The American League introduced the designated hitter in 1973. Love it or hate it, the rule change came along far too late for Detroit Tigers player Dale “Moose” Alexander, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound hitting machine who could have served as the prototype.
In his rookie season of 1929, playing under new manager Bucky Harris, the husky right-handed first baseman pounded American League pitchers to the tune of 25 home runs, 137 RBI, and a glowing .343 batting average. His 215 hits tied teammate and fellow rookie Roy Johnson for the league high, while his home run total broke Harry Heilmann’s seven-year-old club record of 21. Moose’s record would hold five years until Hank Greenberg bettered it by one in 1934. The Tigers finished sixth in 1929, but they sure were fun to watch, leading the loop in runs and batting.
Alexander, who was born on a tobacco farm near Greenville, Tennessee, followed up with another superb season in 1930: a .326 average, 20 homers, and 135 RBI. By then he was being compared in some circles to Babe Ruth. The difference was that Ruth knew his way around a glove. Alexander spoke hopefully of repairing his fractured footwork around the bag. “I know I look bad,” said Moose, who led all first basemen in errors his first two seasons. “I had the bad habit of getting my legs crossed at first. That’s a serious difficulty, but I’ve had some good coaching and I’m getting so that I can reach for a ball without falling down.”
One day at Navin Field, Moose set a standard for the longest single, lining a ball off the center-field flagpole so hard that it was returned to the infield before the heavy-legged first baseman could chug to second base. Somewhere along the line Alexander lost the ability to put the ball in the seats. After a .325 season in 1931, where he hit only three home runs (but smacked 47 doubles), Alexander was sent to the Red Sox early in the 1932 campaign. He won the batting title that year, hitting .367 splitting time between Detroit and Boston.
The following year Moose burned his leg while receiving heat therapy for a sprained knee, and then dropped down into the minors for the rest of his career. He stayed in baseball as a minor-league manager and scout, raising a family not far from the Appalachian farm he’d been born on. “I just didn’t have the ability,” he reflected a few years before he died in 1979. “I couldn’t run or field.” But goodness, Navin Field regulars could tell you, that boy sure could hit.