Ron Blomberg

blomberg

Last stop before the Yankees: Ron Blomberg in Syracuse, either 1970 or ’71. Image source unknown; if you know, please contact the author. Click for a larger view.

Ron Blomberg is best-known as the answer to a trivia question1, but the Yankees probably didn’t think he’d make his mark on history in such a superficial way. Picked out of high school first overall in the 1967 amateur draft, he was projected as the superstar replacement to Mickey Mantle, in the way that Mantle was the heir to Joe DiMaggio, and how Joltin’ Joe was in turn the man who took on the mantle2 of Babe Ruth.

He was probably over his head as far as that goes (of the three, DiMaggio has the worst career OPS+, and he’s tied for 24th all-time. Mantle and Ruth are 7th and 1st), but he was a pretty good hitter. Blessed with considerable power3, the Yankees pushed him hard through the minors. His numbers were modest until three months at Syracuse in 1971 produced a healthy .326/.411/.565 line and a call up to New York for the rest of the season. While he didn’t ever quite hit that well in the majors, and at 22 he was a bit old to be a true future-superstar rookie, he did put up a very creditable .323/.363/.477 in 216 plate appearances over the rest of the season, good for an OPS+ of 143.

Blomberg’s stick would play for all but the last 200 or so PA of his career (when he was trying to make a comeback with the White Sox after being out of baseball for basically two and a half years), as he hit over .300 for all but one of those seasons and never slugged less than .481. Putting it in context, his career OPS+ is 140, which may not stack up against Mantle’s 172, but is in the same general neighborhood as Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, and his near-contemporary Reggie Jackson. No two ways about it, Ron Blomberg could rake. But hitting against both sides is a tool just as much as the other five, more traditional ones. “Boomer” Blomberg4 was missing that tool. Lefties ate him alive, though it’s an open question whether or not that was a self-fulfilling prophecy as Yankees manager Ralph Houk would sit him against one every time, leading to just 180 PAs in his eight-year career against southpaws. Was he really a .215/.306/.272 against them? Or did he just need a chance to show what he could do? For the purposes of this discussion we’ll assume yes, as our general goal here is to shoot for the sky when we say “What If?”. Baseball is a game of repetitions—the main reason the minor leagues exist, from the standpoint of MLB—so it’s not an unreasonable assumption that he’d have done well given more opportunities, even if it’s far from a sure thing.

So let’s run it down year by year, covering both what he did when he was able to get onto the field, and just how much (and why) he wasn’t able to half the time:

1971: As a rookie, he put up those nice-looking raw numbers mentioned earlier, .322/.363/.477 beginning after his call up from the minors at the end of June. He hit right from the start, going 2-for-5 with a homer in his first game on the 25th. He was used exclusively in right field (or as a pinch-hitter) but a poor range factor of 1.90 foreshadowed a move to first base the next season, then playing more at DH than anywhere on the field any year after that. He sat out a few games at the end of the season, long after the Yankees were eliminated from the pennant chance, but his 216 PAs were more about his late call-up and a solid outfield for him to crack: Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and an aging Felipe Alou having a good season.

1972: This was a strike season, though most don’t remember it as such. The first in-season strike in history ran through the first two weeks of play, and so Blomberg missed eight games then like the rest of the Yankees, never to make them up. Then he was not quite a regular through the end of June — every time the Yanks played a double-header he sat out one game, and he sat in the bench for lefties the whole year. By the end of the season New York had played only 155 games and Bloomberg just 107—and that would be his career high. His raw numbers were superficially lower than ’72’s, at .268/.355/.488, but that was mostly batting average illusion. As offense was down a bit across the league that year, this was good for an OPS+ of 153.

