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How the Yankees nearly had a historically bad designated hitter

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Ron Swoboda had a pretty good career, but his worst season nearly made him a footnote in history.

MLB: AL Wild Card-Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY NETWOR

In his final year of eligibility, Edgar Martinez finally cracked the 75% threshold and entered the Hall of Fame. His hitting stats were more than good enough, so the major thing that held voters back was the fact he played primarily as a designated hitter.

That logic doesn’t seem entirely fair. By the time Martinez ever DHed in a game, the position had been around for 14 years. When he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, it was a fully established baseball position.

It is fairly well known that Ron Blomberg was the first ever designated hitter. The Yankees were the away team in the first American League game of the 1973 season. He slotted in the six spot in the lineup, but came to the plate in the first inning. He drew a walk, driving in a run.

Blomberg was the DH in the first two games the Yankees played under the new rules. He wasn’t, however, the player most used at the position that year. Blomberg split his time, as he also played a bunch of games at first base. Jim Ray Hart ended up being the most used player at DH, starting 91 games there after getting traded to New York in April. In all, 10 Yankees started at least one game at the position.

After the first two games of the season, Blomberg got the day off for the series finale in Boston. Ron Swoboda became the second-ever Yankee to get a start at DH.

Swoboda was in his third year with the Yankees in 1973, having arrived in a trade in 1971. He spent the majority of his career with the Mets. His catch in game four of the 1969 World Series stood out as one of the most famous moments for that “Miracle Mets” championship team. Ahead of the 1971 season, he was traded to the Expos, who in turn sent him to the Yankees that June. In 1971-72, he gave the Yankees two pretty solid seasons at the plate, putting up above average numbers.

Reportedly, had Boston started a left-handed pitcher on opening day, the Swoboda would have gotten the start at DH. Instead, it was right-hander Luis Tiant. As it stands, Blomberg is a pretty fitting person to be the first ever DH. While he’s not a Hall of Famer or anything, he was a really good hitter. The 1973 season was arguably his best. Swoboda’s 1973 was not that.

In his first game that season, Swoboda went 0-4. The following day, he got the start at DH again. He also finished 0-4 that day too. Those marked his only appearances there all season, and for good reason.

In total, Swoboda played in 35 games for the Yankees in 1973. He got just 47 plate appearances. In them, he recorded a grand total of five hits and four walks. For the season, he hit .116/.191/.186. His .378 OPS was the fifth worst of any AL player who got at least 40 plate appearances that season.

The Yankees released Swoboda after the season. He signed with the Braves ahead of 1974, but was cut during spring training. Not shockingly, the 1973 season would be his last.

Had the Red Sox just started a different pitcher that on opening day of 1973, the first ever DH would likely have been a guy who put up a 9 OPS+ that year. That’s not exactly what that position entails.

Sources

https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/79037155

All data and stats courtesy of Baseball Reference