With the approach of the "World Serious," as Brooklyn Dodger fans in the Ebbets Field bleachers used to call the approaching "fall classic," topical lexicographers stride out to the linguistic mound.
Baseball has long been a source of dramatic phrases in the American language. From the plaintive fan's "Say it ain't so, Joe," aimed at a scandal-tainted hero, to Leo Durocher's "Nice guys finish last" (in 1946, the Dodger manager actually said, "The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,") we merrily mix and match our metaphors.
Sportscasters make their contributions. In the early 1940s, Walter "Red" Barber's "He's sittin' in the catbird seat" popularized a regionalism that means "sitting pretty," in a position of ease, like a batter with a count of three balls, no strikes, or -- a century ago -- a Southerner feeling high on what was called "electerizing fluid." Mel Allen's enthusiastic shout, punctuating a great play or big hit, was "How 'bout that!" Today, reflecting the influence of movie lines on popular culture, the SportsCenter anchor Steve Berthiaume greets a home run with a line spoken by machine-gunning Al Pacino in the 1983 cult classic Scarface: "Say hello to my little friend!"
Unhappily, the shadow of enhancement by hormones has fallen over some hitters of four-baggers. Juiced -- a '40s word originally meaning intoxicated on liquor and later on drugs -- was applied to ballplayers strengthening their bodies with steroids. That word has now been shortened to roids, as in the title of the former slugger Jose Canseco's book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big.
But Paul Daugherty in The Cincinnati Enquirer opines that fans are worn out by steroid scandals. "The three hours of fun they get from watching (Barry) Bonds go yard, they don't spend wondering if he's cheating. They just want him to go yard." There are some 16,000 Google hits and 50,000 Yahoo hits for the phrase go yard, most, though not all, having to do with hitting a homer. The Atlanta Braves News reported this month that Julio Franco, 47, needed a homer this year to become "the oldest player to go yard" since Jack Quinn in 1932, but the superannuated slugger had a sore elbow. I cannot find the origin of this phrase, and the next edition of Paul Dickson's Baseball Dictionary, expanding to 10,000 terms, won't be out until 2007. If a Lexicographic Irregular has the answer, e-mail it to me and find immortality in the Baseball Etymological Hall of Fame.
Which won't be located in Cooperstown, N.Y., because John Thorn of New World Sports last year discovered the "Pittsfield prohibition" of 1791. That Massachusetts town's post-revolutionary fathers decreed that "for the preservation of the windows in the new meeting house no person or inhabitant of said town shall be permitted to play at any game called wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football ... within the distance of eighty yards from said meeting house." A half-century before Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown supposedly invented it, Pittsfielders were banning baseball near the town hall.
David Block, author of this year's Baseball Before We Knew It, informs me that "the word `baseball' most likely appeared in England at the beginning of the 18th century, having derived from several earlier folkgames played with a ball and sometimes a bat. Most prominent among these was stool-ball, a game played with milking stools as bases." The earliest sighting of the name of the game so far was in a 1744 Pretty Little Pocket-book, with Base-ball the title of a poem: "The Ball once struck off/Away flies the Boy/To the next destin'd Post,/And then Home with Joy."
In today's dugout chatter, the onomatopoeic verb "bang" has slammed into the lexicon with two meanings. After last year's World Series, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa protested a US$10,000 fine that was levied at his pitcher, Julian Tavarez, for throwing at the head of Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. The manager claimed that if his pitcher had been deliberately throwing at the batter, "he would have been banged from the game," which he was not. In that context, to bang means "to eject" or, in an earlier usage, "to give the thumb."
The more common meaning, however, was used by Bill Madden of the New York Daily News in criticizing an umpire, Durwood Merrill: "He's no better at weather forecasting than he is at calling balls and strikes. Merrill ... banged the game before it even began. Turned out, the rain didn't start until after 10pm." This usage, usually about premature postponement, has been slowly growing for decades: Matt Michael of the Syracuse Post-Standard quoted a SkyChiefs player in 1994 saying, "Early in the game I thought, `Yeah, we're going to get banged pretty soon,' but once we got into the fifth, sixth inning and they didn't bang, I said, `Well, we're going to play right through."'
What about the names of pitches? The hard-to-control spitball was outlawed long ago, and the screwball -- a reverse curveball -- has all but disappeared because its inside-out twist is too hard on the pitcher's elbow. But we now have what Dickson calls "allusional pitches," alluding to the characteristics of famous people. There's the Linda Ronstadt fastball, one with such speed that it "Blue Bayou," in sharp contrast to the Peggy Lee fastball, a reference to her song of jadedness, "Is That All There Is?"
Then there is my favorite, the Bugs Bunny change-up. This is a specialty of the Minnesota Twins' Johan Santana, last year's American League Cy Young winner. Tom Jones of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida described Santana's oddly named change-up thus: "It looks like a fastball, but because of the grip (the ball is held firmly in the hand against the palm), it comes in anywhere from 10 to 20 mph slower. But everything has to look the same as a fastball: the angle of the arm, the speed of the arm motion, the release point."
Why name the pitch after Bugs Bunny? Because, to take a fanciful leap, in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, the rabbit starts out fast and then, exhausted, falls behind the steadily plodding turtle. That fable of Aesop's was surely current in England back when stoolball became baseball.
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