Base Ball Language Has All Others Shaded and Is Livest in the World

While looking for something else–ain’t that always the way?–I came across this highly amusing (to me, anyway) article in the Philadelphia Inquirer of February 4, 1906. Its author is that most prolific of scribes, Old Anon, although there are clues that it might be Joe Vila. It seems I am drifting into an imitative antique style … so here is the genuine article. I vow to read some prose by Joe Campbell (“the Chaucer of Base Ball”), extolled below.

Base ball is one of the livest languages in the world to-day. Compared to it golf, horse racing, circus and railroad are expressionless, and the only one of the undictionaried languages that approaches it in richness of expression, in terseness, and point, is scat, which, however, is more limited.

The men who write and talk base ball stop at nothing. They follow Prof. Brander Matthews’ theory that the best language is that which conveys the meaning most clearly, and they adapt from English, French, German, Chinese, and other languages, and when these fail to fit the occasion they invent a word. Every one who knows base ball knows exactly what they mean—no matter what they say or write, and regardless of the fact that N. Webster might scratch his head a week trying to think what they meant.

The foundations of base ball language were laid by Charles Seymour, of Chicago, and since then such well known persons as Tacky Tom Parrott, Pietro Gladiator Browning, Chicken Wolf, Dad Clarke among the ball players, and O. P. Caylor, Ren Mulford, Len Washburn, and the lamented Joe Campbell have added richness to the vocabulary. Even the “Jones flew, Smith biffed, Brown skied” school of afternoon literateurs occasionally have added something to the language of the game by coining an apt word.

Once upon a time there was one of those gems of purest ray serene, hidden down in the deep, dark caves of ocean—or to be less poetic, at Quincy, Ill., who made language while you waited. I remember an extract from his classic report of a base ball game between Quincy and Omaha, which read something like this, writes Hugh S. Fullerton.

“The glass armed toy soldiers who represent the Gem City in the reckless rush for the base ball pennant were fed to the pigs yesterday by the cadaverous  Indian grave robbers from Omaha. They stood around with gaping eyes like a hen on a hot nail, while the basilisk eyed cattle drivers from the west ran bases till their tongues were long with thirst. Hickey had more errors than  ‘Coin’s Financial School.’ The Omahogs were bad enough—but the home team couldn’t have fallen out of a boat and hit the water.”

Joe Campbell, of Washington, really was the Shakespeare of base ball. He wrote classic, and probably was the best story writer of the “Jem Mace told the writer” school that ever happened. He would have said “Rameses II told the writer” if old Ram had been in the sporting game.

Campbell really was a wonder. He was one of the cleverest dramatic critics in the country, a Shakespearean scholar, and perhaps the most intimate friend Sir Henry Irving had in America, a  deep student of stage history, a Hebrew and Sanskrit scholar, besides writing the base ball of the century.

One evening Campbell and I were sitting in his office in Washington, and he was bemoaning because (so he said) the editors of his paper would not permit him to write slang.

“They hold me down to straight away English,” he lamented. “If I try to be a bit picturesque, there is a kick.”

Without speaking I reached over and pulled the paper out of his typewriter. The last sentence he had written read this way:

“And Amie Rusie made a Svengali pass in front of Charley Reilly’s lamps, and he carved three nicks in the weather.”

Among the players who have helped make the language of the game Tacks Parrott stands in the front. Tacks got so that he couldn’t talk anything but base ball, and, if he strayed away from a crowd of fans and wandered into districts where base ball was merely incidental, he was lost until he could find an interpreter.

Homer Davenport, the cartoonist, who used to umpire up in the old Northwest League, hails from Portland and Tacky Tom came from the same town. When In Chicago Davenport lived with his uncle, Judge Smith, and one day while St. Louis was playing in Chicago, Davenport met Parrott and invited him down to the house to dine. On the way Davenport remarked:

“Tom, don’t talk base ball to the judge. He is a great lover of amateur sports, but he hates the professional, and besides, he don t understand base ball talk.” Parrott promised. Shortly after Parrott had been introduced to Judge Smith Davenport stepped out of the room for a moment and while he was returning he heard the following conversation:

“Ah, Mr. Parrott you are from Portland? What brings you east?

“I’m lobbing ‘em across for the Browns.”

“Ahh, yes. I see. Are you successful?”

“Successful. Well, you ought to see the old whip unlimbered. It’s zip, zip, zip across their old cazoozaahms, and to the bench.”

Then Davenport rescued the judge.

* * *

Lennie Washburn, who met death in a railway accident in Chicago, was past master of the art of comparison in base ball. One day Williamson slashed a hot one past third. The grass was a bit high and the ball instead of bounding, buzzed the ground and skimmed along through the grass, and the next morning Washburn wrote:

“It sounded like the hired man eating celery.”

But the funniest base ball writer that ever wrote didn’t intend to be. He was one of the editorial writers, or something that way, of the New York Herald, whose health failed so they gave him the job of reporting base ball. He came to the Polo Grounds in a frock coat and silk hat, and sat upstairs, in lonely grandeur, while an assistant kept the score. He wrote base ball just as an editorial writer thinks a base ball writer writes. And the rest of us, remembering poor old O. P. Caylor’s wonderful descriptions, read and hugged ourselves with glee. Here is a sample extracted from one of his reports:

“Bang, a single to right. Biff! A double to left. Wow, a triple, bz-z-z-z-z—a grounder past third: bang, another single. And then the banging ceased. New York had made three runs.”

* * *

The most expressive word in base ball is “bazzazzaz,” which was invented by Matty Kilroy. Sometimes Matty was at a loss for a word to express something, so he invented “bazzazzaz” and applied it universally. It means a good drive, a fast curve, a batsman’s leg, a base runner’s foot—or anything else. It is to base ball what “zug” and “schlag” are to German. [“Bazzazzaz Balk” was also the name Kilroy gave to his deadly pickoff move to first. H.L. Mencken’s father, a cigar manufacturer, was such a baseball fan that he produced a popular cigar named the Kilroy during the pitcher’s top years in Baltimore, including 1886 when he fanned 513 batters (not a typo!).  The senior Mencken hired Oriole catcher Sam Trott to sell it. But I do run on.]

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