By Bob Nesoff
Politicians, celebrities, honorees and a wide range of people are often invited to throw out the first pitch at a ballgame. Some nail it. Others, such as former President George W. Bush, throw wildly, endangering the safety and well-being of anyone within range. But they try.
To commemorate his history making role as the first Designated Hitter in baseball history, the Yankees invited Ron Blomberg to throw out the first pitch.
But leave it to Ron Blomberg, sometimes known as “The Jewish Little Abner,” to roll the ball to a recipient standing about 15 feet away. Boomer, the nickname Blomberg prefers, cut the normal distance from the pitcher’s mound to the usual 60 feet, by about forty-five feet. So quick was he that most of the photographers never had a chance to raise their cameras.
Could he have reached home plate? Most probably. But about a week before the game, stopping by for a chat, he confided to this reporter that he didn’t want to throw a wild pitch and come off looking silly. Not that anyone would have cared. Ron Blomberg was the man of the hour this night at a Yankee Stadium filled to near capacity.
As he walked to the gate to exit the field, he stopped along the way to hat with fans who called out to him. He was handed items to sign and did so for everything handed to him. A reporter walking past commented to Blomberg that he would see him in the suite that Blomberg had reserved. He grabbed he reporter, put his arms over his shoulders and yelled to the crowd “I’ve known this guy for 100 years.” Well, maybe not so long.
That sort of reaction typified the type of person Ronald Mark Blomberg was and is. There are no airs about him. He respects those he deals with. He respects his fans and does whatever he can to accommodate them.
On April 6, 1973 Blomberg emerged as the first Designated Hitter in the history of baseball. He confidently walked up to home plate, swung the bat a few times to warmup, and then waited for the pitch. Bases were loaded and any hit would have brought at least one runner home to score. There was immense pressure on Blomberg. He had come to the plate hundreds of times in his career, but this was a first. The pitches came cautiously. First one, then another.
As designated hitter, Blomberg never had the opportunity to hit. He was walked on four pitches. But as he took first base, a run was able to move from third base to the home plate to score. And that was the main job of a designated hitter…get someone around the bases and score. Blomberg did his job.
At the end of the inning he reached into the dugout for his mitt and Ralph Hauk asked him where he was going. Blomberg responded he was going onto the field to take his position.
“You are the designated hitter,” Hauk said. “You don’t play the field.”
Blomberg looked at him trying to understand the meaning of what the manager had said. It finally sank in and he was forever enshrined in baseball history with his bat now residing in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The sea-change in major league baseball this season actually began 50 years ago. Pitchers were generally accepted as an out and the nabobs decided they wanted to do something to make the game more interesting. So, they introduced the “Designated Hitter.” That was a player who would ordinarily come to bat and not play the field. Manager Ralph Hauk, who hampered Blomberg’s career by not playing him regularly.
But if Hauk didn’t love him, the Jewish population of New York and vicinity most certainly did.
“I don’t think there were many Bar Mitzvahs in the New York area that I wasn’t invited to. The Jewish population was so excited to have a Jewish player on the Yankees.
He was immortalized in the Stage Deli (no longer in business) with a sandwich named in his honor. He had not been back to the famed deli for many years until one freezing, windy afternoon he and author Dan Schlossberg (who authored Blomberg’s biography: “Designated Hebrew”) were there for lunch with a friend.
The door to the restaurant flew open and two, almost homeless looking men came barging in. Diners expected them to be thrown out, but the manager rushed over, recognizing Blomberg, and threw his arms around him in greeting.
Sitting at a roundtable in a luxury suite, signing autographs for a line that stretched almost into the corridor and didn’t let up for close to three hours. Blomberg sat at one table and his close friend and former teammate, Mickey “Mick the Quick” Rivers sat at a nearby table doing the same.
He was handed magazine covers, baseballs, photographs, Yankee jerseys and a wide range of anything that could accept a signature. Blomberg, always the southern gentleman (he’s from the Atlanta area) took his time with each and every adult and child who queued up to meet him. So big was the crowd that Blomberg had reserved a double suite with tables set up inside, an array of food and soft drinks and a virtual army of admirers lined up to meet him and have something signed.
Although he was traded from the Yankees to other teams, his career was cut short by a series of injuries. Boomer had been with the Bronx Bombers from 1969 to 1976. He was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Atlanta honored him as well for: “His outstanding achievements as an athlete and citizen for his charitable works in Atlanta and throughout the country.” As a favor to a friend, he appeared at a sports memorabilia fund raiser for the former New Milford Jewish Center…gratis.
With his playing days over, Blomberg became a baseball manager. In 2007 with the inaugural season of the Israeli Baseball League he was named manager of the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox. He led the team to a league leading 29-12 record and an IBL championship
The teams were required to have at least two Jewish players. Blomberg’s were both Orthodox. He was as bit taken aback when they requested time out so they could observe mincha (a prayer). Then he saw many in the crowd joining them by the food concession.
“It was the greatest rush of my life,” he said. “I was in the Holy Land near King Solomon’s Tomb. I knew I was protected.”
But the team still lost the game. Boomer turned to the players and demanded: “So, what happened?”