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Season Openers: Baseball Terms and Myths

It's April, which means that the major league baseball season is once again under way. Time to celebrate America's favorite pastime with a look at the origins of words from the baseball diamond.

Let's throw out the first ball, left-handed. That's called "southpaw." A lot of citations will tell you that the term arose from the practice of aligning baseball fields so that a batter faced east, and not into the setting sun. (This, of course, in the days before night games.) If home plate faced east, a left-handed pitcher's arm would be on the south side, and so he would be a "southpaw."

The three flaws in that are 1) not all baseball fields were aligned that way; 2) why would a pitcher want to face the setting sun; and 3) The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of "southpaw" to the June 1813 issue of Tickler magazine: "‘Luk here mon, and convince yourself,' said he, holding up the Tickler, in the right paw, between the ceiling and the floor, and with the south paw pointing to the ‘bow, vow, vow.'" That's six years before Abner Doubleday was even born, let alone years before he did not invent baseball.

The pitcher is one-half of the "battery," the catcher being the other half. The "battery" originally referred only to the pitcher. As the book Koufax by Edward Gruver says: "The term battery was initiated in the 1860s by Henry Chadwick, who used it to compare the firepower of his pitching staff to Civil War artillery. Some 20 years later, the term included both pitcher and catcher as standout catchers like Buck Ewing, Wilbert Robinson, and Deacon White gained respect for their position."

The derivation of some baseball terms, like "dugout," "double play," and "home run," seem self-evident. Others, not so much.

A "bullpen," for example, the place where pitchers warm up and await the call from the "dugout," has negative beginnings. In the Civil War, the "bull pen" was a stockade or enclosed area where prisoners were held temporarily. Later in the century it became known as any waiting area. While the OED traces the first baseball use of "bullpen" to the Chicago Tribune in 1924, The New York Times used it in a 1912 baseball article: "Chicago began to get worried, and Richie, Ruelbach, and Lavender were rushed to the bullpen to get warmed up and be ready to relieve the weakening Cheney at a minute's notice."

The "bunt," where a batter just taps the ball lightly in hopes of beating it to first base (and advancing other runners), is probably related to an early nineteenth-century usage as a verb meaning "To strike, knock, push, butt." (Did you just ask "who's on first?") Its first baseball use, according to the OED, was as an adjective, "a bunted ball," in Reach's Base Ball Guide in 1889. In 1896, Spalding's Base Ball Guide included "The ‘bunting' of the ball, so as to cause it to drop to the ground almost dead." That's not the same as the "bunting" that decorates the stands during playoffs and the World Series, which is derived from the material to make flags.

Now, if someone will buy the Cracker Jack, we'll be all set for the season. Go, Cubs!


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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