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.
But the boisterousness of baseball slang has proved irrepressible. By coining the derogatory term “father Chadwick” to describe a player past his prime, trash slangsters ensured that Henry Chadwick would live in infamy. And historically, baseball slang has trickled down to the public from Chadwick and other writers with access to the players’ hermetic chatter. It’s because of today’s beat writers and play-by-play announcers that we know how Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia describes his hitting prowess (“laser show”) and what Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon calls his hybrid slider/cutter pitch (“slutter”). Players’ slang is jokey and blunt; the words may be strange, but their meaning is usually obvious. That’s not the case with the relatively new statistical “trash slang” of baseball’s Internet generation. Thanks to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball (2003), a landmark in recent baseball history for its popularization of newfangled empirical methods for measuring and identifying skills that many teams overlook when evaluating prospects, keyboard jocks use obscure statistics and their acronyms (BABIP, UZR, WHIP) to analyze and describe talent. The fracture this thinking has created between baseball people is palpable and acrimonious. Former players turned announcers like Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver, who played in the ’60s and ’70s, routinely ridicule the M-word, while the statheads dryly type that the old guys have gone senile.
Much of baseball’s current lexicon would make the chaste squirm in their seats. Multiple entries in The Baseball Dictionary appropriate but desexualize customary libidinous slang: “bush,” for example. A “hooker” is not a streetwalker but rather a right-handed pull hitter–someone whose natural tendency is to hit the ball to left field. “Salami” isn’t… that… but the royal flush of batting: a grand slam. Getting “waxed” isn’t a hair-removal procedure but a pitcher’s brutal day at the office. To “hump up” is, innocently enough, when a pitcher expends extra effort on a fastball. This isn’t even touching on some of the most colorful slang, like “green weenie,” “smoke his tits” and “slutter,” one of the very few terms I can say–with no absence of pride–that Dickson missed.
Baseball slang is an avalanche of skewed logic. The commonest words take on very precise meanings. “Stuff” refers quite specifically to the totality of a pitcher’s arsenal: his array of pitches and the velocity and movement with which he throws them. A pitcher can easily have good stuff but not succeed if his “command”–the ability to locate pitches accurately–is erratic. Terms associated with dirt and filth are highly complimentary. A hitter respectfully calls an excellent pitcher “filthy,” a term that evolved out of common adjectives from a decade ago: “nasty” and “dirty.” “Dirtbags” and “dirt dogs” are consummate hustlers, guys with perpetually soiled uniforms and caps and batting helmets stained with sweat, tobacco juice and pine tar. Naturally, dirtbags and dirt dogs play “dirtball.” A player who is “pretty” is the opposite of a dirtbag, as is a “muffin.” Food references are as prevalent as the television announcers who longingly mention the hallowed postgame buffet in the players’ clubhouse. The ball itself can be an egg, apricot, apple or stitched potato. “Jelly beans” are rookies and inexperienced kids, the type a veteran might relentlessly call bush for a year before acknowledging him properly. Reaching base for your team’s big hitters is “setting the table.” “Fat” pitches are hittable ones, almost exclusively delectable treats, my favorite being “ham-and-cheese.” And then there’s the colorful (although unfortunately out of fashion) term for pep or spirit: “jinegar.” Forms of kinship lurk suggestively, with positive connotations only for the hitter. Batters aspire to find their “cousin,” the pitcher they manage to hit inexplicably well. In the early 2000s the Yankees’ weak-hitting utility infielder Enrique Wilson found an unlikely cousin in the Red Sox’s masterful Pedro Martínez, and Pedro’s tough luck against the Yankees culminated in his admitting in an infamous interview that the Yanks were his “daddy.” It was a rare moment of hearing baseball slang invented in real time.
