20 Questions

All you've wanted to know about baseball but were afraid to ask
April 03, 1988

This spring a woman approached Pete Rose, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, and asked him to explain why it is that baseball managers dress up in full uniform every day whereas coaches in most other team sports wear dignified street clothes.

"Ma'am," said Rose, "you've finally asked me a baseball question I can't answer."

With that in mind, we will try to answer the lady's question and unlock some of the other great mysteries of the game.

1 Why do baseball managers wear uniforms when coaches in most other sports wear street clothes?

Harry Wright, manager of the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was also an outfielder and pitcher. So the custom probably started because most managers in the early days were players as well.

Nobody knows the identity of the first nonplaying manager to wear a uniform. Two managers did wear civilian garb as late as 1950: Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A's and Burt Shotton of the Brooklyn Dodgers, although they usually sent a uniformed coach out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. Suits and ties didn't prevent Shotton from winning pennants in 1947 and 1949 or Mack from managing in eight World Series.

2 Fungo bats are used to hit fungoes—practice fly balls—to players, but what exactly does "fungo" mean?

The debate over the derivation of the word fungo is the etymological equivalent of the argument over who was best, Willie, Mickey or the Duke. Paul Dickson, author of the soon-to-be-published Dickson's Dictionary of Baseball, traces the word back to 1867. It came from either: 1) the compounding of the words "fun" and "go," as in a game in which the hitter might yell, "One go, two goes, fun goes," 2) the word "fungible," a legal term describing a replacement for something, as in fungible assets, 3) a light, soft wood known as fungus wood, 4) the Latin word fungo, meaning I do, 5) the German word fangen, meaning to catch, 6) the old Scottish word fung, meaning to toss. 7) none of the above.

3 Why doesn't a team get more points when a player goes around all four bases at once than when he goes around one base at a time?

This question, often asked by grandmothers from the Old Country, is a good one. The home run is, after all, the very best that a hitter can do, and he and his team should be rewarded.

The best answer we can give is, if teams were given more points (runs) for homers, then Dave Kingman would still be in baseball.

4 Why do first base and third base coaches rarely stand inside the coach's boxes?

Bill Robinson, first base coach for the Mets, says, "The truth is, I don't want to get hit by a Darryl Strawberry line drive, or anybody else's, for that matter. The boxes are too close to the batter, so we have to protect ourselves." Third base coaches sometimes move below the box so they can better advise base runners coming around the bag. A few clubs use the third base box in their sign codes. If the coach flashes signs from outside the box, he may be decoying; if he puts a foot inside, the next sign may be the one that's on. Some coaches wander around the box to get a better view of the opposing catcher's signs. Umpires are supposed to warn a coach who strays, but they seldom do.

5 Many players have been nicknamed Lefty. Has one ever gone by Righty?

No, but righty reliever Donnie Moore was called Lefty by his California Angels teammates because of his flaky nature. The first player called Lefty was a pitcher/outfielder in the 1870s, John McMullen. As befitting his sobriquet, McMullen gave up baseball to become an opera singer.

6 Will Billy Martin last the season in his fifth stint as Yankee manager?

No. He will be fired on June 9 and replaced by general manager Lou Piniella. George Steinbrenner has become that predictable.

7 Why is the pitcher's mound 60'6" from home plate instead of just 60 feet?

In 1893 the pitching distance was increased from 50 feet to 60'6" partly because of the Hoosier Thunderbolt, Amos Rusie of the New York Giants, who had thoroughly dominated hitters in 1892. Legend has it that a surveyor mistook the notation of 60'0" as 60'6", but that is not the case. Before 1893 a pitcher threw from a box (hence to be "knocked out of the box"), and he had to keep one foot on the back line of the box, which was 5½ feet long. So, the pitching distance before 1893 was actually 55'6", not 50 feet. The rulesmakers only added five feet to the distance. At the same time, they changed the box to a pitcher's plate, which was the forerunner of the pitching rubber. Some modern-day pitchers shorten the distance by cheating forward of the rubber, but we wouldn't want to point any fingers at, say, Tommy John.

8 Was it really that loud in the Metrodome during the World Series?

Yes, according to a paper by W.W. Clark of the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis titled Noise Exposure During the 1987 World Series: Cards Soundly Beaten by Twins. Clark measured the decibel levels during Game 4 in St. Louis and Game 6 in Minneapolis and found an average noise level of 90.6 dBA in Busch Stadium and 94.4 dBA in the Metrodome. He concluded that the noise adversely affected the Cardinals, and he recommended that players and spectators alike wear ear protection in such noisy environments.

This brings up another question. If Willie McGee is expected to hit a Jeff Reardon fastball with 60,000 people screaming in his ears, why do spectators have to keep silent when Mac O'Grady is stooped over a three-foot putt?

9 Where did the expression "can of corn" come from?

"Can of corn" was used as far back as the 1920s to describe an easily caught fly ball. In old-time grocery stores, a grocer would fetch an item, such as a can of corn, from the top shelf by tipping it with a pole and letting it tumble into his hands or apron. There are several other theories on the derivation of the expression, but the grocer's catch seems the most logical inspiration.

