In this Sunday's "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine, I take a look at how the car brand Cadillac remains an emblem of luxury, even though Cadillac itself is no longer really "the Cadillac of cars." In the health care debate on Capitol Hill, we frequently hear high-cost health insurance plans described as "Cadillac plans." And there's another area of American culture where Cadillac continues to have outsized linguistic importance: baseball.
Before losing the World Series in six games to the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies were on a roll, with impressive offensive performances from their power hitters. The color commentator for Phillies broadcasts, Gary Matthews (aka "the Sarge"), would greet Phillies home runs by exclaiming, "It's Cadillac time!" Or, when a player rounded the bases for his home run trot, Matthews would say that he "jumped into the Cadillac." Sadly for Phillies fans, the team came up a bit short in the Cadillac-jumping department against the Yankees to repeat as world champions.
It's not just Matthews who associates the home run trot with Cadillacs. Paul Dickson, author of the indispensable Dickson Baseball Dictionary, explains that the Cadillac trot is "a home run trot by a high-salaried slugger, often staged to show up a high-priced pitcher or other opponent." Cadillac has also turned into a verb, defined by Grant Barrett's Double Tongued Dictionary as "to run in an unhurried, showy way." Since at least 1957, players who trot around the bases in an ostentatious or lackadaisical manner have been described as "Cadillac-ing." (Or "Cadillacking" if you prefer.)
Dickson traces baseball's Cadillac connection back to a famous line attributed to the slugger Ralph Kiner. The line, as rendered by Dickson, is: "Hitters of home runs drive Cadillacs, singles hitters jalopies." I tracked down an earlier version of Kiner's quote, which appeared in the sports section of the New York Times on June 17, 1948:
Les Beiderman, the Pittsburgh scribe, made the same sort of suggestion to him that Boston writers had made to Williams. "Why don't you push the ball to the wide-open opposite field?" he asked. Kiner gave him a quizzical look. "Here's the way I've figured it out," he said simply and frankly. "Right-handed power hitters, who hit to right, drive flivvers. But the right-handed power hitters, who hit to left, drive twelve-cylinder limousines."
If that's how Kiner originally said it, he didn't in fact have Cadillacs on his mind. But in the mid-1950s, Kiner's line morphed into increasingly snappier variations:
"The home run is the big thing," says Ralph Kiner. "Power hitters who punch the ball to the opposite field ride in flivvers. Power hitters who pull the ball into the stands ride in Cadillacs." —Hartford Courant, Apr. 11, 1954
"Power hitters who slice to the opposite field," he said with a grin, "ride around in Model-T Fords. Power hitters who pull the ball into the stands, ride around in Cadillacs." —New York Times, Nov. 17, 1954
Ralph Kiner once remarked "Players who bunt don't ride around in Cadillacs." —New York Times, Mar. 8, 1955
It was Ralph Kiner who once said, "Singles hitters ride in Fords, home run hitters in Cadillacs." —Washington Post, Mar. 13, 1955
(And just to confuse matters, Kiner himself attributed the line to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, according to the Oakland Tribune of Mar. 15, 1956.)
The Cadillac had clearly achieved iconic status as America's ultimate luxury car by the time these versions of Kiner's quote were floating around, so it's not surprising that the brand name would become synonymous with "showboating" among players and announcers. But even after the brand lost much of its prestige in the '80s and '90s, Cadillac can still signify something special and showy — at least on the baseball diamond, as well as the halls of Congress.