Forty-one years ago, George Carlin premiered "Seven Dirty Words" ... perhaps the most important routine in the history of stand-up comedy. Of course, Carlin was talking about things you couldn't say on television. But lately I've been thinking about things you could once say on television ... but can't any more. I was able to come up with a few of these on my own, just from memory (yes, I'm old enough to remember hearing some of these). But I gleaned the rest from the absolutely essential Dickson Baseball Dictionary. And these are just the highlights, terms that were in relatively common use at some point in relatively modern history.
Before we start, you might want to cover your eyes and hide the children ...
A "boner" used to be a misplay, possibly physical but typically mental. Of course the most famous boner of all was Merkle's boner; in 1908, Giants first baseman Fred Merkle didn't touch second base on a game-ending hit, which ultimately resulted in the run not counting and the Giants losing the pennant to the Cubs. When Merkle died in 1956, the headline on his Associated Press obituary read
Fred Merkle, Of 'Boner' Fame, Dies
For many years, the term "rock" was used synonymously, but even that one's fallen out of style. I'm not even sure what they call dumb plays these days. Some of your more honest announcers might just say "dumb play" ... but dumb has become politically incorrect, so usually the worst you'll hear is mental error ... and even that's uncommon, because today nobody wants to hurt anybody's feelings.
It wasn't so long ago that broadcasters would routinely refer to a weekday-afternoon game as a "businessman's special"; our conventional suit-and-tie-wearing breadwinner might take the afternoon off, catch a baseball game, and be home in time for supper. But businessman has gone the way of fireman and policeman and snowman.
Well, maybe not that last one. Yet. But for years I heard the term businessman's special, and then for a short spell I heard the term businessperson's special, and now everybody's just given up, and afternoon games are just afternoon games or maybe getaway games.
Chinese home run
As defined in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary: "A derogatory term for a home run hit over the portion of the outfield fence closest to home plate, often one that lands just inside (or hits) the foul pole in a ballpark with small dimensions. The most famous locale for Chinese homers was the Polo Grounds, which had 280- and 258-foot foul lines."
In 1981, legendary A's broadcaster Bill King described a Bobby Murcer homer as "not a Chinese home run" ... and received plenty of criticism from local Asian-Americans. I'm guessing it's been some time since a major-league broadcaster has used the term.
Related terms include "Japanese liner" (a Texas League hit in the Pacific Coast League) and "Spanish home run" (a single or double on which the batter actually scores because of a fielding misplay).
Actually, the word "cripple" was once quite common in baseball. A cripple pitch was essentially a get-it-over fastball in a hitter's count (3-0, 2-0, or 3-1) ... which was also known as a cripple count; as recently as 2001, Tom Glavine used that term in Sports Illustrated. And so some hitters became known as cripple hitters, particularly adept at taking advantage of those pitches. But as the words "cripple" and "crippled" have become politically incorrect in wider society, these terms have become passé in baseball circles, too.
Also cunny thumber. Basically, a finesse pitcher. From Dickson:
ETYMOLOGY. This is an old term used in marbles played by children on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In marbles it refers to a shooter using the "female manner"; i.e. from a closed fist with the thumb tucked under the first three fingers. Eric Partridge ("Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English", 1984) noted that "cunny" is a reference to female genitalia dating back to the 17th century. Despite this clearly sexual reference, there seems to have been not taboo about its use in baseball (or in marbles for that matter) as it shows up in such places as Dizzy Dean's various glossaries. Its decline in use as a baseball term has paralleled the decline in marbles as a childhood pastime.
Of course it's common in dictionaries to list the first known use of a word or term, and Dickson's first cited use is 1937 in The New York Daily News. But it occurs to me that I'd also love to know about the last known use. I've seen this one many times in the literature, but mostly in interviews with players of the 1940s and '50s. I'm fairly sure that broadcasters stopped saying this before I started watching baseball games.
Nig (as nickname)
The good news is that there's nobody named "Nig" in the Hall of Fame. That would have been awkward for people at the Hall of Fame, and also for anybody who talks about Hall of Famers for a living. But at least 10 major leaguers have been nicknamed "Nig" and four of them actually were best known by that name. Most notably? Nig Clarke, who caught in the majors throughout the Dead Ball Era and was known as one of the game's toughest characters. There was also Nig Cuppy, who starred for the Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s and was famous for his "jump ball".
Neither Clarke nor Cuppy is likely to come up in conversation during a broadcast, but what if one of them does? Just go with Jay Clarke and George Cuppy.
It was once commonly said of a player who took a pitch, and especially a strike three, that he "stood there like a wooden Indian." Of course you're not going to hear that today; such things went out of style ... oh, approximately 20 years ago, when this episode of Seinfeld (video!) first appeared. Other things we don't hear about any more: losing managers doing a rain dance, and powwows at the mound. Then again, they're still doing the tomahawk chop in Atlanta and Chief Wahoo remains an icon in Cleveland. So you never can tell.