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July / august 2006:

Designated Hebrew up to bat
Ron Blomberg was just a Jewish kid from Atlanta, albeit one that entered baseball’s history books as the Major League’s first ever designated hitter. We go to the batting cages to chat about his new book, Designated Hebrew.

Profile by Bradford R. Pilcher | Photo by Christopher T. Martin




It’s a Monday summer afternoon, and I’m leaning on the netting of some batting cages in Alpharetta trying very hard not to flinch.

THWAP!

That would be the pitching machine spitting balls 80-something miles per hour just on the other side of the netting. As they collide with the thick tarpaulin, about six feet from where I stand, the sound elicits a reflex reaction from me. It’s exactly that reflex that major league hitters like Ron Blomberg spend their careers overcoming, all in order to do the hardest thing in sports: hit a ball three inches in diameter with a small wooden stick.

In other words, I shouldn’t be surprised that Blomberg is as calm as a still lake amidst the loud impact of the baseball. Instead the living piece of baseball history is peppering me with questions, despite the fact that I’m here to interview him about his new autobiography, Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story.

THWAP!

“Do you know any Amish?” he inquires. Sadly, my very urban self isn’t on familiar terms with any rural agrarians, but Blomberg is utterly fascinated with the sect. He just spent a weekend in Amish country running a baseball fantasy camp. The Jewish boy from Atlanta had never seen any Amish before, and he’s eager to prod me for any info I may possess on the subject of Amish life. I wonder if he shouldn’t be paying more attention to the two guys swinging at those loud fastballs, seeing as how Blomberg is here to help coach them.

THWAP!

It’s almost charming to watch a man whose nearing his sixties talk with the exuberance of a young kid, the kind of southern jock he was in June of 1967 when the New York Yankees selected him in the draft and brought the “next big thing” to the Big Apple.

In the book, co-written with Dan Schlossberg, he describes his first trip to New York this way: “I had never been on an airplane before. Nor had I ever even seen a limousine, which took us from the airport to the hotel. I was all wide-eyed, especially when I saw the marquee of the New York Hilton. It read: WELCOME, FIRST ROUND DRAFT PICK OF THE NEW YORK YANKEES, RON BLOMBERG.”

Blomberg was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle, but ultimately his career never reached superstar status. Like a Greek tragedy, injuries were his Achille’s heel. First, he tore ligaments in his shoulder during an at-bat. Unfortunately for Blomberg, the medical expertise of the day wasn’t very good at detecting such injuries. Shouldering the doubts of his teammates, he spent months rehabbing, but never got his power back. Only when the team sent him to a new set of doctors did they discover the true extent of his injury.

His career, however, was essentially over almost before he could get back on the field. After a year to heal from surgery, Blomberg destroyed his knee running down a fly ball in the outfield when he ended up catching the wall instead. Though he limped along for a few more seasons, the Blomberg that was supposed to light up the scoreboard for the greatest team in professional sports never really materialized.

That would have been that, as the saying goes, except for one at-bat on April 6, 1973. Playing against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, Blomberg was batting that day as a designated hitter — the first designated hitter in major league baseball history. The circumstances were, as Blomberg describes it, “accidental.” If the game had started later in the day, or if it was in Yankees Stadium instead of Boston, or if the Red Sox pitcher hadn’t struggled early, then Blomberg might not be writing this book.

But those things didn’t happen. Instead, Blomberg has the distinction of being the first player to bat as a designated hitter, but he prefers to call himself the “designated Hebrew.” He didn’t even get a hit with that at-bat, instead drawing a walk, but the hardwood he used that day is enshrined in Cooperstown.

After batting practice finishes up, Blomberg and I sit down to chat. I ask him why he wrote the book in the first place, this being more than thirty years after his entry into baseball history.

“I was at Old Timers Day [at Yankee Stadium] a few years ago,” he remembers as we sit on make-shift stools — buckets full of unused baseballs. “[The famous sportswriter] Dick Schaap was in the clubhouse afterwards and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a book about being the first designated hitter.’ I looked at them and I said, ‘No, designated Hebrew!’”

Blomberg’s face lights up, the thin grey goatee growing broader over his wide grin. “They said to me, ‘That’s a perfect title! You’ve got to write that.”

As much as he loves the game — that much is clear from his almost tearful reminiscence about the monuments in Yankee Stadium — he steers the conversation to his Jewish identity without me even asking.

“One day, there will be a Jew wearing a yarmulke in the majors,” he predicts. “I had a Jewish star on my bat, on my glove. I was proud, so it’s nice to be able to talk to Jewish kids. That’s what I really wanted to show with this book.”

Still, I can’t shake my own curiosity about something the book mentions only in passing: anti-Semitism. Throughout the book, Blomberg points out that in New York, he was embraced by the largely Jewish fan base, but he only alludes to some of the anti-Semitic backlash he got from some of his fellow players.

“If I went into it,” Blomberg explains, “I’d hit players, but I still have to live with these players. I see them at fantasy camps and events, but I saw [anti-Semitism], yeah. A lot of people were jealous. A lot of them came from the Midwest or the Southwest.”

It’s here that the burly old ballplayer leans closer, pushing to the edge of his makeshift stool. Even though his voice never lowers, his demeanor never stiffens, you can tell he’s serious.

“I was very open about it. I was very proud,” he reiterates, “because I grew up with cross-burnings. The KKK was marching down Main Street. The Temple was being bombed. I don’t know if you remember these things, but that was growing up in Atlanta back then.”

New York, and some ignorant ballplayers, must’ve seemed a cakewalk. Either way, Blomberg isn’t interested in focusing on it. Despite my questions, he casually switches the conversation back to why he loves the game as much as he does, why he has nothing bad to say about it.

“It’s competitive, and it’s an individual game,” he says as we walk out of the batting cages, resting his hand on my shoulder. “I love the aspect of hitting against a pitcher, just me and him, in front of 50 or 60,000 people. But everybody loves baseball. It’s American; it’s like Roger Kahn wrote. It’s The Boys of Summer.”

Baseball isn’t all Blomberg is about these days, a point which is made clear as he drives off after our interview to see his ailing father and youngest daughter. His son just got married, but the Blomberg that will live on in the history books of the American pastime isn’t the 58-year-old climbing into his black sedan. It isn’t even the player already past his prime who stepped up to the plate as a DH one spring in 1973.

The Blomberg that history should remember is the wide-eyed kid who stepped into Yankee Stadium for the first time, who was welcomed with such enthusiasm at the New York Hilton, for if ever there were a living monument to the love of the game, the Designated Hebrew is it.



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