If Pedro weren’t Pedro–the best pitcher of the generation and arguably ever–“Pedro” just might have become synonymous with “tortured by the Yankees.” Some of the funniest, and most tragic, baseball slang appropriates players’ names. A prodigious home run is Ruthian and a Ryanesque fastball is hyperfast, but typically a player who inspires the coinage of a slang term is one who has made an embarrassing play. A century ago, Fred Merkle committed what came to be known as “Merkle’s boner,” a base-running mistake that cost his New York Giants the pennant in 1908. The Washington Post commented in 1914 how his flub “added a new verb to the dictionary, for…when a man performs some bonehead action.” To “pull a Buckner” is to allow a routine ground ball to trickle through the wickets–which Bill Buckner did while playing first base for the Red Sox in the tenth inning of a dramatic World Series game against the New York Mets in 1986. The “Bud Black market” is an off-season free-agent marketplace where mediocre pitchers receive major dollars. “Steve Blass disease” (suffered conspicuously in relatively recent history by Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch) is a psychological condition describable as an infielder’s inexplicable loss of ability to throw accurately to first base. To be “Wally Pipped” is to get hurt and replaced by a superior player. After sustaining an injury in 1925, Pipp was replaced by a kid named Lou Gehrig. The most recent player to suffer the indignity of eponymy is pitcher Carl Pavano. After an outstanding 2003 season with the Florida Marlins, the Yankees signed Pavano for four years and big money. The hurler promptly morphed into a walking doctor’s note (his many ailments included “bruised buttocks”), and he spent nearly his entire stint with the club on the disabled list. In The Yankee Years, Joe Torre and Tom Verducci reported that Yankees players took to calling the disabled list “The Pavano.”
Pitchers and hitters use the same slang, but its jauntiness somehow feels most pertinent when describing pitching. When a hurler toes the slab he wants to throw peas or seeds, not watermelons or cantaloupes. So, when he’s cruising or twirling or canceling Christmas, he’s also tossing beebees. If an elbow-bender (a k a slabster, moundsman or box artist) is serving them up down the crock, he’s liable to surrender a few gopher balls. A cement mixer–the dreaded hanging slider–is a dastardly thing for a pitcher (chuck and duck!). Cookies and cherries like this result in laser shows. Traffic (wind) can be a friend or an enemy. Punchados are welcome, but they aren’t the only way to get a hitter out: a hurlsmith will gladly accept a can of corn, a worm burner, a nubber on an excuse-me swing or something right up the elevator shaft. Nothing ticks off a heaver like painting the black and having some Punch-and-Judy green pea bloop a duck snort, Texas Leaguer or Baltimore chop for a safety. “Shit-can” is a hurler’s verb for eliminating an ineffective pitch. “Bugs Bunny” is an adjective used to describe an exaggeratedly slow changeup, the type with which the eponymous cartoon character so often fooled opponents.
More pitch-specific adjectives: Frisbee (a broadly breaking slider), riding (high four-seam fastball), disappearing (splitter), knee-buckling (curve), boring (two-seam fastball or cutter), heavy (sinker), dancing (knuckler). Most individual pitches have a bounty of slang associated with them. A lazy search through Dickson’s dictionary yielded a baker’s dozen of synonyms for curveball: yakker, hammer, wrinkle, Yak attack, bender, hook, 12 to 6, zigzagger, pretzel, cow’s horn, dipsy-doodle, snake jazz and Uncle Charlie (which has tantalizingly unknown origins). My Little League team called it the “deuce,” a tribute to catchers’ universal two-fingered sign for the pitch. Throw too many of these puppies and you gas your wing, ending up a crockery limb with a cunny thumb. Fastballs can be gas, heat, hair, cheese, express and scores more. A “horse” is a high compliment given to unusually durable pitchers. Right-handed pitchers, who are more common than their left-handed counterparts, aren’t often tagged with slang, but lefties are portsiders, southpaws, crooked arms and corkscrew arms. Because he is thought to throw softer, a lefty is rarely a “gasface,” but he is often “crafty.” A “slinger” is a pitcher with a wild throwing motion akin to heaving the ball from a slingshot. A “thrower” is a derogatory term for a pitcher who lacks the mental aptitude to be a thinker on the mound; conversely, an effectively analytical moundsman is an “artist.”
Between steroids, astronomical ticket prices, generally dispiriting corporatization and unconscionable multimillion-dollar player salaries in the face of a great recession, the modern baseball fan needs a lift. (“Pick him up!” a ballplayer with jinegar might say.) The slang of the game is its quaint romance, the connective tissue between Ty Cobb and Ty Wigginton. Honestly, it’s gratifying to know of a subculture of such pointless innovation, one without goals or aspirations, one not intended to impress the public or one’s boss. Baseball slang is a tradition of creativity passed through generations by dirtbags and muffins alike–not a set with a literary reputation. But the Nabokovian sense of play with the English language evident in Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary proves that the boys of summer really are unlikely poets. That the cliché-driveling doofuses bumbling their way through postgame interviews are the innovators of superlative job-related slang like green weenie (an obscure legend turned souvenir by superstitious Pittsburgh Pirates fans in the ’60s) is both delightful and maddening. Maybe if my job were palling around and tossing the bulb with a bunch of apple-knockers all day I’d also end up an inspired poet of whimsy. But maybe that’s just a Rickeyism from the rhubarbs.