Ron Blomberg, the New York Yankee first baseman and fan favorite from the 1970s, made another triumphant return to New York last Sunday as he traveled to the Sid Jacobson JCC to give a talk and book signing.
Blomberg's autobiography, Designated Hebrew tells the story of a Georgia youth who achieved his childhood dream by becoming a member of the Yankees and along the way, making history as baseball's first designated hitter.
Blomberg fielded questions from the audience and later signed books and photos, but first he briefly told the story of how he made it to the Major Leagues with all the triumphs and disappointments that went along the way.
He also recalled memories of the players, coaches and managers he played with or under during his Yankee career, including Thurman Munson, Roy White, Elliot Maddox, Bobby Murcer, Joe Pepitone, Mickey Rivers, Elston Howard, Dick Howser, and Ralph Houk. He also had kind things to say about George Steinbrenner, the Yankees voluble team owner.
Growing up in Atlanta, Blomberg recalled how his parents encouraged his athletic desires. "When everyone else was taking Bar Mitzvah lessons, I was playing ball," he joked.
By high school, his hard work paid off. Blomberg was not only a star baseball player, but also an all-star in both football and basketball. His abilities attracted major league scouts, plus recruiters from numerous colleges and universities from throughout the country. For instance, he received no less than 125 basketball scholarship offers and 100 football scholarship offers. John Wooten, the legendary basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), even paid him a visit.
But Blomberg would turn down the chance to play at UCLA with Lew Alcindor and on NCAA championship teams. Baseball was his first love. And it wasn't just any team that drafted him. In 1967, he was the first choice of the New York Yankees, the storied franchise then mired in a deep slump.
So Blomberg signed with the Yankees. Upon signing, the 17 year-old was treated to a trip to New York to meet some of the top Yankees. "Everyone told me I was never going to be a big league ballplayer," he recalled. But now, he was "living a fantasy."
The young Blomberg was flown to New York where he met broadcasters Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer, and Bill White, plus the famed news anchor, Walter Cronkite (At that time, the Yankees were owned by CBS).
Even better was meeting such Yankee greats as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, and Joe Pepitone. Blomberg visited the broadcaster's booth. For the game, the lowly Yanks, as Blomberg recalled, only drew a crowd of around 4,000. "When you come up to Yankee Stadium, Ron, you'll pack the stadium," Phil Rizzuto told Blomberg.
Which is what happened. After spending several years in the minors, Blomberg came up for a cup of coffee in 1969, and then started playing on a regular basis in 1971. Playing for the Yankees was a big thrill, so was performing in New York, a metropolitan area with a large Jewish population. "I'm in the right place," he recalled thinking when he first lived in New York. "This is going to be my town."
And it was for a few years in the early and mid-1970s. With players like Murcer, Munson, White, Sparky Lyle, and Mel Stottelmyre, the Yankees began crawling into contention in the American League Eastern Division. Platooned at first base with Felipe Alou, Blomberg batted over .300 for his entire Yankee career.
Nineteen seventy-three was Blomberg's magic year. Into the summer, he was batting over .400 and the Yankees were in first place. The team slumped in the second half, but Blomberg finished the year with a healthy .329 average. During his hot streak, Blomberg made the covers of Sports Illustrated, Sport, and The Sporting News.
The next year, with the Yankees now playing at Shea Stadium, Blomberg had another solid year, batting .311 as the Yankees vied for the division title right down to the final weekend.
From then on, however, Blomberg's career was cut short by shoulder and knee injuries. A 1975 injury forced him to miss the entire 1976 season, when the Yankees won their first pennant in 12 years. In the spring of 1977, Blomberg appeared ready to make the team again. But another injury, one made when running into the outfield wall, forced him to miss another championship year. In 1978, he finished his career as a member of the Chicago White Sox.
"People come up to me and thank me for one thing or another, but I want to thank y'all," he said in his North Georgia accent. "I want to express my thanks to you for all the great times I had. I had four knee and two shoulder injuries. Still, I gave 120 percent. I lived in Riverdale, and when I was injured, people came up to me and waved to me and hugged me. It's great to be here and to be able to talk to you and express my thanks."
The success of Designated Hebrew, a book now in its fourth printing, represents a comeback of sorts for Blomberg. "When you're part of the Yankee organization, you're in the Yankee family," he said. Blomberg is a popular regular at annual Old Timers Day events. He is now a Yankee scout in the Atlanta area, and he may do some radio and television work for the Yankees in the future also. Another book, a cookbook, is also in the works.
Speaking of today's game, Blomberg recalled how "fan friendly" baseball was in his day, as players were expected to sign autographs for free, both before and after the game. Blomberg criticized the practice of selling autographs online, noting that someone purchased 100 copies of his book and then sold them on e-bay. "That takes the fun out of the game," he said of the practice of peddling autographs.
Blomberg also praised Thurman Munson, who was his longtime roommate. "Thurman was an incredible human being," he said. "He was the type of guy you wanted to go into battle with. He was better than Johnny Bench."
In addition, Blomberg recalled his friendships with such current Yankees as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada. And he called George Steinbrenner, "the greatest boss I ever had."
"George is one of the nicest human beings I ever met," Blomberg said. "He has given his whole life for a winning team."