer Wade Davis, a former All-Star, to minor-league contracts . . .

Atlanta’s starting rotation ranked 28th in the majors last year in both ERA and innings pitched . . .

Phillies starters last season led the NL East with a 4.08 ERA but ranked only 10th in the majors.

Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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