Paul Dickson is the author of more than 60 books and several hundred magazine and newspaper articles. He has written over a dozen bat and ball books (11 on baseball and one on softball). His most recent is the biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. It was named the 2012 CASEY Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year. In 2011 Paul was awarded the Tony Salin Memorial Award from the Baseball Reliquary for the preservation of baseball history. He was also honored in 2008 by the New York Public Library for his award-winning and widely acclaimed Dickson Baseball Dictionary, now in its third edition.
When I was 10 years old, my grandmother took me to see The Babe Ruth Story, a film starring William Bendix as the Babe. The film was a masterpiece of biopic nonsense which even kids could spot as totally bogus, beginning with the notion that Bendix could throw and hit a baseball with any resemblance to the man he portrayed. Then there was the scene in a bar in which the Babe orders milk, which caused thunderous hoots and guffaws at the Park Hill Theatre in Yonkers, New York, where I saw the film.
The level to which baseball players—at every stage of the game—are superstitious is legendary. The belief in ritual magic is hardly unique to baseball, but it flourishes on the diamond like no other sport. Many of these beliefs are hatched in dugouts where players have time to come up with fresh beliefs, while others are carried over from generation to generation. For instance, talking to the pitcher in the dugout during a no-hitter could jinx the outcome and has become one of the game’s oldest and most honored unwritten rules.
The world is divided into two kinds of baseball fans: those who keep score at the ballgame and those who have never made the leap. For those of us who have made the leap, keeping score can add to the enjoyment of watching and experiencing baseball.
When Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra died at age 90 on September 22, 2015, he was one of baseball’s most famous figures, known as much for his memorable quips as for his excellence on the field. But the origins of many of these so-called Yogisms (or Berraisms if you prefer) are murky—and some he never said at all. In the aftermath of his passing, many quotes were attributed to him which were not his.
September 2, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On that date in 1945, Japan formally surrendered. Six days later, President Harry Truman made his way to Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and brought peace to the homefront by throwing out the first ball of a baseball game.
Before a baseball game can begin, two things must happen: The home plate umpire must signal “Play Ball,” and the catcher must give the pitcher a sign ordering the type and location of the first pitch. More often than not, the latter is a finger sign delivered from the catcher’s inner thigh. If the pitcher is uneasy with the pitch he will “shake it off,” vetoing it with a shake of his head or by some other gesture of rejection.
The catcher gives a new sign . . . or does he?
In 1880, the French comic opera La Mascotte debuted in Paris. It told the story of a farm girl who brought good luck to those closely associated with her—that is, provided she remained a virgin. When an English version of La Mascotte came to New York City in 1881, the name of the opera became The Mascot. Suddenly the term and the concept was everywhere and applied widely but especially to athletic teams.
Mired in seventh place in the eight-team National League and suffering at the gate, Brooklyn’s enterprising General Manager Larry MacPhail staged this game to fill empty seats. It was the first night game ever played in the New York area and only the second Major League park rigged with towers and floodlights. The first had been in Cincinnati at Crosley Field in 1936, which MacPhail accomplished before coming to Brooklyn.
As we wait for those magic words of February, “pitchers and catchers report today,” we can reflect that the influence of baseball on the English language is stunning, strong, and at what appears to be an all-time real and metaphoric high. Tough folks play “hardball,” save for when they relent and ask a few “softball questions.” Everyone seems to be willing to settle for a “ballpark figure,” and there are still a lot of folks who ask you to “touch base” with them.