With the current glut of sports reference works threatening to collapse our bookshelves, another "comprehensive" guide hardly seems necessary. But make room for The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Facts on File, $35). This 438-page volume is that rarest of sports books, a valuable reference work that provides absorbing and enlightening reading. Drawing on history, legend and impressive original research, the DBD identifies and analyzes more than 5,000 words, phrases and expressions that make up the rich lexicon of the national pastime and have added verbal texture to the entire fabric of American culture.
The dictionary begins, logically enough, with A (the third level of minor league baseball) and ends with Zurdo (the Spanish nickname for a lefty). Paul Dickson, author of 20 books and a historian, linguist and avowed lifelong baseball fan, spent approximately two years sifting through sports dictionaries, linguistic texts, doctoral theses and, of course, baseball books in tracking down the etymologies and first usages of most of the terms in his book (the annotated bibliography runs seven pages). The fruits of his labors are evident. There are almost two full pages devoted to the term fungo, including five distinctly different theories as to its origin. The most bizarre of them comes under what Dickson calls the Fungus Theory: "[Fungo] was first heard 50 years ago as a synonym for nongenuine or not bona fide, such as a fungo that is not a real fly ball. [This is related] to fungus in the sense that rural people regard a fungus as lacking the character of a real plant, which puts its roots in the ground." Hmmm....
While he defines and traces the development of the familiar (e.g., hit-and-run, infield fly rule, Texas League single), Dickson also occasionally drifts far afield. Phrases like get naked ("to bear down...a coach might yell to a pitcher who seems to be losing his concentration: 'Hey, get naked out there' ") or bases drunk ("n./adj. bases loaded") may be new even to inveterate fans.
Dickson doesn't take himself too seriously and recognizes the whimsical nature of some of baseball's argot. There's an entry for Linda Ronstadt, meaning a sizzling fastball, because the singer's rendition of the sultry song Blue Bayou was interpreted by baseball linguists as "blew by you." Conversely, a slow fastball is a Peggy Lee, because the "batters who see the pitch are reminded of Ms. Lee's sad song. Is That All There Is?"
August 20, 1989
But the DBD is at its best when it stretches out to analyze how much of the language of baseball has been incorporated into common parlance. Terms such as rookie, ground rules, bleacher, moxie and jinx have become so ingrained in American English that their baseball roots have been forgotten. And other, more recognizable baseball phrases such as the inside game, bench-warmer, play the field and ballpark figure have all entered general American usage. Dickson takes particular care in analyzing the etymologies of these terms and in tracing their leap to common speech. Under the entry for charley horse, he notes that the term was first used in an article in the New York World in 1887, and that among the explanations for its origin is one that says "one day at a local race track, several [Baltimore Oriole] players put money on a horse called Charlie who, winning throughout the race, pulled up lame in the final stretch. The following day a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was likened by one of the coaches to 'our old Charlie horse.' " He goes on to note that by 1946, the term had come into such wide usage that the Journal of the Medical Association "printed an article entitled 'Treatment of the Charley Horse' rather than Treatment of Injury to Quadriceps Famoris.' Such a usage indicates the phrase to have been a part of even the most formal American English for a quarter of a century."
Sometimes Dickson is a little out in leftfield ("adj. odd; out of it; [possibly] a specific reference to the fact that there was a mental hospital... in back of left field in the old, 19th century West Side Park in Chicago"), in particular when he includes a term such as authority ("A hitter who swings the bat with power and purpose is said to have this") as if it were specific to the language of baseball. But that is one of the few quibbles one might have with this valuable compilation of baseball history and anecdotes.