Boomer rolls out the first pitch

Boomer rolls out the first pitch

Bob Nesoff writes about his friend Ron Blomberg

Ron Blomberg walks out to a standing ovation from a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd.
Ron Blomberg walks out to a standing ovation from a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd.

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. (That was in 2001, in Game 3 of the World Series, when the Yankees played the Diamondbacks.) But they try.

To commemorate his history-making role as the first designated hitter in baseball, the Yankees invited Ron Blomberg to throw out the first pitch on April 3 this year.

But leave it to Boomer, the nickname he prefers — sometimes he’s known as “The Jewish Little Abner” — to roll the ball to a recipient standing about 15 feet away. Boomer cut the normal distance from the pitcher’s mound, usually 60 feet, by about 45 feet. So quick was he that most of the photographers never had a chance to raise their cameras.

Could he have reached home plate? Probably. But about a week before the game he confided to this writer 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. And he was no George W. Bush.

As he walked to the gate to exit the field, Boomer stopped along the way to chat 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 the 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.

Former Yankee player Ron Blomberg near the mound, preparing to throw out the first pitch as the Yankees commemorate his place in baseball history as the first designated hitter. He brought a cheer from the crowd when he rolled the ball instead of throwing it.

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 — and he couldn’t have chosen a more dramatic moment. He confidently walked up to home plate at Boston’s Fenway Park, swung the bat a few times to warm up, and then waited for the pitch from Red Sox (and later Yankee) ace Luis Tiant. It was the top of the first with the bases loaded and there was immense pressure on Blomberg to deliver against the Yankees’ hated rivals. He had come to the plate hundreds of times in his career, but this was a first.

Tiant delivered cautiously, but Blomberg held fast and walked on the fifth pitch, forcing in the go-ahead run. He would single in his second at-bat, yet the Yankees would lose, shockingly, 15-5 that day. But Boomer had done his job as a designated hitter — to get someone around the bases and score.

Yet it was such a new job that, before the bottom of the first, Blomberg reached into the dugout for his mitt. Ralph Houk, the manager, asked him where he was going. Blomberg answered that he was heading onto the field to take his position.

“You are the designated hitter,” Houk said. “You don’t play the field.”

Blomberg looked at him, trying to understand what the manager had said. It finally sank in — and he was forever enshrined in baseball history, with his bat now resting in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The sea change in major league baseball this season actually began 50 years ago. Pitchers generally were accepted as an out when they came up to bat, and the owners decided they wanted to do something to make the game more interesting. So they introduced the designated hitter. That was a player who ordinarily would come to bat and not play the field.

Dave Naimaister of New Milford stands with Ron Blomberg’s close friend, former Yankee Mickey Rivers.

Ralph Houk, known as the Major for his wartime service, may have hampered Blomberg’s career by not playing him regularly. But if Houk didn’t love him, the Jews 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,” Boomer said.

He was also immortalized at the Stage Deli (no longer in business) with a sandwich named in his honor. Boomer had not been back to the famed deli for many years until one freezing, windy afternoon when he and author Dan Schlossberg (who wrote Blomberg’s biography, “Designated Hebrew”) were there to meet a friend for lunch.

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.

In 2023, he sat at a round table 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 nearby, doing the same thing.

Blomberg 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, in a show of Jewish hospitality, reserved a double suite with tables set up inside and an array of food and soft drinks for the virtual army of admirers.

Ron Blomberg sits with his friend, the former Yankee Mickey “Mick the Quick” Rivers.

Although he was traded from the Yankees to other teams, Blomberg’s 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.”

And as a favor to a friend, he appeared at a sports memorabilia fundraiser for the former New Milford Jewish Center.

With his playing days over, Blomberg became a baseball manager. In 2007, with the inaugural season of the Israeli Baseball League, he was named to helm the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and guided 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 a bit taken aback when they requested a time out so they could davven mincha. 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?”

Bob Nesoff of New Milford, a career journalist, worked for the Record and the Newark News, was the executive editor of New York Lifestyles Magazine, is the author of three books, and is at work on the fourth; he’s also an orthodox Yankee fan and a longtime friend of Ron Blomberg. He was president of the former New Milford Jewish Center.

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