Baseball’s OED

The third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary was released a couple of weeks ago, the culmination of ten years effort. The new volume does not merely add new entries, but also expands and updates existing entries. A stroll through this massive tome is a delight for baseball fans and language enthusiasts both.

I had an opportunity to speak with Paul Dickson about his dictionary. In an attempt to capture the essence of the book, I chose to focus on the letter “p” in the dictionary, as opposed to trying to pick out entries across the entire alphabet.

When does the process for each new dictionary begin? After the last edition? Are you working on the next one now?

The first one took about five years. I started The Dickson Baseball Dictionary in 1984 and it came out in ’89. The next one is ’99 and this one is ’09. When I finished the first volume I thought I was pretty much done. It ended up being much larger than what I proposed to the publisher. But almost immediately after you finish one, people call to say you need this and this entry. The SABR people wanted more statistical information, others wanted more with the 19th century, more Spanish terms, umpire terminology, stuff like that. But no one’s hostile, they’re just eager.

That’s how the Oxford English Dictionary works. Thousands of volunteers around the world who look for new words. I have 350+ people who perform that same function. So it starts almost immediately. I know someone’s going to call me from spring training to tell me something I forgot.

There’s 10,687 entries in the third edition, of which 354 are statistical terms. I mean, after that you’re getting into some flaky terms.

I don’t imagine every Sabrmetric term is in the Dictionary. What criteria do you use to accept or reject certain entries?

We compiled a total list and went to some of the experts and enlisted their help in whittling these down. If someone comes up with a term on a paper at a SABR conference, but you’ve never heard it before, it goes out the door. We had to have multiple references to the term. The term couldn’t have just been one guy saying “I have a new coefficient of corollary for batters vs. horoscope signs,” even if it’s in a paper. Different people have to write about it to keep the idea alive.

I like the fact that you weren’t just trying define terms, but you obviously set out to make each entry enjoyable to read. For instance, in the entry for PECOTA you didn’t just explain that it is a system, devised by Nate Silver, that helps predict a player’s performance in a coming season, but that it also, to paraphrase Alan Schwarz, “joyfully boils down to the last name of utilityman Bill Pecota.”

When the experts were finished helping us winnow down these terms, we went to work to bring each one to life, give them some rationality.

Let’s turn to the definition of “pennant race.” This is different than the entry in the last edition, from 1999. Here there’s a quote from Bob Costas’ Fair Ball, and it is almost a lamentation on how the pennant race doesn’t have the meaning it once had before the wild card, divisions, etc. You clearly weren’t interested in just reprinting the last book with new and overlooked definitions, but you expanded on the definitions to reflect how they might have changed in the last 10 years.

Yes. We have files of quotes, and had seven or eight quotes alone on “pennant race.” We tried to find one that not only showed the term in use, but would give the reader that chill that makes them say “Wow, that really nails what this means.” And when we do a “first use” quote, that’s exciting in a different way: that is the earliest example of the term being used.

How did you get some of these references? You’ve got a quote in one of these definitions (I can’t find it now) from a 1982 U.S. Air in-flight magazine. Now that can’t be on microfilm in a library. Is there a database anywhere with this type of reference?

No. A surprisingly large percentage of this stuff did not come from databases. People often think you just plug something into ProQuest and you find all this stuff, but you don’t. There are some highly sophisticated databases covering the 19th century that are so expensive that the only people who can have them are the Library of Congress and major universities. And even then there’s restrictions on the number of people who can use them.

We had to rely on either fairly obscure and proprietary databases or, in many cases, we would literally go through old newspapers. People like Skip McAfee, Peter Morris and Barry Popik, who’s a linguist, did a ton of contributing, among others. Those guys pretty much wrote things down on notecards from, say, old newspapers in Michigan. Thing is, the databases only cover the major newspapers. So you get the New York Times but not the New York Herald-Tribune. And often it’s the “second paper,” like the Herald-Tribune, that’s slangier and blue-collar, at least in their sports department, as opposed to, say, the “paper of record” for a given city. You know, the Washington Post vs. the Washington Star.

How difficult is it to rely on people’s memory. Sometimes there are references to a term an announcer used during a game. Obviously that won’t be in a database—someone had to hear it and write it down.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Yeah, like there’s a guy named Joe Goulden who would listen to Orioles games and hear a term we might need, write it down on a notecard with perfect annotations, and stuff it in an envelope and send it to me. He reported as he heard it. If you ever saw the files you’d fall off your chair. Notes someone saw from a ballpark giveaway, something from the back page of a small town newspaper, radio and television broadcasts. Information from tons of people over the years.

What do you suppose it is about baseball writers that prompts them to make new terms for things? Baseball is my sport, so I don’t know if sportswriters in basketball or football do this. But it doesn’t seem like you’d have a sportswriter covering football and coming up with the term “popeyeing,” which you define as “to elicit suspicion that a player is taking steroids” and attributed, again, to Alan Schwarz. That’s a great new entry. So even today sportswriters are making up these colorful terms. “Popeyeing” even sounds like a term from the ’20s.

Right. There are people over the years who have come up with terms like “slam dunk,” “nothing but net” and so on. But the thing with baseball is that this slang is so much a part of the tradition, and it goes back to the newspapers. In the 19th century newspapers were dependent on baseball. The other thing is that in the 19th century baseball was huge and the writers were huge, right up to the 1920s when radio came along. And radio faced the same challenges. Over the course of this long, long season the announcers have to make the game interesting. They can’t just say “so and so hits a single, so and so hits a single” over and over. A single now becomes a seeing-eye single, a Texas Leaguer, a dying quail. As time progresses they become dependent on their own cleverness to make the season interesting.

Here’s an entry I found intriguing: “Pull-down-the-window-shade change.” This is a new entry. It is noted by Roger Kahn in his book The Head Game. Now here’s an example of a term that has apparently been around for years, or is used to describe a pitch from the times of Branch Rickey, but it’s new to the third edition. It’s not a new term, like PECOTA. Are there a lot of these?

Well, yes. There’s a few of those, like the “Bugs Bunny change-up.” That’s a pitch so slow it looks as if it’s coming to a complete halt. It refers to a 1946 cartoon, and Bugs throws a pitch so slow the batter swings three times and strikes out on that one pitch. The strange thing about baseball is that things will come up that are maybe 40 or 50 years old, and we first hear about them today.

I just found a Veeckism (after Bill Veeck): “dog and cat show.” He invented this term when he was with the Browns and it referred to these meaningless trades just to keep fan interest. “I’ll trade my dog for your cat.” “Oh, the Browns are bringing in a new shortstop for a mediocre second baseman.” I’m beside myself that it’s not in here. And maybe someone will read this interview and use this term on a broadcast, and we’ll have “dog and cat show” again. Baseball is this creature that doesn’t like to forget things.

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