I don’t remember baseball without a designated hitter. The DH rule was adopted in 1973, years before I was born. Growing up in Seattle in a time before satellite TV and being exposed to only AL baseball except for the World Series, I found the idea of pitchers batting charming but old-fashioned, like a push-button light switch. The first designated hitter was the 30-Rock named Ron Blomberg (farther of Jackie Jorp-Jomp?), who collected an RBI walk in his first plate appearance as the new DH standard-bearer on his way to a .329/.395/.438 season. It would prove to be the most productive season of his career.
The first great DH was probably Hal McRae, who came to the newly established Kansas City Royals from the Big Red Machine-era Reds. After taking a year to adjust, McRae hit near .300 for the next twelve years, leading the league in doubles twice, while putting up a BB% that almost outstripped his K%. While there were other great hitters during this decade, none were as great as often as McRae while playing as the DH.
By the 1980s, the DH was well-established in the league, and the benefit of extending players’ careers by having them switch to the DH position became apparent. Harold Baines’s career was certainly extended when knee trouble began to plague him in the mid-80s. For this reason, however, there is no clear-cut “greatest DH” of the 1980s, as for most players it was a late-career transition. Don Baylor switched to the position in 1981, but was at the tail end of his career. Cecil Cooper’s name won’t pop up on DH top-ten lists, although he spent more and more games as a DH as his body declined. Often, the DH position was an orphan role, staffed by players at crossroads in their careers, aging superstars or players who weren’t able to find regular playing time in the field. It was a position with an identity crisis.
When a torn hamstring forced Edgar Martínez into a full-time DH role in 1993, he expressed disappointment about it, saying he still saw himself as a third baseman. Like many other players, he was reluctant to give up playing in the field. The fact that Edgar played only as a DH has often been held up as a detriment to his HOF case, but given the gap-toothed gold-chained steam locomotive barrelling towards voters over the next five years, a reconsidering of the DH becomes necessary. Here it is revealed that, far from being a detriment, Edgar being known—not as a DH, but as the DH—is an asset to his HOF case. Edgar Martínez was well-timed to become baseball’s first great DH. In an era that finally saw an emergence of great DHs who mostly played at that position in Paul Molitor, Chili Davis, and Frank Thomas, Edgar stands above them all. He owns the identity of DH in a way no other player—with all due respect to Big Papí—ever will. He wasn’t the first DH, and Ortíz supporters might say he wasn’t the greatest, but he was enough of those things in combination that the position belongs to him, always. The danged award is named after him, for goodness’ sakes. It’s time for voters to get past this ridiculous hang-up and vote Edgar Martínez into the place where he belongs.