There aren’t too many topics of discussion in baseball nowadays that come with any sense of clarity. Pretty much everything is up in the air to a certain degree, putting all of us in a seemingly interminable state of limbo. However, if we look at our glass as half-full, one of the good pieces of news to come out of baseball recently is that MLB and the MLBPA agree that the universal DH is mutually beneficial, and whenever baseball returns, we’ll be done with watching pitchers in the batters’ box (a waste of our collective time). With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the first-ever Designated Hitter, former Yankee Ron Blomberg.
Of course, with no games being played, nostalgia and revisiting some trivia never hurts our moods, but that’s not really where I’m going with this. Blomberg is typically known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first DH?” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as even Blomberg himself has said he enjoys the notoriety that comes with that designation. The issue is that due to various circumstances, something is often overlooked: Ron could HIT, and his talent and production as a Yankee should be remembered as well.
Blomberg was not only the Yankees' first pick in 1967, he was the first overall pick in the draft. Future MLB stars Jon Matlack, John Mayberry, Bobby Grich, and future Hall of Famer Ted Simmons were also first-round picks that year, which says plenty about Blomberg’s ability at that stage. At age 20, he was tearing up the Double-A Eastern League with 43 extra-base hits in only 107 games, and a .284/.362/.513 slash line. That performance even earned him a handful of plate appearances for the Yankees as a September call-up, in which he collected the first three hits of his MLB career in six at-bats.
In 1970, Blomberg was assigned to Triple-A Syracuse to play under manager Frank Verdi, which was one of the aforementioned “various circumstances” that worked against him. In 1970, minor league managers, like players, operated under one-year contracts, so the best job security for a manager was winning. As a result, Verdi prioritized winning games far more than long-term player development, even in cases such as Blomberg’s whose development was very important to the Yankees.
In Verdi’s estimation, his best chance to add a gaudy win total to his resume was to limit the number of plate appearances against left-handed pitching for the young lefty-hitting Blomberg. So despite being more than four years younger than the average International League player, Blomberg put up a good .273/.376/.436 slash line, but his 338 plate appearances were only the eighth-highest on the team.
Regardless of questionable usage patterns in 1970, Blomberg began the ‘71 campaign by knocking around Triple-A pitching even more than he previously had, posting a .326/.411/.565 slash line over the season’s first two months, earning him what turned out to be a permanent call-up to the show in June of ’71. Yet the manner in which he was handled by Verdi gave even the higher-ups in the Yankees’ organization (who should have known better) the impression that Blomberg was essentially a platoon player.
Blomberg went 2-for-5 with a home run and a double in his 1971 season debut and basically never stopped hitting well. From 1971 through 1974, Ron put up a 150 OPS+ over 1,196 PA, which was best on the Yankees over that span. Although the Yankees of that era certainly weren’t “Murderers’ Row,” they did have Bobby Murcer (146 OPS+), Roy White (125 OPS+), and Thurman Munson (116 OPS+), on those squads.
Yet let’s open up the sample size further for more perspective. Among the 113 AL batters from 1971 through 1974 who had at least 1,000 PA, only Dick Allen (181) and Reggie Jackson (155) put up a better OPS+ than Blomberg’s 150. Allen and Rod Carew were the only players in that group that posted a better batting average than Blomberg over that stretch and only Allen, Carlton Fisk, Jackson, and Reggie Smith had a higher slugging percentage.
To be fair, the majority of the plate appearances came against right-handed pitching and Blomberg did hit right-handers much better than lefties, so the averages would have very likely been lower with more at-bats against lefties. Yet the issue is that we’ll simply never know how he would have performed against lefties had he been given proper coaching and an opportunity to develop and gain experience instead of unfairly being pigeonholed. I’m certainly not privy to behind-the-scenes discussions about first-round picks in 2022, but I’m pretty sure that if Blomberg was picked today, the priority would be to get him a hitting coach with experience in getting left-handed batters to hit southpaws and to give him opportunities to improve.
We’ll never know how things may have turned out had that been the case at the time. Nor will we know how things may have turned out had Blomberg been able to avoid the long list of injuries that plagued him as well throughout his career. (Especially since his injuries weren’t the result of negligence to his health on his part; they were the result of a continuous run of poor luck.)
What we do know is that in the opportunities that Ron did get with the Yankees, he hit the heck out of the baseball. Hopefully, we’ll have the chance to discuss and watch modern-day DHs soon, but until then, when we remember the first, we should remember the production and the player as well as the trivia.
(Author’s note: I had the opportunity to speak to Ron last season about his book “The Captain and Me” about his friendship with Thurman Munson - a book I still highly recommend. You can read my review and parts of our chat here.)