A new lexicon is a reminder of how America's national pastime has enriched its national language.
Vaudeville performer and songwriter Jack Norworth scratched out the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on a 25-minute subway ride in New York in 1908. He was inspired by an ad he glimpsed at a station stop: "Base Ball Today – Polo Grounds." That was all it took. He wrote a couple of verses and a chorus "as easily as one might take dictation," baseball scholar Paul Dickson writes. Norworth's collaborator, Albert Von Tilzer, composed the music. Their song was a big hit, and, a century later, it's still going strong as the unofficial anthem of the national pastime.
This is one of the tidbits from the newly arrived edition of "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition." It's one serious tome. It's nearly as hefty as another desktop stalwart, my "regular" dictionary. Well, OK, it has bigger type. But not that much bigger.
And it has some great historical photos, albeit reproduced rather small. Among my favorites: a shot of Norworth asking directions to the ball park. He's carrying a walking stick and his attire includes a bowler hat, a wing collar, and spats. Another shot shows a bunch of banner-waving Red Sox "rooters" in 1915. They're in three-piece suits and ties. Their celluloid collars made them look like Herbert Hoover except that they appear to be having too much fun. There's a shot of Casey Stengel in 1916, wearing sunglasses. They had sunglasses in 1916?
Much of what Dickson covers is the technical terminology of baseball – from the basics of ball and strike to nuances of free agents, Types A through C. He covers all sorts of specialized historical slang. A rubinoff was a baseball player who needed a haircut, Dickson says, citing Edwin M. Rumill in The Christian Science Monitor of Sept. 1, 1937. One has to wonder why that term was needed. The Great Barber Shortage of 1937?
But the larger lesson for the general reader is how much baseball has enriched the national language. Just think of all the idioms with base, for example – to touch base, to touch all the bases, to be off-base. One surprise for me: In the early days of baseball, fast company, a rather racy-sounding term now perhaps best known as the name of a hip technology magazine, was another expression for "the major leagues." Slow company was, naturally, the minors.
Dickson also includes some slang expressions that apparently originated elsewhere but expanded into wider use only after they had become baseball terms. Rookie, for example, began as military slang. But after it caught on as baseball lingo, it was extended to other fields – rookie cop, rookie astronaut, even rookie senator.
Showers, which Dickson defines as "the figurative place where a player (esp. a pitcher) goes after being removed during a game," is an example of an expression that, while rooted in baseball, has spread to other contexts as well. It's also an example of slang that has stayed on the western side of the Atlantic. Dickson recounts the story of a reporter who took Fred Perry of England, then the world's top tennis player, to his first American baseball game. It didn't go well for one of the pitchers. In only the second inning, the manager decided to pull him from the game. As he saw the pitcher trudging off the field, Perry asked, "Where is he going?" His host, the reporter, said simply, "To the showers." To which Perry replied, "It's a hot day. I imagine he will feel famously when he comes back."