Boston Red Sox first DH: Orlando Cepeda

The Boston Red Sox have David Ortiz, but they also had the first great designated hitter – if only for one season.

The baseball rule is 6.10 and it was passed in January of 1973 and the Boston Red Sox quicky struck first. The rule has had profound changes on the dynamics of baseball and has resulted in a continuing war of words since its implementation – the designated hitter (DH) rule.

The rule historically goes back to the Deadball Era and was proposed by Connie Mack, among others. Mack was in a funk over watching members of his staff flail away attempting to hit. The rule also gathered some traction from an unusual source in the 1920s – National League President John Heydler, who wished to speed up the game. Now it is the NL with an aversion to the DH.

When Ted Williams was nearing retirement I recall reading an article by a local sportswriter attempting to resurrect the DH as the perfect spot for Williams and fellow star Stan Musial to continue their careers.

In the late 1960s, the DH proponent was flamboyant Charlie Finley, who was a staunch advocate of the measure, and a notorious thorn in the side of the fellowship of owners and the commissioner. If Charlie “O” had discovered a cure for cancer they would have rejected it.

By the 1970s an injection was needed to increase offense – especially in the American League, to improve the game – if one wishes to apply that term – and the DH was adopted by the American League and rejected by the National League, but the NL did comply and allow the AL to use the DH. Approval and disapproval – welcome to the world of Major League Baseball! Since then the NL has adamantly refused to embrace the DH and the leagues stand divided, despite the DH being almost universally accepted elsewhere.

On January 18th, a fading star became a very valuable commodity and the Red Sox struck first by signing Orlando Cepeda to a contract to be the Red Sox DH for 1973.

“When the Red Sox called asking me about being their designated hitter, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, ‘What’s a designated hitter?’ – Orlando Cepeda

Cepeda is in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was one of the truly remarkable players of his generation. A feared right-handed power bat, a former Most Valuable Player, a former Rookie of the Year, a multiple All-Star, a five-tool player and the owner of two knees that a 90-year-old would reject.

Cepeda was finished as an everyday player and had been for years, especially with the predominance of artificial turf, but the DH would be his baseball lifeline for one more season. The “Baby Bull” played 142 games and all were as DH and slashed .289/.350/.444 with 20 home runs and 86 RBI and hitting means running and with the pins gone Cepeda was essentially finished. Cepeda also led the American League in grounding into double plays.

In 1974 “Cha Cha” attempted another go at DH with the Kansas City Royals and after 33 games it was time to slide into retirement. Cepeda became a benchmark for many stars through the years who played out the baseball string as a DH – most notably Hank Aaron. The “position” is also a hiding place for those with hitting talent, but severe defensive dysfunction.

The DH is ever shifting and today you have teams that may use it as an “off-day” for a regular and others have a steady performer such as David Ortiz. The original goal of increasing offense in the American League certainly was a success as the AL consistently has more daunting offensive numbers.

For myself, I have had a DH epiphany over the years and have slowly come to respect it and embrace it. A turning point was injuries to Clay Buchholz and Chien-Ming Wang who both injured themselves when forced into the NL style. When a player at the MLB level is placed in a situation they have lost familiarity with just expect dire consequences.

I would certainly advocate for the DH to be adopted by the NL, but I will miss the occasional good hitting pitcher.

Sources: Bostonbaseballhistory.com/Baseball-Reference/MLB.com