1973: This was the year the DH was introduced to the American League, a position Boomer was born to play every bit as much as David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez. It was injury troubles that actually got him there, though, in fact making him the very first DH to take to the field. The plan had been to use the now-37-year old Alou as the Yankees’ DH on April 6th, 1973 (the Yankees had picked up Bobby Bonds in the off-season, making the outfield even more crowded), when they went up against Luis Tiant and the Red Sox. Instead a hamstring pull had him swapping positions with Blomberg, Alou heading to first base while the young hitter subbed for Mel Stottlemyre with the bat5. He did well, walking with the bases loaded in his first plate appearance on the way to a .329/.395/.498 (OPS+ 155), career highs in all numbers.  As late as the start of play on June 1st he was hitting .400, which generated quite a buzz in New York City and, by extension, the rest of the country. Unfortunately his games played for the season dipped to 100, again because he was sat on the bench by Houk when lefties called, but also because he re-injured his hamstring on June 17 and was restricted to DH when he could play.

1974: In ’74, Houk was gone (replaced by Bill Virdon), but the rap against left-handers remained, and his playing time dropped again, to just 90 games and 301 plate appearances. Various muscle strains and other small ailments left him with just 26 games in the second half. He still hit .311/.375/.481, for an OPS of 147.

1975: This was the year in which Blomberg’s career definitively went south. Despite having a reputation for being injury-prone, he’d never been seriously injured, not to the point that he couldn’t DH and still paste the ball anyway. This season, though, on June 16th against the Brewers, Blomberg popped a tendon in his right shoulder (he said later “I hit a double, but when I swung, I fell down”). It would not heal, and he went from hitting .327/.403/.618 at the end of play that day to .255/.336/.418 by the time he wrapped it up for the season on July 12th, a brutal stretch of games in which he hit under .180 with no power.

1976: Come spring training, his shoulder still had not healed and the Yankees finally gave way, sending him to Frank Jobe to get it repaired. He sat out the whole season, except for two at-bats.

1977: Healthy again, in the last week of spring training he hit the outfield wall while going after a fly ball and destroyed his knee. Half his knee cap had to be removed, and he had other procedures to clear remaining bone chips. Again, his whole year was lost. The Yankees essentially replaced him with Reggie Jackson, who’d signed with them during the off-season, and would head to the All-Star Game before finishing eighth in the MVP voting.

1978: Having signed with the White Sox as a $600,000 free agent6, there was a moment on Opening Day where it looked like a Cinderella story was going to unfold: with one out in the bottom of the ninth he hit a homer to overcome a two-run deficit and win the game for his new team. It was not to be, however, and and after 61 games he .231/.280/.372 for the season. It’s not good when your DH needs a DH. In August he pulled a groin muscle and was out for the rest of the season, and the White Sox released him during spring training the next year.

Before I move on to analyzing what he might have been, minus injuries and assuming that he could have hit lefties if given more chances against them, I think I should point out that the numbers don’t tell the whole tale of Ron Blomberg. If ever a person was made to be a hero for the ugly, exuberant, off-kilter decade that was the 1970s, it was Ron Blomberg: his personality was compared, in print, to that of a St. Bernard, and for most of the 70s he sported a glorious mustache and flowing locks—possibly made of polyester as was the style at the time. The contemporary Yankees yearbooks mentioned, multiple times, that he once ate 28 hamburgers because the burger joint was having a penny sale. As the first prominent Jewish Yankee, little old bubbies apparently made him bagels and sent them by mail. In 1973 he was on Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Tom Snyder, which is so Seventies that my pants just turned into bell bottoms. He had the makeup of a star, even if it never worked out.

Well, suppose it did?

Blomberg’s top ten comps through the age of 24 produce the best projection using the High Cut. They fall into two fairly obvious groups: in one, guys whose career tailed off fairly quickly (without necessarily ending) like James Loney and early-2000s Reds stalwart Sean Casey, in the other several guys who went on very nice careers. In the middle sits Dave Parker, who was arguably the most fearsome hitter in baseball in the back half of the Seventies but was nothing for a decade after that—giving him career numbers that resemble the lower end of the second group, but with a shape that makes him much more like the first. He’s getting a write-up of his own soon, so for now we’ll leave him aside.

