The Baltimore Orioles entered their game on September 10, 1980, just three games behind the Yankees in the AL East. So why did Earl Weaver’s lineup for the O’s game at Detroit that night include a designated hitter who hadn’t been to bat in four years? Here are the career major league batting stats of that mystery man going into the game:
That’s right, Weaver’s DH had a career batting average of .100, with no home runs in 219 at-bats. Of course, it didn’t much matter how bad a hitter he was…because he wasn’t at the ballpark that night anyway. He wasn’t even in the country.
What in the world was Earl thinking? And who was this mystery man?
Would it help if I told you he won the Cy Young Award that year?
Yes, Earl Weaver’s designated hitter was Steve Stone, who — because of the designated hitter rule — had never been to the plate in his two years with the Orioles, or the previous two years when he was with the White Sox. And Stone had already left for Toronto, where he would be the Orioles’ starting pitcher the next night. But his debut as a DH set in motion a chain of events that would lead to a change in baseball’s rules.
So what was Earl thinking? Here’s the explanation that was presented in the game story that appeared in the next day’s Los Angeles Times.
Weaver got the inspiration to cast Stone as DH two nights earlier, when the Orioles knocked out Tiger starter Milt Wilcox before he had retired a batter. [Note from me: Wilcox was pulled after facing just four hitters, and falling behind 4-0. Lee May was the Orioles DH that night, batting 7th.] Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson brough in another right-hander, Roger Weaver, in relief, but Weaver got to thinking, “What would have happened if Anderson had brought in a left-hander?” [Note from me: Well, in the game in question, that would have been good, since May hit right-handed.]
For someone as devoted to playing the percentages as Weaver, it would have meant pinch-hitting for his DH. [Note from me: no, not on the night in question.] So, to keep his options open, he listed Stone in the lineup in the sixth spot and waited to see who was pitching before he sent someone to the plate. Right-hander Jack Morris was on the mound, so Weaver inserted left-handed hitting Terry Crowley.
Okay, that’s one version of the story. Weaver came up with a different version that appeared in an LA Times story about what was called the “phantom DH” on September 12:
“I got the idea in a letter from a fan,” Weaver said. “If I had a left-handed DH and the Tigers had brought in a left-handed pitcher, I’d probably have had to switch to a right-handed DH. That means my first guy would be lost for the rest of the game. This way, our ‘real’ guys are available for the whole shot.”
Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson conceded it was a crafty maneuver, but he’s not sure it’s kosher.
“I think the starting DH will have to face the starting pitcher, if he’s still in the game,” Anderson said. “If the starting pitcher doesn’t last until the DH comes up for the first time, that’s different.”
But Sparky didn’t retain his qualms for long, because on September 16, when the Tigers were in Baltimore, he used a phantom DH of his own. And that’s the night Mark Fidrych was on the lineup card in the cleanup spot. Sparky used Milt Wilcox as his DH the next night against the O’s, then abandoned the tactic.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Weaver used a pitcher as his DH 21 times over a 22-game stretch, never once letting that pitcher go to the plate, until he returned to a conventional lineup for the final two games of the season once the Orioles had been eliminated from the pennant race. Stone was the choice in 12 of the 21 games, with Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer used three times each, Tippy Martinez twice and Scott McGregor once. (Martinez was listed as the DH for a game in Toronto while he was attending a funeral in Colorado.) The “phantom DH” always hit fifth or sixth in the order.
Weaver’s typical DHs at this time were left-handed hitting Terry Crowley and right-handed hitting Benny Ayala, whom he very strictly platooned. Crowley got 259 of his 266 plate appearances against righties, while Ayala got 172 of his 191 against lefties. Never once did the “phantom DH” pay off for Weaver, in that never was the opposing starter relieved before the DH position came to the plate.
But here’s what’s odd: in the one game during that 22-game stretch in which Weaver did not use a pitcher as his DH, the “phantom DH” could have worked in his favor. On September 23, left-handed hitting Pat Kelly was Weaver’s DH, batting second, against Boston righty Steve Crawford. Crawford allowed four singles and a walk to the Orioles’ first five hitters and was relieved by lefty Bruce Hurst, so if Weaver’s DH had been batting sixth that night–as had been the case most of the previous two weeks–Earl’s strategy would have looked like genius.
In the December 27, 1980, issue of The Sporting News, there is an item noting that the Official Playing Rules Committee had amended the DH rule to ban the phantom DH and said Weaver had been “accused of making a travesty of the rule” (although it did not say by whom). The change to rule 6.10(b) reads:
The designated hitter named in the starting lineup must come to bat at least one time, unless the opposing club changes pitchers.
So as a result, Weaver could still change his DH the first time around to gain the platoon advantage–but he would lose the services of a real hitter, and not an out-of-state pitcher.
ADDED 1/25/13 & 11/5/13: In Weaver’s Oriole managerial career through 1980, 2006 games, the opposing starter was removed before facing the number seven hitter 30 times, including six times in 1980, the most of any single season. In 16 of those 30 games (including 9 of 18 during the DH era) the relief pitcher threw with the opposite hand.