Debatable History -- In Its 24-Year History, The Dh Has Remained A Designated Lightning Rod For Controversy

A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner and president of Yale University, called it the most interesting non-life-threatening issue he'd ever encountered.

He wasn't talking about politics, religion, or even sex. No, something much thornier: the designated hitter, a rule that has turned out, since its inception in 1973, to be a designated lightning rod for controversy.

Baseball owners had little idea what a tangled web they were weaving. All they wanted to do, when they met on that December, 1972 afternoon at the Plaza Hotel in New York, was boost the fortunes of a league that was lagging behind the National League in attendance, offense and big-name players.

The National League voted down the measure; as NL President Chub Feeney said, pointedly, "We'll continue to play by the baseball rules." Feeney also said that if the American League "experiment," as they called it, "proved itself," the National League "wouldn't be hesitant to adopt it."

Twenty-four years later, the DH is still a hot-button issue, and with the advent of interleague play, which begins this week, it's getting hotter than ever. The NL remains adamant in its opposition, still almost unanimous that the DH has yet to prove itself.

Giants owner Peter Magowan says, "We don't want anything to do with it. I would say our support for interleague play, if it came with the DH, would not be there."

The prevailing opinion, however, is that interleague play is going to eventually force a unification of the DH rule: The National League will adopt it, or the American League will give it up. And that, in turn, could engender the mother of all debates, with the players' union right in the middle.

With the DH, it seems, those who hate it really, really hate it. Andy Van Slyke once mused that Satan must have introduced the DH to baseball. Bobby Cox calls it "a disgrace to the game . . . It's the worst thing that's ever happened to baseball."

Neither of them would have any problems with Crash Davis, the fictional lead character of the movie "Bull Durham," who in his memorable speech to Susan Sarandon's character advocates a constitutional amendment outlawing the DH.

Congress has no plans to introduce such legislation, but Washington Post columnist David Broder did suggest last year, in print, that Bob Dole could save his flagging presidential campaign by promising, if elected, to issue an executive order abolishing the DH.

Wrote Broder: "Almost everything that is wrong in American society stems from the DH rule. . . . it is a symbol of the permissiveness that has eroded our values."

That "here, here!" you just heard is from Bobby Cox.

Former Met and Phillie reliever Tug McGraw so disliked the DH rule that in 1989 he turned down an opportunity to join the Senior Professional Baseball Association because it was using a DH. In his book, "Spaceman," even iconoclastic pitcher Bill Lee comes down hard on the DH, which he calls "the bastard son of Bowie Kuhn and Charlie Finley."

The absence of the DH has led to some preposterous situations in the World Series, such as American League batting champion John Olerud getting benched in the first game in Philadelphia in 1993. Since 1986, the rule has been invoked in the World Series the same way it will be this season in interleague games: In games played in American League parks, the DH is in use, and in games played at National League parks, it is not used.

"It's not the way baseball was supposed to be played," fumed Cox, who has been in four of those World Series. "I don't know why they have it and who voted for it. I'd like to know. It's the stupidest thing they've ever done."

That's not to say the DH is universally loathed. Players who are getting up in age and down in health grow fonder by the day. Says Colorado's Larry Walker: "As I get older and my career begins to wind down, I'm starting to like it."

Added Tony Gwynn, "For a guy in my position, at my age, if they do put it in the National League, boy, would that be huge."

The Major League Players' Association absolutely loves it, because it provides high-paying jobs for its members. A union survey last year showed that the DH was the second highest-paying position in the lineup at nearly $3.46 million. The union, all agree, won't give up the DH without a huge fight, one that could even doom interleague play.

In a recent poll, 70 percent of American League fans wanted to see the rule continue; 60 percent of NL supporters didn't want it. The last straw poll of owners showed the NL unanimously opposed, and the AL split 7-7.

Nike, the national image maker, stands fully behind the DH rule. Their widely distributed 1995 All-Star Game advertisement said, in part: " . . . I believe that Roberto Clemente is the patron saint of baseball; I believe Lou Gehrig's birthday should be a national holiday; I believe in the designated hitter."

Ah, but the next year, Nike ran another splashy ad, urging folks to, among other radical gestures, "speak out against the designated hitter."

So there you have it - a nation split over Rule 6.10. Says Padre President Larry Lucchino: "If we had our way, everyone would abide by the first sentence of Rule 1 in the official rule book."

That's the one that says, "Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each." Not anymore; at least not in virtually every organized league in the world except the National.

The very term "designated hitter" (or "bateador designado" in Spanish) has crept into the public consciousness. In fact, publication of one of the leading dictionaries was halted in 1973 so that "designated hitter" could be included.

