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Original Issue


"Crack! went Ray's heavy oak stick," wrote a sports reporter in 1891. "Gastright raised his hands in an instant to stop the powerful impetus of the ball, which was whistling to centre field, and it broke through his grasp by the sheer force of velocity...."

That is, the poor fellow dropped it.

"He may not be the bearded brute who crushed the Orchid Man of France...but he still looks good enough to take the English Palooka. He still is a shuffler and a roarer, but, boy, that danger kick is always around. One can't dope the big brawl from watching him paste over his ham sparring partners; they just powder-puff him...."

That is, Jack Dempsey still looks pretty good.

Faced with the need to fill increasing amounts of space for a public increasingly addicted to sports news, reporters covering athletic events during the past century have developed embellishments and convolution to fine arts in a desperate attempt to vary their prose. Some of the jargon has just evolved; some of it has been invented by individuals bent on turning colorful phrases all their own. In a way, the sports language of any period is similar to popular music. For a while, it is on everyone's lips. Then most of it becomes faint, quaint, obscure. The new generation smiles indulgently at an old-timer's use of a bit of slang from the past, but historians and writers would do well to pay close attention, because someday they may have the opportunity to use the jargon to lend authenticity to their works.

Not everyone approves of sports slang. In fact, purists have been complaining about it for most of the past 100 years and, on at least one occasion, the outcry was sufficient to generate a vote on whether or not jargon should be used in sports reporting. In balloting conducted by a Chicago newspaper in 1913, 2,004 readers voted against the use of slang; 1,926 came out in favor of it. In that pre-photo-finish era, the purists ended up winning by a nose.

Sports jargon, like slang of any other sort, may be divided into three groups. First of all, there is a vast body of phraseology that quickly goes out of style, never to return. Who today, for example, refers to a "dunch shot" (a heavy or soggy stroke in golf) while on the links? What baseball fan describes a spectacular catch as an "à la carte"? These phrases, along with countless others, have simply passed out of usage.

Because it is probably the most complex American game and is played most often, baseball has produced the greatest body of jargon. Some of it is now obscure, but a surprising number of words and phrases have survived from the 19th century. Pitchers still "warm up" in the "bullpen," where they perfect their "breaking balls" or "smoke" until the moment when they get the chance to come into the game and "whiff" a few "lumbermen." Of course, they know full well that, if they throw a "cripple" or "hang a curve," they will end up "wearing the horns" and the batter will hit a "roundtripper." Better to toss a few "dusters" and make the batsmen "hit the dirt," so they will not dig in and be able to get "good wood on the ball." Then again, some days nothing goes right. A "chucker's" ball can have a good "hop" on it, but the batter may still "hang a rope" or get lucky with a "Texas Leaguer" or "Baltimore chop" that just barely becomes a "bingle."

The second type of sports jargon is comprised of words and phrases that are associated with a specific game and have no meaning outside the context of that sport. Baseball's "three-bagger," football's "first and 10," basketball's "pick and roll" and ice hockey's "changing on the fly" are examples. Those who do not play the game or watch it avidly are apt to be confused by this argot. Fans, of course, accept the colorful words as part of the game, perhaps only faintly aware that they have absorbed and use an arcane language.

Occasionally sports jargon will move on into a third group, which consists of terms frequently used by those who have no knowledge of the game. An example is the phrase "pinch-hit," which is often employed in situations that have nothing to do with baseball—that is, when an emergency arises and a replacement is brought in to carry out a job. In the same manner, to "throw a curve" to someone means to surprise or trick that person; "in there pitching" describes a determined individual; to have "struck out" is to have failed miserably (the best solution almost invariably is to "punt"); one "roots" for something or someone in a variety of non-sports circumstances.

Slowly but surely, such terminology works its way into the language of ordinary life, giving vigor and color to the speech patterns of even non-sports fans in our society. If at some date hundreds of years in the future, historians have difficulty tracing the origins of some of our words and phrases, we have the perfect slang expression to tell them what to do: "If you're not satisfied with taking what the defense gives you, you'll just have to eat the ball."