Casey Stengel, baseball’s all-star linguist, would often end his hilarious ungrammatical monologues by declaring, “You could look it up.” Now, in matters of diamond or keystone vocabulary, you can do that much more easily. The newly published Dickson Baseball Dictionary ($35, Facts on File) contains over 5,000 entries—from A (the third-best rung of minor league ball) and April Cobb (a rookie who withers after a whirlwind start) to zurdo (Spanish for lefty). Gleaned from players, fans and the sporting press, the dictionary, says its author, Paul Dickson, 49, “is a mix of slang, nicknames, metaphors and official terminology. I tried to create a reference book for people who love baseball and who love language.” Red Barber, from his catbird seat on National Public Radio, has called the 438-page tome “a monumental job.” Along with such oldies as hot corner (third base; first use, 1889), got the collar (going hitless) and chin music (brushback pitch), Dickson includes rarer pearls like Titanic (a sinking liner) and Peggy Lee fastball (one causing the batter to ask—as Peggy Lee did in her hit song—”Is that all there is?”).
Dickson also cites terms that have jumped the ballpark fence and entered everyday English, including bonehead (from Fred “Bonehead” Merkle, who lost a 1907 game by failing to touch second), Bronx cheer, choke, clutch and ballpark estimate. “And there’s always a politician playing hardball or checking his box score,” says Dickson.
A rose may be a rose (though possibly not a Rose) but a home run is never just a home run. The author gives more than a dozen synonyms, including moon-shot, batboy shot, down-towner, round-tripper, four-bagger, seat-boomer, dinger and tater (the last immortalized in Reggie Jackson’s famous pronouncement, “Taters—that’s where the money is”). Since food is a favorite topic among ballplayers, it’s not surprising that many baseball terms have a culinary origin. A mouth-watering menu might include rhubarb (fracas), cup of coffee (brief trip to the majors), hard cheese good fastball), meatball (easy-to-hit pitch), salami (pun on grand slam), Cuban sandwich (fat batting-practice pitch), hot dog (show-off ballplayer), with mustard (velocity on a pitch), donut (circular weight placed on a bat when warming up) and ice cream cone (a fly ball barely caught in the glove’s webbing). And a club’s winningest pitcher is its meal ticket (Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who won 115 games from 1933 to 1937, is a famous example). But even that ace of the mound (first use, 1907) would not want to eat a shinburger (a bruise inflicted by a bad hop off the shin). Meat, though, is a term of endearment from any ballplayer to another.
Often a term’s etymology is what’s most intriguing. Dickson has tracked the term on deck to an 1872 game in New England in which one team was heavily manned by sailors. Take the widely used phrase to dog it (malinger or play half-heartedly): According to the dictionary, this is “a graphic reference to the infielder who lifts his leg to get out of the way of the ball.” Some expressions defy rational analysis. In architecture, a mullion is a vertical divider between window panels. In baseball it is “an extremely ugly or unattractive person.” Never heard the term? Dickson quotes a sports-writer who reported in 1986 that ballplayers are wont to “sit around the dugout or bullpen and select their major league all-mullion team.”
Although slang is by nature ephemeral, baseball jargon has been remarkably resilient over the years. Terms like slump mid bleachers date to the late 19th century. “The words don’t change much because the game doesn’t change much,” Dickson says. “Kids, who might otherwise have no sense of history, still talk about the exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.”
It was Dickson’s own kids, Alex and Andrew (11 and 15 respectively), who put him on the base path that eventually led to the Dictionary. In 1981 his preteen sons started asking about the brushback pitch and the infield fly rule, but when Dickson went to the library to look up the words, he came up with air: The shelves were loaded with baseball books heavy on stats but devoid of definitions. Sensing a need for a word guide to the national pastime (coined anonymously back in 1857), he began scouring bookstores for old baseball books and asking friends for phrases they recalled from their own childhoods. “I was a little like Tom Sawyer with his white fence,” says Dickson. “I’d send my list of words to friends and ask what I was missing. It would come back all scribbled with new terms from someone else’s childhood.” For his more formal research, which took 18 months, Dickson spent hours at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “Luckily,” he says, “a large component of baseball is the language, partly because there’s a lot of time between innings to talk.”
A fan since he attended his first Yankee game at age 5, Dickson grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., where his father was a banker and his mother a homemaker. “I had rotten hand-eye coordination,” he says, “but I loved to play ball. And the sound of the words. I still remember this sports-caster who’d describe an extra-base hit as a doozy marooney. He’d announce a home run by saying ‘Open up the window, Aunt Sadie, ’cause the ball is coming in.’ ” After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in psychology, Dickson drifted into free-lance journalism and, in 1970, into book writing. He and wife Nancy and their sons live in Garrett Park, Md., and Dickson claims that “over the years I’ve probably only made what a civil servant has made,” but he has authored 19 books including Toasts, Jokes and Words: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Old and New, Weird and Wonderful, Useful and Outlandish Words (he notes proudly that he has made the Guinness Book of World Records for finding 2,231 English synonyms for the word “drunk”). In contrast to most of his other compendiums, the Baseball Dictionary wasn’t intended to be funny. “I wanted this to be a reference book,” he says. “So I tried to be a little less colorful than usual.” Still, under the entry big inning, he does offer the following riddle:
Q: Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible?
A: In the Big Inning.
You could look it up.
—Jack Friedman, Michael J. Weiss in Washington