Here's why the NL doesn't have the DH

When fishing trips go horribly, horribly wrong

January 30th, 2020
Art by Tom Forget

In March 1892, a resolution to exempt pitchers from having to bat in Naional League -- then the only professional league around -- games narrowly fell, seven votes to five. In February 1906, the following paragraph appeared in an issue of the newspaper Sporting Life:

The suggestion, often made, that the pitcher be denied a chance to bat, and a substitute player sent up to hit every time, has been brought to life again ... . Against the change there are many strong points to be made. It is wrong theoretically. It is a cardinal principle of base ball that every member of the team should both field and bat. Instead of taking the pitcher away from the plate, the better remedy would be to teach him how to hit the ball.

Which is to say: Baseball has been arguing about the designated hitter, in essentially the same way, for over a century. It's a pastime within a pastime -- a manager will make a double switch, or Bartolo Colon will hit a dinger, or someone will float a rule change ...

... and we'll go at it again, each side assured in its righteousness.

But lost in the back-and-forth -- the "nine vs. nine!" and the "please stop making me watch pitchers strike out 50 percent of the time" -- is a very simple question: How did we actually get here? Why does one league use the DH, but not the other? And, hard as it is to envision, how close did things come to looking very, very differently?

For as much as it's cast as a newfangled invention, the idea of a designated hitter who bats for a team's pitcher has been around since more or less the advent of professional baseball. In baseball's earliest iterations, the pitcher's job was simple: Offer up a hittable pitch to the batter, and then get out of the way. Called strikes didn't even exist until 1858, and hurlers couldn't throw overhand until 1883.

As time went on, though, the role evolved. Rules regarding arm angle were loosened, then abolished, allowing for greater velocity and movement. The pitcher's box was moved back, from 45 feet to eventually 60 feet, six inches. Pitchers now took the mound looking to get hitters out, and with that newfound responsibility came a newfound focus and emphasis on that one specific aspect of the game -- to the detriment of the other. By the turn of the century, pitchers' performance at the plate lagged drastically behind that of position players, and calls for a hitter to take their place began to swell.

And that's more or less where things remained for a few decades: Pitcher batting average continued to decline, various players, officials and fans would advocate for a DH, but nothing would come of it out of deference to tradition and a belief that a baseball player had to be able to handle their duties at the field and the plate. (“The pitcher who can’t get in there in the pinch and win his own game with a healthy wallop," grumbled Babe Ruth in 1918, "isn’t more than half earning his salary in my way of thinking." Which, I mean, easy for you to say when you're literally Babe Ruth.)

And then the Year of the Pitcher happened.

Run-scoring had been on the decline for a little while, but the '68 season was an inflection point. American League batters compiled a .230 batting average. Only six hitters in all of baseball managed to crack .300. Bob Gibson set a modern-day record with a still scarcely believable 1.12 ERA. Something had to be done.

So, in 1969, the Triple-A International League adopted a DH, and four more Minor Leagues followed suit not long after. The change unsurprisingly goosed scoring, but the two Major Leagues still couldn't agree on whether it was a good idea. The Junior Circuit was all for it: Not only were they the less established entity, with a history of lagging behind the NL in both scoring and attendance, but they also featured a brash group of owners -- led by A's boss Charlie Finley, a man who once hired Miss USA as a bat girl.

The NL, ever traditionalists, remained skeptical. A compromise was reached: The AL would adopt the designated hitter for a three-year trial period, after which the two leagues would reconvene and agree to either keep it or scrap it. On April 6, 1973, Ron Blomberg of the Yankees drew a walk against Boston's Luis Tiant, and the era of the DH officially began. Here's Ron admiring his accomplishment below.

Those three years saw an increase in offensive production -- and, with it, an increase in attendance, so much so that the Junior Circuit insisted on keeping the DH full-time. The NL held firm, but the results were hard to deny, and support for full adoption steadily grew as the decade progressed. In fact, by the time the league's owners convened for a vote on the matter in August 1980, it seemed like they might actually give it their approval ... until the most ill-timed fishing trip in the history of American sports threw everything off the rails.

It was a yes/no vote, needing only a simple majority of the NL's 12 teams to approve. Pirates GM Harding Peterson entered the meeting with very straightforward instructions from owner John Galbreath: Vote as the Phillies voted. As for Philly, owner Ruly Carpenter -- on the left in the photo above -- told his vice president, Bill Giles, to vote for the DH. The reason for this was simple: Philly had Greg Luzinski in left field with young Keith Moreland searching for playing time, two strong bats who weren't particularly skilled in the outfield.

That weekend, Carpenter decided to go fishing, confident that his right-hand man had things under control. That did not turn out to be the case. As the meeting began, teams were informed that the rule wouldn't come into effect until the 1982 season. Giles hesitated, unsure whether this new information would change his owner's thinking. And, given that this was a couple decades before the advent of cell phones, nobody could get a hold of Carpenter, so Giles was forced to abstain. 

The final tally? Five against, four in favor and three abstentions (including the Phillies and Pirates) -- exactly two yes votes shy of approval. Five days later, the Cardinals fired GM John Clairborne, one of the leading proponents of the rule change. There have been discussions and debates and many, many tweets in the intervening years, but the NL hasn't held another official vote since.