Originally, the player in question was to be called "the designated pinch-hitter," but that never caught on. A search of the World Wide Web shows sites for Designated Hitter Graphics, Designated Hitter Consultants, and, under horses for sale, a 1988 liver and white homozygous stallion named Designated Hitter. It will cost you $700 - about $3 million cheaper than Pete Incaviglia.

The DH rule was actually proposed first by National League President John H. Heydler in 1928. The world wasn't ready for anything so radical then, but in 1969, as part of a general campaign to kick-start stagnant offenses, baseball began experimenting with the DH in the International League and the American Association, both Class AAA leagues.

Maverick Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley kept pushing hard for the majors to adopt the DH, which he wanted in partnership with another radical concept that baseball turned down: The designated runner, which Finley used anyway with sprinter Herb Washington.

Finally, after the 1972 season, the climate was right. The majority of the game's top hitters - Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron - played in the National League. The AL's league-wide batting average dropped to .239, and attendance lagged more than 2 million behind the NL. When Comissioner Bowie Kuhn offered the DH for vote, the AL was ready to bite.

The NL remains unmoved, but Pat Gillick, general manager of the Orioles, predicts the DH not only will be kept but will expand into the National League.

"I think the union is going to dictate this one," he said. "I'd like to eliminate the DH, but from a realistic standpoint, I don't ever see the union agreeing to fazing out the DH. I think they're going to insist the National League put the DH in. That would mean securing another 15 highly paying jobs."

Union lawyer Gene Orza said recently, "Our basic position is that the DH has been good for the game, and that the game is better served by having the DH in both leagues than neither league."

Dodger outfielder Brett Butler, a union activist, can't see that stance changing.

"They wouldn't, because it takes away jobs," he said. "Some players wouldn't be able to hang on as long."

Added Colorado's Walt Weiss, "I think with the amount of jobs it creates, and the amount of big-name ballplayers it keeps around, I can't see the association agreeing to give it up."

Lucchino, for one, advocates leaving the DH the way it is. "I think it would be good if it were unified, but not essential," he said. "I'm one of those guys who believes the controversy it engenders is OK. The debate is OK. There are ground rules every place we play. This is a little more than a groundball, but we have a system that says in our park, we do it this way; in your park, we do it that way."

The DH debate is taking place in the context of a growing movement toward massive realignment that could radically change the parameters of the discussion.

Said Cam Bonifay, general manager of the Pirates: "I think our issues in baseball are bigger than the DH question. I just think we need to look at redirecting whether we should have two leagues that fall under different sets of rules, or unify all the clubs under one office, instead of two. We should look at realignment and having conferences rather than two leagues."

It could be argued that the DH hasn't been very successful doing the two things it was designed to do: Improving offense and keeping superstars in the game.

An exhaustive study of year-by-year DH averages by author Leonard Koppett, a member of the writer's wing of the baseball Hall of Fame, concluded that the offensive boost provided by the DH is negligible.

Wrote Koppett in "The New Thinking Man's Guide to Baseball": "In every 20 games, in the league with the DH, you get seven more hits, nine more runs, 4.5 more homers, and one more hit batsman than in the National League. You get five fewer strikeouts, five fewer stolen bases, three fewer sacrifice bunts, and one fewer left on base.

"In every 20 games. Is that your idea of a big difference?"

Koppett has an intriguing idea to replace the DH: Eight-man batting orders that simply bypass the pitcher's spot. He argues such an arrangement would do much more to boost offense by giving top hitters another 70 to 100 at-bats a season.

The notion that the position preserves the careers of its top sluggers seems verified by such players as Eddie Murray, Harold Baines, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Don Baylor, all of whom got several extra seasons.

But increasingly, DH's aren't players who simply aren't healthy enough, or good enough, to play the field - the Bob Hamelins and Geronimo Berroas of the world.

"Initially, it kept some of your veteran players in the game, but I think it's gotten away from that," Brewer General Manager Sal Bando recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We had a long discussion with a lot of general managers last winter, and when we looked at the number of veterans that had fan appeal that are kept in the game, out of 14 clubs, I think we named two guys."

For now, baseball people will continue to robustly debate the DH, and some might even be persuaded to change their point of view. Like Sparky Anderson, for instance. Anderson always has been a vehement opponent of the DH, once saying, "The pitcher is the focus of the game and he's never totally in it in the American League. All he does is throw the ball, while we send up some gorilla to hit for him."

But, it seems, Anderson has altered his opinion of the DH.

"I've changed my mind about it," Sparky said. "Instead of being bad, it stinks."