Four Ways Baseball Has Shaped the English Language

There is a common bond among baseball, jazz and the English language. (via Edu Mousinho)

When it comes to everyday office conversation, baseball is not your best friend. What do I mean? Well, if you’re relying on clichés from the diamond, you’re likely to get eye rolls from a majority of your colleagues. In other words, if you explain that you’re going to pinch hit for somebody at a meeting and plan to hit it out of the ballpark because you’re going to avoid throwing any curveballs at the client, expect to see colleagues throwing their head into their hands.

To fully understand the depth of revulsion many possess for baseball speak, consider a bit of satire from The Onion in 2014. The article offers up a faux letter from a father to a son. Feel free to count the tired baseball statements in this excerpt:

Son, I think it’s high time you and I sat down and touched base. As your father, it’s been difficult watching you drop the ball these past few months…Your head just hasn’t been in the game, and sadly for me, I’ve had a ringside seat as you’ve repeatedly struck out.”

Bluntly put, on the surface, there’s a belief that baseball is a bit like language’s 25th man on the bench; it offers some utility but it’s best used sparingly. That said, if you dig a little deeper, you might think otherwise about the sport’s linguistic contributions.

While baseball is responsible for its fair share of hackneyed phrases and terms, it also has quietly been a wellspring for lexicon that has subtly improved how we articulate a number of important thoughts and concepts.

Herewith are the stories behind four examples of baseball’s key contributions to cool language.

Jazz

Nothing is cooler than jazz, right? The more erudite readers probably know this story, but it bears repeating–the best research on this term suggests baseball was essential in its formation. The first known usage of jazz can be found in a 1912 edition of the Los Angeles Times. A hurler named Ben Henderson claimed he’d developed a dominating new pitch that he dubbed the jazz ball. Unfortunately for Henderson, who was pitching for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League at the time, it’s truly unlikely his concoction offered much, as he went 0-5 that season and never played pro ball again following that campaign.

Still, it’s clear that the word was floating around the ether on the West Coast when a high-profile sports writer named E.T. “Scoop” Gleeson used it in his writing a year later. Gleeson was covering the PCL’s San Francisco Seals at spring training in Sonoma County, Calif., when he threw a jazz reference into an article he wrote for the San Francisco Bulletin. He applied the funky word to describe players with “pep, vim [and] vigor.”

Gleeson didn’t credit Henderson for his inspiration, but said he’d heard the term from another reporter who used it to describe the dice game of craps. Along with using it in print, he surely used it in general conversation with others during that spring training. By chance, there was a band working the hotel where the San Francisco ball club–and presumably Gleeson–were staying.

A member of that group was a banjo player named Bert Kelly, and it’s said that he loved the word. By 1914, Kelly had moved to Chicago, having started his own band. As an aficionado of Gleeson’s linguistic gem, Kelly used it to label the type of sound his group was laying down.

Chicago papers eventually would start touting jazz, with the Chicago Daily News proclaiming in 1915, “Blues is Jazz. Jazz is Blues.” New Orleans, which along with Chicago was an early jazz mecca, had examples of its usage by 1916. As for baseball, its use quickly disappeared like Henderson’s disappointing pitch.

On the fly

While this phrase, representing an action that’s performed quickly and, sometimes, with improvisation, seems like a bird-related idiom, it actually was inspired by baseball rules and coined by one of the sport’s first celebrity fans, Walt Whitman.

The basis for this phrase was a contentious disagreement between baseball potentates. As odd as it might seem, the game’s first rules made no distinction between snagging a ball on one hop and catching it cleanly in the air. Both options led to an out.

In the late 1850s, the New York Knickerbockers, which were central in the early development of baseball, started streamlining the game’s rules. One decision was to excise the one-hop catch as an out. Not everyone was happy with this development. In fact, clubs were so split on this topic that games had to be designated as “on the fly” or “on the bound” before a contest began.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

No-hop proponents got a bit nasty in this disagreement, suggesting there was something unmanly about allowing a single-hop snag to register an out. The tactic ultimately worked, as in 1865 balls hit in fair territory had to be directly plucked from the sky in order to tally an out. Oddly, foul balls retrieved after one hop still could be outs in some games up until the 1880s.

All this crisis was not lost on the great Walt Whitman. The beloved poet was a keen follower of the sport and was once quoted as saying, “…base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character.” As a result, when he came up with the on the fly concept in the 1880s, he was likely picturing a ball game.

For the record, Whitman used the metaphor for the first time when he wrote, “That has mainly been my method: I have caught much on the fly: the things as they come and go–on the spur of the moment.”  To support the baseball tie, author Ed Folsom, in his book Walt Whitman’s Native Representations, explained that Whitman was “attracted to baseball metaphors for their colorful, direct, and simple expressiveness.”

One-two punch

OK, this idiom was undoubtedly initially taken from boxing, but without a conceptual bridge created by one of the greatest baseball intellects of all time, it may have been slow to become a broadly used turn of phrase.

