Oliva’s opening day homer makes DH history

Written by: Craig Muder

The writers knew they were recording history on April 6, 1973, when the designated hitter debuted in the American League.

But they had no idea what to call it.

That day, Tony Oliva’s first inning, two-run homer off Oakland’s Catfish Hunter marked the first time a DH homered in a regular season AL or NL game. The next morning, papers around the country printed an Associated Press story about Oliva’s blast and other firsts from DH’s that day. But the position was often called “DP” or “DPH” in headlines and stories, along with the soon-to-be-standard “DH”.

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Oliva was one of the final DHs to bat that day, as Oakland hosted the Twins in a night game. Eight DHs combined to go 8-for-32 (.250) in openers, with Ron Blomberg of the Yankees becoming the first DH to bat, the first one to record an RBI (on a bases-loaded walk in his first at-bat) and the first DH to notch a hit (an infield single in his second at-bat).

But it was Oliva, who played in only 10 games in 1972 due to a knee injury, showed just how valuable the new position would be. His 400-foot drive to right field on the first pitch he saw from Hunter scored Rod Carew and demonstrated that Oliva – freed from the need to play the outfield – could still be a productive player. Oliva later singled home Carew in the fourth inning and drew a sixth-inning walk, finishing the game 2-for-4 with three RBI in an 8-3 Minnesota win.

By the time in 1973 season was complete, Oliva had posted a .291 batting average with 20 doubles, 16 homers and 92 RBI in 146 games – with 142 as a DH and four more as a pinch hitter. After the 1972 season, Oliva would never again play in the field.

“This way, at least I get a chance to be in the ballgame,” Oliva told the Associated Press after his Opening Day heroics. “But I prefer to play the whole game.”

Oliva, along with many other players and observers, referred to the position as a “designated pinch hitter” in the earliest days of the new rule. Some, including Oliva, were concerned with the challenge of keeping focused throughout a game where they would only see action in four or five plate appearances.

“When you’re pinch hitting, you have to sit on the bench, walk around and do some exercises to keep from getting stiff,” Oliva told the AP on April 6, 1973. “With my situation now, it’s best to be the designated hitter. I’ll be ready to play (in the field) in a couple of weeks, maybe. Every day I feel better.”

But Twins management limited Oliva to DH duty from then on, keeping his potent bat in the lineup. Oliva would remain active into the 1976 season, serving as the team’s regular DH from 1973-75. During those three seasons, Oliva would hit .283 while averaging 14 homers and 69 RBI.

He finished his 15-year career with a .304 batting average – including 329 doubles, 220 homers and a .476 slugging percentage.

Oliva was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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