Jews have long had a love affair with baseball. And in return, for a major league sport baseball has been relatively into the Jews. Notable Jewish ballplayers have included the pitching great Sandy Koufax and his fellow Hall of Famer, “Hebrew Hammer” Hank Greenberg. But no player, Jewish or otherwise, has done as much to change the recent history of the sport as Ron Blomberg.
Blomberg was born to Jewish parents in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948. It was a different time in the Deep South, one in which Blomberg recalls “you’d see all the cross burnings and all the prejudices.” Of his childhood, he stated simply, “I wasn’t going to do well at anything involving book learning, but I was good at sports.” “Good at sports” is modest, but he does himself a disservice: Blomberg was ridiculously good at sports. So good, in fact, that as a high school star in three sports he received offers of 125 basketball scholarships and 115 football scholarships. And, of course, he was also a highly accomplished baseball player.
Having signed a letter of intent to accept a scholarship to play for the leading UCLA college basketball team, Blomberg was given the chance to try out with the New York Yankees in baseball. The young Jew from Georgia impressed Yankees staff enough to become the team’s first pick and the number one overall selection in the 1967 professional baseball draft. Blomberg wasn’t just a top prospect; he was the top prospect.
The Yankees had made their choice and Blomberg had made his—baseball.
Two years later, in 1969, Blomberg made his major league debut with the Yankees after starring for its minor league teams. As a late call-up, he only had six at-bats that year and then missed the 1970 season due to injury. But Blomberg’s big break came in 1971, when he played much of the season and posted an excellent batting average of .322. The following season he played in most of the Yankees’ games and hit 14 home runs. But it was in 1973 that Blomberg made history.
It was April 6, a cold opening day of the baseball season at the Boston Red Sox’s storied Fenway Park stadium. Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues: the National League and the American. Both the Yankees and Red Sox play in the American League, which in 1973 introduced a new rule: the designated hitter.
Instead of having the pitchers go up to bat, as they had always done in baseball and continue to do to this day in the National League, the American League decided each team would have a designated hitter go to bat for the pitcher. It was an attempt to make the game more popular among fans by adding a little extra offense in place of the limited hitting abilities of pitchers (in so doing it also replaced the tactical moves managers had to make to mitigate pitchers’ hitting). The designated hitter simply hits—he does not play the field.
And the new rule would debut on baseball’s opening day, that much-anticipated event marking the end of the winter offseason and the start of spring, a new season with new hope.
On that frigid day in Boston, because Blomberg was nursing a strained hamstring his manager had named him as the Yankees’ opening day “DH.” He would hit sixth in the lineup. Being the away team the Yankees batted first. A right-handed Cuban pitcher named Louis Tiant was throwing for Boston and his season was off to a rocky start. The bases were loaded in the top of the first. There were two outs and up stepped Blomberg. He was entering the game and the history books as baseball’s first ever designated hitter.
In baseball’s first at-bat as a DH, Blomberg managed to get a walk and, with the bases loaded, the Yankees scored. But what was really important was the new era that he had ushered in. Forty years later, the American league still features the DH, while the National League adamantly does not. Baseball acknowledges that Blomberg made history: The bat he used—even if it was not swinging it that earned him a walk—was entered to the sport’s Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY. Much to his delight, Blomberg has even been an answer on “Jeopardy.”
“When the DH first came out, nobody had any idea what it was,” Blomberg told USA Today. “Everybody thought it was a glorified pinch-hitter. But it got stronger and stronger, more and more popular. The majority of people who go to games in American League cities love the DH because they know they will see a guy hit the ball hard.” Although he admits that when the position was first introduced, “I never thought it would last.”
But while the designated hitter did indeed last beyond 1973, Blomberg’s career was soon curtailed due to injuries. Although he proceeded to hit .329 and 12 home runs in 1973, five injury-ravaged seasons later he was forced to retire at the age of 30, having only played in 461 games. (While that may sound like a lot, an MLB baseball season is 162 games, so in the course of his career Blomberg played less than three full seasons.)
Even though injuries curtailed his career, Blomberg was a big hit in New York. As a realtively rare Jewish ballplayer in a town full of baseball-loving Jews, he was quite the hero. Blomberg recalled in his autobiography “Designated Hebrew” that from the taxi driver who first took him to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx (who was named Hymie Schwartz) to meetings with Zero Mostel, he was feted around town as a Jewish star.
After his playing career, Blomberg continued his Jewish connection by coaching in Israel’s then-nascent baseball league. “It was the greatest experience of my life. To go there and represent what you love and be a Jew and do what you love,” he told the Jewish Journal. “And [I got to] look at where my heritage was from.” Although attempts to develop an Israeli league did not work out, Blomberg has fond memories. “Israel was fighting everyday, but to give back to the Israelis was great. Fans came to watch. The soldiers were cheering. It had a positive affect. Ninety percent didn’t know so much about baseball, but we got in the paper every day.”
In 2004, Blomberg was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. And his Jewish identity still informs his life today. “I run a baseball camp in Milford, Pennsylvania,” Blomberg told a reporter. “And it’s the largest Jewish sleep-away camp in the country—I have 4000 kids.” Who knows, perhaps among them is the next Jewish major leaguer?
In any event Blomberg’s legacy is assured. “A lot of people forget players, a lot of players,” Bloomberg said at a Yankees Old-Timers’ Day. “But wherever I go, good or bad, people recognize me because I have that place in history.”
Ron Blomberg wasn’t just one of the finest Jewish baseball players to grace the game (and despite the stereotypes there have been a few). Blomberg was the man fated to change the game for good. Or, as Blomberg readily acknowledges, to change the game for bad in the eyes of many people who see the era that he ushered in as lessening the game. “They did a feature on me in Sports Illustrated this year,” Blomberg said. “And I told them: in one at-bat, I screwed up the game of baseball.”