MLB's 1st DH recounts historic day with Yankees

April 5th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch’s Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

walked into Fenway Park’s visiting clubhouse with a slight limp on the morning of April 6, 1973. He was headed for the trainer’s office to have his sore hamstring wrapped with athletic tape; he sustained the injury about a week earlier as the Yankees wrapped up their Spring Training in St. Petersburg.

As usual, Blomberg glanced at the lineup card posted outside manager Ralph Houk’s office, searching for his name. It was in the No. 6 spot, between third baseman Graig Nettles and first baseman Felipe Alou. Blomberg’s position was identified as ‘DH’ -- destined to become the Major Leagues’ first designated hitter.

“I had no idea. I thought it was a big joke,” Blomberg said. “I looked at it as basically a glorified pinch-hitter. I thought it was going to last for three months. Who knew that one at-bat would change the whole game of baseball?”

Fifty years have passed since that chilly afternoon at Fenway, an anniversary that the Yankees recognized this week by inviting Blomberg to fly from his Atlanta-area home and toss the ceremonial first pitch for Monday’s game against the Phillies at Yankee Stadium.

None of the 32,882 spectators on hand for that 1973 Opening Day contest had any idea that the DH would exhibit such staying power. That was also true for Blomberg, who remembered being surrounded by 60 to 70 media members at his locker after the game, despite New York’s 15-5 loss.

“I remember coming back to the clubhouse, and all the reporters were close to me,” Blomberg said. “All the players from the team were saying, ‘What did he do? How in the world is he getting all the attention?’”

Blomberg didn’t mind the spotlight. A big-swinging, left-handed outfielder, he was 24 years old with shaggy blond hair, appearing destined for stardom. He’d soon appear alongside outfielder Bobby Murcer on a cover of Sports Illustrated, trumpeting the duo as the “Pride of the New Yankees.”

His teammates jeered him as a “half player” that day; starting pitcher Mel Stottlemyre grumbled: “How in the world are you going to hit for me?”

“Stott was a heck of a good hitter,” Blomberg said. “Mel said, ‘I can hit. Why are they hitting for me?’”

Blomberg’s chance was not assured; the Yankees had to bring him to bat in the first inning, and they quickly had two outs with nobody on. Facing ace Luis Tiant, Matty Alou doubled before Murcer and Nettles worked walks, bringing Blomberg to the plate. Blomberg, too, worked a walk, forcing in a run. Otherwise, Boston’s Orlando Cepeda (batting fifth that day) could have been the first DH.

As Blomberg entertained the press, Yankees public relations director Marty Appel scooped up the massive 38-inch, 38-ounce Hillerich and Bradsby bat that Blomberg had used in the first inning. It was sent to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where it remains.

“I always tell Cepeda, ‘Thank you for that,’” Blomberg said. “He got in the Hall of Fame through the front door; I got in through the back door.”

Injuries hindered Blomberg’s productivity over an eight-year career that ended with the White Sox in 1978. Now 74, Blomberg said he is satisfied with his place in history.

“Wearing the Yankees pinstripes and playing for the greatest fans in the world was a big honor,” Blomberg said. “I remember when I signed my contract when I was 17 years old, I put my uniform on and got to hit BP with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. To end it with throwing out the first pitch, that’s the last item on my bucket list.”