The three best comps for Blomberg are all recent: Todd Helton, Joey Votto, and Adrian Gonzalez. This leads to a peculiar situation in that Votto and Gonzalez are still active, and so depending on how they do in their games tonight, my projection of Blomberg’s career would change tomorrow, a little bit anyway. Gonzalez looks like he might be washed up and so he’s not going to be shifting the bar very much for much longer, but Votto’s still being his usual self (.287/.413/.567 as of this writing) and so looks like he could be adding to Blomberg’s “total” for years to come. Still, it’s what we’ve got, so here goes:

Ron Blomberg (High)

Click for a larger view

Not a bad career at all, though shorter than I expected. The lack of seasons is pretty explicable, though, even putting aside Schrödinger’s Comp in Joey Votto. Of all his ten comparables, only Helton and Parker had careers lasting past the age of 35. All the others fade away or stop entirely before that, and even the “gone by 30” group has more examples than “past 35”. I suspect that this is because young players with old player skills—power, walks, doesn’t really run—don’t age as well as those who grow into their power and are more fleet of foot (e.g., Carl Yastrzemski, or Carlos Beltran).

This keeps him from being a Hall of Famer even under these idealized circumstances, either if you go by WAR or prefer to look at the counting stats. Just looking at the career WAR of first basemen, there are a couple with a similar number who made it to the Hall in Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, but both had stories behind them and both waited a long time to get it. Other names nearby are the likes of Fred McGriff, Will Clark, and Norm Cash. Would this version of Blomberg had the necessary fame to make up for his numbers? Maybe. Besides what I mentioned about his 70s-friendly makeup previously, all other things being equal he would have been one of the stars of the ’75-76 Yankees that won two World Series, played in another Series in ’74, and been edging into “grizzled veteran” territory when they played the Series in ’81—a suit of clothes that had been worn well by Willie Stargell a couple of years earlier and probably clinched Pops’s HOF status.

You could also argue that he’d get in on the strength of being a Yankee star, but I think that effect is overstated when it comes to awards. Hell, since Don Mattingly won the MVP in 1985, the Toronto Blue Jays have won as many MVPs and more Cy Youngs than the Yanks have7, and they missed the post-season for 20 years in a row.

These days Blomberg acts as a scout in the Atlanta area and runs kids baseball camps in New Jersey during the summer. In 2006 his ghost-written autobiography was published, and the next year he was a manager in the Israeli Baseball League.

Ron Blomberg’s stats on Baseball Reference

A very nice poem about him. Really, he’s inspired poetry.

Sources

First designated hitter Ron Blomberg proud to be father of position“, Dan Schlossberg. USA Today Sports, April 10, 2013.

“Ron Blomberg”, Joe Gergen. The Complete Handbook of Baseball, 1973.

“Ron Blomberg Has a Blast”, David Israel. Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1978.

1973 New York Yankees Press/TV/Radio Guide, Unknown. 1973.

Yankees: Where Have You Gone?, Maury Allen. Sports Publishing LLC, 2004.

The Big Book of Jewish Baseball, Peter S. Horvitz and Joachim Horvitz. SP Books, 2001.

“A Whole New Ballgame for Blomberg”, Murray Chass. New York Times, February 7, 2007.

Notes

    1. “Who was the first DH in major league history?”
    2. No pun intended. Oh, who am I kidding? So, so intended.
    3. As a 20-year old, he hit a batting practice homer to right field that left Tiger Stadium entirely.
    4. And seriously, how was he not “The Bronx Blomber”? He pronounced his name “Bloomberg”, but it still works in print. I checked and Roy Blount, Jr. called him that once in 1975, that I can find, but it inexplicably never caught on.
    5. Stott had hit for a resounding .160/.213/.223 through 1972, and never batted again.
    6. For four years, not one. This was still the 1970s, after all.
    7. George Bell and Josh Donaldson for Toronto versus twice for Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens twice, Roy Halladay, and Pat Hentgen versus the well-travelled Roger Clemens.
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