Maine is on the northern edge of a pocket of the country that breeds obsessive fandom for the Boston Red Sox and venom for the New York Yankees. That place is known as Red Sox Nation, and my introduction to its treacherous emotional terrain came early. When I was a kid my dad worked the night shift at L.L. Bean. It was something I grew to resent. As compensation for scant father-son time, we developed a ritual: while I slept, he would artistically fan out on the kitchen table an assortment of baseball card packs–each with a colorful wax wrapper–for me to discover in the morning. One day my father was home to witness me tearing into his gift of cardboard gold, and I made a crucial error: I chirped that the card I coveted was Don Mattingly’s–then the Yankees’ young star first baseman. Dad snatched the packs away. “Son,” he softly intoned under a frowning mustache, “that’s bush.”
Bush? I’m unsure if it was my introduction to the term, but I knew exactly what Dad was getting at. Under his roof, esteem for anything Yankee was unacceptable. It was downright amateur, borderline ignorant, even treasonous. As Paul Dickson explains in his impressively comprehensive third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, which features more than 10,000 terms, the origins of “bush” date to 1905, when it referred to geographical exile–the cuts, the sticks, the bushes. Gradually, “bush” has become an enduring baseball term as well as a general condemnation of a crassly unprofessional or inappropriate person or action, something akin to “wack.” Gloating in the workplace about a promotion is bush. A bully who bugs the smallest kid in school is bush. Stealing from a tip jar is bush. Defying your father’s orders and admiring the perennial tormentors of his favorite baseball team is definitely bush.
Slang is like a breeze; it softly comes and goes, as new times bring new buzzwords. Some stick (“cool” defiantly endures); some induce cringes when dusted off (“groovy” is now in the dustbin of irony). It’s obvious when slang becomes less funny or less meaningful through overuse: “Internets,” for example, has become too widespread to be implicitly derisive of George W. Bush. Slang, in other words, is inevitably ephemeral–but it’s not always incidental. When hip-hop listeners crack the codes of songs en masse, rappers know it’s time to invent anew. The refusal of normative, dominant culture–beginning with the fundamentals of language–is embedded in the form. Baseball vernacular, for its part, isn’t so expressly political, nor is its obscurity as deliberate. Baseball belongs to the same class of folklore as, say, jazz, hamburgers and even hip-hop–but to employ Ken Burnsian hyperbole about the significance of its wordplay is a tough sell. It is what it is. As Dickson writes, it’s “low-key and light”–slang for its own sake. In other words, the richness of baseball’s old, weird vernacular is pure, pointless creativity.
For some, its pointlessness is its greatest offense. The baseball journalist Henry Chadwick wrote in the Galveston Daily News in 1897 that baseball was being cheapened by sportswriters’ “trash slang.” In his introduction, Dickson relates how in the early twentieth century Collier’s Weekly and the New York Tribune rallied journalists to purify the language used to describe baseball. Sounds to me like some ol’ rubber bellies got their fernalia in a bunch and were feeling the apple. Which is antiquated baseballese for: the stodgy journalists were threatened by ballplayers’ declassing of American English. In 1913 the Chicago Record-American ran dual recaps of ballgames: one in the dense slang of the time, another using “less boisterous” terminology.