Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Peculiar Language of Baseball by Jonathan Weeks

Baseball has a language of its own and the lingo has changed dramatically over the years. One of the most challenging aspects of researching the game’s early history is familiarizing oneself with all the antiquated jargon. Though some of the early slang has persisted into the present day, many terms have fallen out of favor over the years. Early game accounts are littered with the following examples:

Fans: “cranks”            
Ball: “apple,” “pill” or ”sphere”                 
A player of questionable merit: “busher”
Curveball: “slant”       
Base hit: “safety”              
Mound: “hill” or “slab”
A fight: “rhubarb”      
Outfielder: “ball hawk” or “fly chaser”         
Home run: “circuit blast”

Once you have mastered the slang, you have to deal with the unusual writing style. Game recaps in the early days were far more colorful and often extremely biased. The language was quite flowery and melodramatic. In some instances, it can be extremely challenging to determine exactly what happened on the field. For instance, infielder Bill Wambganss’s famous unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series (the only play of its kind in the Fall Classic) was described in the New York Tribune as follows:

“It sounded like a hit and looked like a hit. Everybody started to travel. Wamby made a desperate stab and held the ball. A cool person is this man of many consonants. He stepped over a stone, doubling Kilduff. In the meantime, Miller continued to flounder toward second. Wamby reached out and tagged him. The suddenness of it all dazed the multitude for a second. They saw the Indians start to trot in from the field. Then they realized what they had seen, a play that comes once in a lifetime and then is only seen by a few.”

An example of the bias that was commonplace at the dawn of sports journalism, a headline in the Pittsburgh Press on August 10, 1905 read: “Both Teams Played Stupid, Dopey Ball Yesterday.”

One aspect of early sports writing that I find particularly appealing is the presence of nicknames. In the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, numerous ballplayers had elaborate handles attached to their names. As time marched on, the practice of pinning monikers on major leaguers began to dwindle. More often than not, the nicknames were born out of respect, as was the case with Babe Ruth ("The Sultan of Swat") and Lou Gehrig ("The Iron Horse"). For other less fortunate individuals, some negative personal characteristic was transformed into a label that stuck. Some of my favorites are listed here:

Pearce "What's the Use?" Chiles
Charlie "Piano Legs" Hickman
Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson
Bill "Wagon Tongue" Keister
Bristol Lord: "The Human Eyeball"
Hub Perdue: "The Gallatin Squash"
Gabby Hartnett: "Old Tomato Face"
Charlie Grimm: "Jolly Cholly"
Lon Warneke "The Arkansas Hummingbird"
Guy Bush "The Mississippi Mudcat"
Tony "Poosh Em Up" Lazzeri
Red Lucas: "The Nashville Narcissus"

My latest non-fiction book, Mudville Madness, takes readers on a tour de force from the game’s earliest days to the present era, recounting many of the most outrageous occurrences on the diamond. Rest assured, you won’t need a secret decoder ring to decipher the confusing language of yesteryear. I have done most of the work for you.
Readers who prefer their literature in fictional doses can pick up a copy of my latest novel—also recently released. It’s a fantasy baseball memoir set in World War II called The Bridgeport Hammer. 
You can check out my own blog at

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