COMMENTARY | Forty years later, Ron Blomberg is still cashing in on a manager's lineup decision, a break in the weather, and a stroke of luck. Forever remembered as the first designated hitter in major league history, Blomberg was nearly a historical footnote - not a published author and professional speaker with his own logo.
Besides manager Ralph Houk - who had not used Blomberg as a DH even once during spring training - and a break in the stormy skies over Boston, the former top draft pick can thank schedule-makers and a two-out rally for his distinction. Otherwise, Boston's Orlando Cepeda or Milwaukee's Ollie Brown may have earned baseball immortality.
The Yankees/Red Sox game started at 1:37 p.m. - a half hour before the Brewers/Orioles game in Baltimore. (The remaining American League opening days were on the West Coast.) Batting sixth, Blomberg got a first inning at-bat thanks to a two-out Matty Alou double and walks by Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles. Facing Luis Tiant, Blomberg walked, forcing home Alou. Blomberg finished the game 1-for-3, the Red Sox won 15-5, and Blomberg's bat was shipped to the Hall of Fame.
"It could have been anyone else in the American League. I was the first because we scored in the first inning, and I got to bat," Blomberg, now 64, told MLB.com. "Just one at-bat. At least I drove in a run. What would have happened if I struck out?" (Probably nothing, I suspect.)
An interesting side note is that Jim Ray Hart ended up as the regular DH for the Yankees that season, appearing in 106 games at the position. After opening day, Blomberg DH'ed in 55 more games and played more games in the outfield. By July of that season, he was hitting over .400 and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside Murcer beneath the headline "Pride of the New Yankees." In all, Houk used 13 different players in the DH spot that season, including Thurman Munson (1 game), Nettles (2 games), and Ron Swoboda (15 games). The eventual World Series champions, the Dick Williams-led Oakland Athletics, used 21 different DHs that year, more than what the average team now employs.
Blomberg has said that any time he sees Cepeda, who batted fifth for Boston on opening day 40 years ago, he reminds them of their place in Cooperstown. "I tell him, 'You got into the Hall of Fame the right way, through the front door.' I never got in like him, but I'm in there through the back door for what I did one day. … But I'm first forever. Nobody can take that away from me," Blomberg said.
Be it through the front door or the rear, Blomberg's distinction opened a lot of other doors. Besides being mentioned on Jeopardy! and a "Trivial Pursuit" card, he is a frequent guest at sports collectible shows, makes speaking appearances, and raises money for various charitable causes. He also operates a baseball camp in New Jersey. In 2006, he penned Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story, an autobiographical account of his life in baseball and being one of only a few Jews in professional baseball. The book is now in its fourth printing. The following year, he was involved in another first when he managed the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox of the Israel Baseball League to the league's first championship.
He may be remembered for a single at-bat, but Blomberg's career numbers shouldn't go unnoticed. In seven seasons with the Yankees (1969, 1971-1977) and one (1978) with the White Sox, Blomberg ended his career with a lifetime .293 batting average, 52 home runs, and 224 RBIs. In March 1979, he was released by the White Sox one year into a four-year $600,000 contract, injuries having played a role in his demise. Regarding the move, Chicago owner Bill Veeck said, "I'm poorer but not wiser." For Blomberg, however, the dividends on an at-bat six years earlier were only beginning to pay off.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
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