On a slow spring training day in March, 1940, United Press columnist Harry McLemore was keen to manufacture a story. There was probably nobody better to chat with to deliver on that desire than Moe Berg. The catcher, of course, was best known for his keen intellect (he held degrees from both Princeton University and Columbia Law School) as well as his work as a spy for the U.S. government, rather than his abilities of the field. As one teammate allegedly said, “He can speak seven languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.”

On this day, Berg was very much at the end of his career. In fact, he had already played his last regular-season games in the major leagues when he sat down to chat with McLemore. What Berg had to say was a revelation to the reporter.

“It wasn’t until today that I realized there was a definite kinship between baseball and boxing,” McLemore wrote in his syndicated column, which ran in the Berkeley (Calif.) Daily Gazette on March 21, 1940. “But all of a sudden I found myself lolling under a palm tree with Moe Berg of the Boston Red Sox … [a]nd before we quit lolling he had established a definite relationship between the two. He had bound them together with the expression ‘one-two punch’.”

McLemore went on to lay out Berg’s argument that “[t]here was never a boxing champion who didn’t have a one-two punch.” As for baseball, Berg continued, “the chief contention for the major league pennants would be made by teams with the same thing.”

Using his lawyerly background, he pressed on with the analogy, which, in all fairness, had been bouncing around baseball for a few decades.

“Let’s look at the American League,” he said. “Barring accident the main contention will be between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Each of the clubs can throw deadly one-two punch[es]. On the Yanks the one-two is provided by Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey. DiMaggio sets up the opposition and Dickey knocks it out.”

Perhaps I’m biased but to me those two fellows form the best one-two in baseball. I wouldn’t swap them for anything in the league.”

The pair would go on to handicap the one-two punches in the National League, picking out Frank McCormick and Ival Goodman with the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick.

As mentioned, others had used the same parallel in passing earlier in baseball. For example, a September, 1912, La Crosse (Wisc.) Tribune article wrote, “With a one, two punch delivered jointly by (Jeff) Tesreau and (Christy) Mathewson, the Giants twice downed the Dodgers and today lead by nine and one-half games.” In addition, its metaphorical usage was trickling into the lexicon elsewhere by the 1930s.

But the detail of this explanation and McLemore’s well-known column certainly gave the phrase a major boost. Outside the sport, it’s now used to describe a powerful combo for nearly anything from food to politics. Sadly, this may have been one of McLemore’s finer hours, as he would later go down in ignominy for being a staunch supporter of Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Flake

We all know those flaky folks who just can’t be counted on. In 2014, CNN devoted a whole article to trying to identify the reasons for this behavior. But did you know the first actual human flake was a baseball player?

Jackie Brandt was a pretty good journeyman outfielder who played 11 seasons in the big leagues from 1956 to 1967. While he was a one-time All-Star and a Gold Glove Award winner, his success didn’t stop him from being a…how should I put it…different sort of guy.

His eccentricities included allegedly once hitting a home run and then sliding into first, second, third and home instead of rounding the bases on foot. Another piece of lore says that he tried to do a back flip in an effort to avoid a tag. (It didn’t work.)

Brandt certainly provided a lot of entertainment to the game. One time, when he struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch, he was asked whether he froze because he was expecting a fastball or a curve and got the other. Brandt responded that he didn’t swing because he wasn’t looking for either. He was actually anticipating a ball.

Being the flake that he was, he didn’t come up with the nickname himself. Instead, depending on which story you want to believe, it was dropped on Brandt by either an anonymous teammate in 1957 or by Wally Moon a year earlier when Brandt was with the St. Louis Cardinals.

(As a side note, if Moon did the honors here, it would be one of two linguistic gifts he gave to the English language. His towering home runs at the Los Angeles Coliseum when the Dodgers first moved west, were the inspiration for the baseball jargon “Moon shot.”)

Whether it was Moon or another, the rationale behind Brandt’s moniker was that the fibers of him mind were so impermanent that they were flaking away. Brandt was probably fine with such an assessment, as he would joke about his reputation: “The most consistent thing about me is my inconsistency.”

No doubt, the same could be said about so many others that have since earned the flake title.

References & Resources


Print This Post
Josh Chetwynd is the author of seven books, including The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A compendium of Competitive World and Idioms. He has broadcast baseball in Great Britain on both BBC Radio and Channel 5 (TV). He has played baseball for Northwestern University, in the Frontier League and for the Great Britain National Baseball Team, and was inducted in the British Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @joshchetwynd.
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Barney Coolio
Guest
Barney Coolio
I am happy to see Jackie Brandt mentioned here. He had an interesting career. He debuted with the Cardinals in 1956. The Cards knew he was going to be drafted by the army, so they traded him to the NY Giants. He was indeed drafted and spent two years in the military. He came back and rejoined the Giants in their new city of San Francisco late in 1958. In 1959, despite being essentially a second year player, Brandt won his only Gold Glove as an outfielder. Strangely, he only made 81 starts in the OF, while also seeing significant… Read more »
Fake Yeezy
Guest

adidas Day One is an elevated capsule collection that each season explores a different facet of the adidas DNA. For SS17, the focus is on basketball and running. Each piece is in turn executed with the key elements of style, attitude and innovation.

wpDiscuz