10 Why was Danny Ainge considered slow as a Toronto Blue Jays third baseman, but as a Boston Celtic he is fast enough to be one of the best guards in the NBA?

Pat Gillick, Toronto's general manager, says, "While we felt Danny had only average speed, we also felt he had exceptional quickness. It seems that basketball is more a game of quickness than of speed, and besides, those big guys aren't all that quick. I remember talking to Marty Blake, the NBA scouting director. Blake assured me that he considered Ainge only a marginal player. He thought he was too slow, too."

11 Why do players wear stirrup socks?

In the early days, teams distinguished themselves from one another not so much by their caps or shirts but by their socks. Hence, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Chicago White Stockings and Boston Red Sox. But dyed socks were unhealthy for the feet, so somebody came up with a compromise: colored stirrups worn over sanitary white hose.

12 Why are some hitters allowed to wipe out the back line of the batter's box?

Usually one of the first three batters in a game erases the back line with his foot to gain a little edge on the pitcher. According to former major league outfielder Ken Singleton, who's now an Expos broadcaster, a player should be in the majors at least three years before expecting the umpires to look the other way. "I think there's an unwritten rule that you can't wipe out the back line until you're eligible for arbitration," says Singleton.

13 Why is The Star-Spangled Banner played before every game?

Harry Frazee, the Broadway producer and baseball owner forever vilified in Boston for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, is partly responsible. In the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox at Comiskey Park, a band started playing the national anthem in the middle of the seventh inning. World War I was in progress, so patriotic fervor was high and the players removed their caps and stood at attention. The impromptu ceremony so moved Frazee that when the Series moved to Boston, he had his band play the song before every game.

14 Baseball players often say, "I just try to stay within myself." What do they mean?

It's a sort of rationalization for mediocrity, a way of saying "I'm not that good, but if I tried to be better, I would end up being worse." Incidentally, anyone who's seen Braves coach Willie Stargell lately could swear that not only is Stargell staying within himself, but that he also has a couple of small infielders within him as well.

15 Latin-American players often report late to spring training because of visa problems. What, exactly, is a visa problem?

It is not, as commonly believed, an alibi for sloth. There is often a delay in the processing of the paperwork needed for a Latin player to leave his country. The player first needs visa approval from his national consul in Washington, D.C., and then approval from the U.S. Consulate in his own country. A visa problem in the Dominican Republic caused Expos pitcher Pascual Perez to report two weeks late this spring.

In 1984, Rafael Ramirez reported late to the Braves not because of a visa problem but because of an American Express problem. Dominican authorities would not let him leave home without paying the bill run up by a former girlfriend.

16 If a ball hits the foul pole or foul line, it's a fair ball. So why aren't they called the fair pole and fair line?

This is a pet peeve of New York sports-caster Warner Wolf, who seems to ask the question once a week. In a book entitled Pine Tar, Midgets and Spitballs, authors Glen Waggoner, Kathleen Moloney and Hugh Howard characterize crusaders for the fair pole as "folks with not quite enough to occupy their time."

17 How did the custom of infielders throwing the ball "around the horn "originate?

In a 1970 interview Casey Stengel told Lenny Anderson of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "They were doing it in the fall of 1912 when I went to the big leagues. They did it in '13 and '14. Then later on they started to say it took too long. I'll tell you why they changed. One reason was they doctored the ball. The second reason though was the games were too long when they started at 3:30 and when they went too long it got very dark."

The phrase derives from the voyage around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. It's interesting to note that while American catchers throw to third after a strikeout and fielders go around the horn in a clockwise direction, in Australia, where water goes down a drain the other way, so too does the catcher, throwing to first after a K.

18 Why is a strikeout indicated on a scorecard by the letter K?

A sportswriter for the New York Herald named M.J. Kelly introduced the notation in 1868 to avoid using an S, which he thought might be interpreted as meaning shortstop. Kelly simply chose the last letter of the word "struck." Pretty dumb, huh? Dwight Gooden, Dr. K, is forever grateful, however.

19 Isn't it odd that Hank Aaron, perhaps the greatest player of all time, is first alphabetically among every man who has played in the majors?

Although Aaron refuses to attach any significance to the fact, this is one of the game's great mysteries. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the first player alphabetically in the NBA's history. But then, he was born Lew Alcindor, which would have placed him eighth.

20 How is it that at 41, Nolan Ryan of the Astros still throws harder than anybody else in baseball?

Pay attention, kids. According to Doc Ewell, the Astros' trainer emeritus, Ryan gets his heat from vegetables. Ewell, who, as a Yankees bat-boy once handed Babe Ruth his lumber, says. "Of all the athletes I worked with, Nolan is right up there with Joe DiMaggio and Gordie Howe. He's a perfect physical specimen because he takes such good care of himself. I've often eaten with him, and you can tell by what he orders—so many yellow, so many green vegetables—that he knows himself so well. People talk about his arm. but I think the real key is the way he lives."


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