It’s been forty years (and two weeks) in the wilderness. Ron Blomberg became the first DH on April 6, 1973. From Atlanta and still living there, Blomberg—whom I (Evander) had the pleasure to meet a year ago—went thro his own major-league problems. And not just as an oft-injured “might-have-been-second-coming-of Mickey Mantle” With the revisionist (though valuable) 42 “a hit” with moviegoers, I would like to reflect on several aspects of the Jewish Experience in baseball, in some (as well as indirect) way as it relates to the recent two-score anniversary of the DH—originally dubbed the Designated Pinch Hitter (DPH).
Blomberg’s 2006-memoir Designated Hebrew carries a foreword by the Jewish Marty Appel with as-told-to credit for Dan Schlossberg. The Jewish contribution to baseball, among the 160 or so out of 17,000 who have played on the major-league level, is significant in a number of ways. Hank Greenberg, playing for the National League Pittsburgh Pirates late in his career, was one of the big supporters of Jackie Robinson in his turbulent 1947-season debut.
Today, how many realize Greenberg’s leadership role, not to mention the vicious anti-Semitism this New Yorker endured, particularly on the road in the 1930s and 1940s? Has anyone heard of “The Rabbi of Swat?” This was one Moses Solomon, who made it out of the minor leagues for a cup of coffee with the New York Giants. (He did bat higher than Ty Cobb for his career: .375; but over two games.) More famous (and accomplished) is Moe Berg, a spy during World War II and polyglot—reputed to be conversant in eleven languages. In the 1965 World Series, when Sandy Koufax would not pitch on a Jewish holiday, gentile Don Drysdale got the start. But Drysdale, a Hall of Famer himself, did not have it that afternoon against the Minnesota Twins. He quipped to Dodgers manager Walter Alston (also now in Cooperstown), “I bet you wish I were Jewish also!” Koufax’s career was virtually salvaged by one person: Fellow New York Jew Norm Sherry coaxed the underachieving pitcher not to try striking out every batter he faced.
As we write in our book (and hardly a startling observation), there can only be one person who is first in anything. As Blomberg points out in his entertaining memoir, Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, then of the Red Sox, should have been the first DH. It is one of the quirks of the game and simple twists of fate that the visiting-Jewish-opponent Yankee (RB) got the opportunity over the hometown-Hispanic Cepeda (whom I am certain endured the prejudices of white fans, writers, and front-office executives of an earlier era). Ron walked, and his bat is encased in Cooperstown. Rarely has a bat, or any piece of baseball equipment, been enshrined for being a part of less action.
Blomberg, like all the players (who are at least as conservatively tradition-bound as their fans) of the era, was astonished by the new DH rule of 1973. This was the era of gimmicks and no one was more gimmick-meister than Charley Finley. He not only encouraged the DH rule, he resorted in Kansas City to a Pennant Porch (modeled on Yankee Stadium, for short-distance home runs), mechanical rabbits with balls that popped up from the underground for home-plate umpires, mule-mascots, and certainly, when his team moved to Oakland and was of championship caliber, prime-time night games for the World Series. Finley even pushed for the DR: designated runner, for the slowest afoot on any club.
For good or ill, the DH prevails on all levels of baseball, internationally, with the exception of Jackie Robinson’s National League.