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By Ron Kaplan and Howard Cole
Most fans can answer the trivia question. Who was the first designated hitter in baseball history? Ron Blomberg, of course. The follow up question, “what else can you tell us about him,” draws a blank.
Bats left, throws right. 6.0, 205 lbs. in his day. .293 lifetime, with 52 home runs and 224 RBI, in 461 games. Played seven seasons with the then mediocre New York Yankees, from 1969 to 1976, and one with the Chicago White Sox. Appeared in less than half his games at DH; the rest at first base and in the outfield.
“For me, [the designated hitter] was a gimmick. I never thought it was going to continue,” Blomberg, 56, recalls.
April 6, 1973 was the day, Fenway Park, Boston the location. The final score was a less than memorable 15-5.
He was recovering from a hamstring injury when Yankees manager Ralph Houk informed him he would fill that role in the team’s season opener against the Boston Red Sox. “What do I do?” Blomberg asked, unfamiliar with the responsibilities of the assignment. “You just go up to bat four times, as if you were a pinch hitter,” his manager told him.
“When it was my time to hit, the bases were loaded. I was batting sixth in the Yankee order against Luis Tiant. I walked and forced in a run. I was left at first base and I was going to stay there because normally that was my position. Elston [Howard] said 'come on back to the bench; you aren't supposed to stay out there.'"
Thirty-something years later, Blomberg is proud of his accomplishments. His name comes up each season on the anniversary of that game in Boston. He is part of such pop culture iconography as “Trivial Pursuit” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire:” “I was once the $125,000 question,” he joked.
“I play it pretty good to the hilt,” he said good-naturedly. “They don’t remember I was almost a lifetime .300 hitter but they remember I was a DH.”
“Baseball was something I wanted to do my whole life,” Blomberg says, “and I had the ability to fulfill my dream. I remember from my first at bat to my last at bat…I know every home run,” proudly noting that several came at the expense of Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer.
"Competing in sports has taught me that if I'm not willing to give 120 percent, somebody else will."
These days, Blomberg’s professional career is still enmeshed in the game. His schedule includes “a lot motivational speaking, fantasy camps, and scouting for the Yankees.” He is also building a second home in North Carolina, and putting the finishing touches on an autobiography due out in 2006.
An outstanding high school athlete from Atlanta, Blomberg received more than 100 football and basketball scholarships offers, but chose to sign as the Yankees number one pick in the 1967 amateur draft. His bonus was a reported $60,000, tip money by today’s standards.
He saw the opportunity as a sign that he was “a chosen one among the chosen people,” a reference to his religion. Like Jewish stars Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax before him, Blomberg refused to play ball on the High Holy Days, but as a part-timer - and admittedly not a Hall of Famer like his predecessors - his stand garnered less notice.
And who knows? Perhaps it was divine intervention. If not for the fact that the team had the first pick by virtue of its last place standing in 1966, Blomberg might have signed with another team, or gone on to college and an entirely different life.
Blomberg still calls the Atlanta region home, where he and his wife, Beth, are busy with charitable work. Their son, Adam, is an anesthesiologist, in residency at Harvard, while their daughter Chelsey is a freshman at the University of Alabama.
The Red Sox won the game, by the way, scoring 15 runs on 20 hits. Tiant tossed a complete game eight-hitter, Mel Stottlmyre gave up eight runs in 2 2/3 inning and took the loss.
Blomberg went 1-3. The guy who isn’t the answer to the trivia question, Boston DH Orlando Cepeda, went hitless.
Boston ’s attack was led by Tommy Harper and Rico Petrocelli, with three hits each, Carlton Fisk, who homered among his four hits, and Carl Yastremski, who homered and stole a base. Reggie Smith played center; Luis Aparicio was the Bosox shortstop.
In addition to Blomberg, the New York lineup included Horace Clarke, Matty and Felipe Alou, Bobby Murcer, Roy White and Graig Nettles.
Attendance, 32,862. Length of game, 2:57. Umpires: HP: Frank Umont, 1B: Don Denkinger, 2B: Merlyn Anthony, 3B: Bill Deegan.
Ron Kaplan is the sports editor for the New Jersey Jewish News and a staff writer for New York Sportscene.
|Copyright © 2005 by BaseballSavvy.com.|