OAKLAND -- Former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg was honored at Fenway Park on Wednesday as the first designated hitter in baseball history. The D.H. rule turned 40 this year, and it was Blomberg who paved the way in Boston on April 6, 1973, with a bases-loaded walk in the first inning against Luis Tiant.
One small step for Blomberg. One giant step for aging sluggers everywhere.
But if Blomberg, now 64, were to tip his cap, he ought to do so in the direction of Oakland. It was Charlie O. Finley, the A's maverick owner, who sponsored Rule 6.10 -- the one that still riles purists four decades later.
"I try to remind fans how the D.H. was our idea," Nancy Finley, the late owner's niece, wrote in an email. "We fought hard for the D.H."
Charlie Finley didn't invent the concept of replacing the pitcher in the batting order. The D.H. had been proposed for the big leagues as early as 1928 by National League president John H. Heydler. Too radical at the time, the movement started gaining traction in 1969, when baseball began experimenting with the D.H. in Triple-A leagues. They were searching for ways to reignite stagnant offenses.
Finley pushed hardest. For one thing, the American League's batting average in 1972 was .239. For another, the A.L.'s attendance lagged more than 2 million behind the N.L.'s.
"The average fan comes to the park to see action, home runs. He doesn't come to see a one-, two-, three- or four-hit game," Finley said during his crusade. "I can't think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up, when the average pitcher can't hit my grandmother. Let's have a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher."
Finley persuaded his fellow owners to adopt the radical change on an experimental basis for the 1973 season. At the Plaza Hotel in New York in December 1972, the D.H. was born. (Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee later called it "the bastard son of Bowie Kuhn and Charlie Finley.")
And while the designated hitter rule can still stoke a red-hot debate, at least one player of that era embraced the newfangled idea from the start.
"It gave me a job," Bill North said with a laugh.
North is the A's answer to Blomberg. He became the first D.H. in team history on April 6, 1973, when he stepped into the batter's box against Bert Blyleven of the Minnesota Twins and reached first base on an error by shortstop Danny Thompson.
North, now 64, recounted his distinction while in Oakland recently for the 40-year reunion of the '73 World Series winners.
North said he opened the season as the A's D.H. only out of circumstance. Speedy shortstop Bert "Campy" Campaneris was still serving his suspension for throwing a bat at Detroit Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow during the '72 playoffs.
"And I was the only other leadoff-type hitter they had," North said. "So (manager) Dick Williams put me in there -- and I had a good week."
In retrospect, North was an unlikely candidate to make D.H. history. Some of most notable players at that position have been defensive-challenged sluggers -- David Ortiz, Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez.
North, in contrast, was a fleet young singles hitter. He went on to hit .285 with 53 stolen bases and 98 runs during that '73 season. And North's glove wasn't just for decoration. Writer Bill James once ranked North as the sixth best defensive outfielder of the 1970s, behind Paul Blair, Garry Maddox, Amos Otis, Cesar Geronimo and Tony Scott.
But North failed to crack the A's opening day outfield after arriving in an offseason trade with the Chicago Cubs. Oakland's lineup featured Joe Rudi in left, Billy Conigliaro in center and Reggie Jackson in right.
North went 2 for 5 as the A's maiden D.H. Overall, he batted .269 in his 26 at-bats in that role before Deron Johnson emerged as the regular designated hitter.
Not all of the A's were thrilled with their owner's new rule. Catfish Hunter, for one, lamented that he'd no longer be able to take his hacks at the plate. In 1971, the Hall of Fame pitcher had batted .350 with a homer and 12 RBIs.
But Ken Holtzman, another good-hitting pitcher on the A's staff, was happy to put his bat in storage.
"Catfish was like that, but I viewed it the other way: I'll give up my macho stuff at the plate to stay in the game and do what I'm supposed to do," Holtzman said recently.
"I didn't care if we had the greatest relief pitcher in the world -- which we did (Rollie Fingers). I didn't want to come out of a game. I used to tell Dick Williams that: 'Don't you dare take me out of a game.'
"With the D.H., you could be losing 2-1 in the seventh inning and you wouldn't have to worry about getting pinch-hit for. The D.H. allowed me to stay in the game."
(In that '73 season, Holtzman didn't swing a bat until the World Series -- when he hit pivotal doubles in games 1 and 7 against the New York Mets.)
Longtime manager Bobby Cox also despised the D.H., calling it "a disgrace to the game." No less of an authority than Crash Davis (the fictional catcher in "Bull Durham") proposed a constitutional amendment banning the D.H.
But as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, there's no indication it's going away. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was at the Plaza Hotel, representing his Milwaukee Brewers, when Finley made his pivotal pitch at that 1972 meeting.
"Charlie's mood in those days was such that he was firing orange baseballs at us when we walked into the meeting," Selig recalled in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
"I don't think anyone expected the experiment to last this long, but as much of a purist and traditionalist as I am, I think it's a way of life and worked out well.
"And Charlie should get the majority of credit or blame, depending on whether you like it or not."
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.