Get ready, National League baseball fans. The Designated Hitter is coming to the NL for good in 2022.
No, that has not been formally decided as yet. But all signs point towards that inevitability finally coming to pass.
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement following the upcoming 2021 season. The new CBA is almost certainly going to include a universal DH, normalizing the rule and position across all of American professional baseball. Soon, memorable moments such as Bartolo Colon’s 2016 blast at San Diego or Joe Blanton’s 2008 World Series homer against Tampa Bay will become things of the past.
In the earliest years of organized baseball, pitchers were increasingly focusing their preparations on the specialization of that position and becoming less focused on hitting. Prior to the 1892 season a vote by the National League clubs resulted in a narrow 7-5 defeat for a measure which would have allowed a team captain to notify the umpire prior to each game that their pitcher would be exempt from batting. This was the first shot at taking the bat out of pitcher’s hands, but it wouldn’t be the last.
In 1906, influential Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack raised the idea of a designated hitter to bat in the pitcher’s place. However, at that time Mack’s idea received little support. There were many who felt that pitchers who were solid hitters should not be penalized for their all-around skill, but instead should be rewarded and even celebrated for working on that part of their game. Also, most pitchers were themselves loath to give up their times at bat.
John Heydler, the President of the National League, again brought up the idea at the Winter Meetings in December 1928 and called for a vote of the owners. Clark Griffith, owner of the American League’s Washington Nationals, instead made a motion that the proposal be “tabled”, and it was. It seems ironic now that it was the NL attempting to install a DH nearly a century ago and AL leadership which led the effort to have it blocked.
And so, it would not be until the 1973 season, in the aftermath of the greatest dominance by pitching in the modern era during the decade of the 1960’s, that Major League Baseball would finally “experiment” with the use of a Designated Hitter. The NL was mostly against its implementation at that point while the AL was in favor. MLB decided to compromise with a plan in which the American League would use the DH for a three-year period, after which the DH would either be abandoned entirely or implemented in both leagues.
When the experimental period was up, the two leagues were still at loggerheads. So, the NL and AL went their separate ways on the rule. There would soon be one final chance during that time for the DH to become universal across MLB. In August 1980, National League owners decided to hold a simple “yes or no” vote on the DH. Incredibly, it would become an ill-timed fishing trip by Philadelphia Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter that would decide the issue.
Carpenter left for his fishing trip having given club executive Bill Giles instructions to vote in favor of the DH. Pittsburgh Pirates owner John Galbreath instructed his representative at the meeting to vote whichever way the Phillies went. As the meeting took place, it was decided that the DH would not become universal until the 1982 season. Giles was unsure whether the fact that the DH would not come to the NL the following season, but instead would be delayed by a year, would change Carpenter’s mind. So, unable to reach Carpenter in those days before cell phones and the internet, Giles decided to abstain. The Pirates went along, also abstaining. The final result was five teams against the DH, four in favor, three abstaining. Had Carpenter’s true wishes been followed, the DH would have passed by a 6-5-1 vote.
At first, use of the DH was alternated in the World Series, used in even numbered years and not used during odd years, and it was not used at all in the All-Star Game. From the 1986 season through now, games played in an NL ballpark would not use the DH and those played in an AL park used the DH. At first this was only done in the World Series, but then also began in the All-Star Game in 1989. That system would continue for regular season games once interleague play began in 1997.
For the 2020 season, the DH was used for the first time in regular season National League games as a result of a special agreement between MLB and the MLBPA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was widely assumed by many that the rule would carry over to this coming 2021 campaign as the pandemic continued. That turned out to not be the case when a new Health & Safety Agreement between the two sides was announced. So, pitchers will once again take their turns at bat in the 2021 season unless replaced by a pinch-hitter.
Over a 24-hour period on March 14-15, 2021 at my @PhilliesBell feed on Twitter, I ran a poll. It asked followers, most of whom are Philadelphia Phillies fans and thus have watched mostly NL baseball on a regular basis, for their opinion. The results from over 200 respondents were that 55.2% were looking forward to an NL DH, 25.9% were against it, and 19.9% were fine either way.
There now appears to be more support than ever for the universal DH. It would also appear at this time that when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached for the 2022 season and beyond that it will indeed include the Designated Hitter as a universal rule across the National and American Leagues. If you are a fan of pitchers hitting, the 2021 NL season is likely your last chance to enjoy this longtime baseball tradition.