The Origins of the Designated Hitter
When rumors swirled a few weeks back about the imminent addition of the Designated Hitter to the National League rules, a reader suggested that I supply a little historical background to this innovation, which of course was proposed long before the American League implemented it on experimental basis in 1973. After trials in spring training and in some minor circuits, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became MLB’s first DH, nipping Boston’s Orlando Cepeda for the distinction.
“I know that this is more recent history and not from 150 years ago, ” reader Butch England wrote, “but there’s a reason why the AL added it in 1973 and a good story behind it. Although my team is in the AL, I’m against it.”
One often reads that Connie Mack thought up the idea, or John Heydler, or John McGraw. All three advocated or opined about it, with McGraw warning that its implementation would lead inevitably to two-platoon baseball: one team for offense, one for defense. But the brainstorm belonged to one of the more important if largely forgotten figures of nineteenth-century baseball: William Chase Temple, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and provider of the Temple Cup to the winner of a postseason championship series in 1894 through 1897, when the National League’s first-place club squared off against the second-place finisher.
In the wake of the player revolt of 1890, Temple would become an NL owner and a lifelong ally of Albert Goodwill Spalding, with whose mistress and later wife, Elizabeth Churchill Mayer, he was already friendly through their devotions to the Theosophical Society branch in New York City. A sportsman and statistics enthusiast, Temple was the first to come up with the idea of the designated hitter, back in 1891. His idea was for the DH to replace the pitcher in the batting order throughout the game, i.e., the current method.
James W. Spalding, Albert’s brother, alternatively suggested that the pitcher’s spot in the order be skipped, so that only eight men would bat in rotation. The debate between W.C. Temple and J.W. Spalding had commenced after the 1891 season. There had been a widespread concern among baseball men with the game’s declining offense: in 1890 the Players’ League, in its lone season of operation, had moved the pitching distance back by 18 inches, presaging the move to 60’6″ and the exchange of a pitcher’s box for a slab.
The distance to home plate had been measured from the front of the box; beginning in 1893, it would be reckoned from the front of the slab, with which a pitcher’s back foot had to remain in contact at the point of delivery. But this is to launch into a series of exceedingly fine points about perceived pitching speed, for which I might better direct you here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/02/27/a-brief-history-of-the-pitching-distance/.
On December 19, 1891, Sporting Life offered the following:
A POINT OF PLAY.
Messrs. Temple and Spalding; Agree that the Pitcher Should Be Exempt from Batting.
In a recent conversation with J. Walter Spalding, of the New York Club, President Temple, of the Pittsburgs, brought up the question as to what disposition should be made of the pitcher in the batting order. President Temple favored the substitution of another man to take the pitcher’s place at the bat when it came his turn to go there. Mr. Spalding advocated a change in the present system and suggested that the pitcher be eliminated entirely from the batting order and that only the other eight men of the opposing clubs be allowed to go to bat. Both gentlemen saw the necessity of some change, and Mr. Spalding intimated that his idea should prevail. The matter will in all likelihood be brought to the attention of the committee on rules, and either a substitute player take the pitcher’s place at bat or the pitcher be relieved from the necessity of going to bat at all.
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. 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.
There the matter lay until the preseason meetings of the National League, enlarged for the 1892 campaign from eight teams to twelve by absorbing four clubs from its dissolved rival, the American Association. Speaking to his local papers in Pittsburgh upon his return from these meetings, Temple revealed:
“We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for. I looked for it to be the reverse, but Von der Ahe, whom I depended on, voted otherwise.”
Q.E.D. William Chase Temple is the originator of the designated hitter concept, still in the news not from 150 years ago, as reader Butch England suggested, but a perhaps surprisingly distant 124 years later.