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.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 6th 2009, 4:02 AM
Comment by: Ray Adams (Adelaide Australia)
Down here in Australia, of course, absolutely nobody buys or drives Cadillacs. Our emblem of quality comes from the Brits: "It's the Rolls-Royce of.... [noun group goes here]". Baseball is not such a big thing here, either, but I was interested to see the "verbing" based on Cadillac. I guess Rolls-Royce does not "verb" well, phonetically, and we generally do not have those variations of car names in Australian English; not even in the garbled banter of sports commentators.
Friday November 6th 2009, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Neil B. (Bedford Park, IL)
Wow. The use of "Cadillac" for "top of the line" came up at lunch yesterday! A customer representative was relating the comments of a customer earlier in the morning who had suggested we needed to consider a change in the advertising of one of our products as "the Cadillac of _____" because the car brand/manufacturer isn't doing very well these days. The customer had suggested switching to "Mercedes-Benz of. . ." I'm thinking it might be best to stay away from any automotive comparisons for at least the time being. There's "acme," of course, but I always think of those products blowing up on Wile E. Coyote. Thanks for the information, Ben.
Wednesday November 11th 2009, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
For many years Cadillac's 'slogan' was 'The Standard of the World'. The reference, if I am not mistaken, goes back to 1908 when it won the Dewar Trophy for it's achievement making parts interchangeable.

When Kiner was driving home runs out of Forbes Field, "the Cadillac of ______" meant something of highest quality. The name has become devalued over time. And I agree with Neil B. that an automotive reference doesn't sound right these days. If one were going to use one it would probably have to be "The Toyota of _____" and it just doesn't work, does it?

The standby that still has some juice left is "The Tiffany of __________" But as they spread from Mall to Mall across America I think they're losing cachet, too.

The problem is, the quality of products across the board has grown so that comparison with Tiffany and Cadillac have lost meaning - see my comment about Toyota above.

Having said that, if anyone suggests that I check out the Fred Allen or Jack Benny of the internet, I'm there in a flash :)

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