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The Etymology of Baseball

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A reference

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

A while back, my wife and I visited her parents in Akron, Ohio. It was a special occasion, as my brother-in-law (her brother) and his wife were in town for a long weekend. They live in New York City, so it isn't too often that we get to see them. They are Young Attractive Urban Professionals making their dynamic lives in the big city, so when they make their periodic pilgrimages to Freshwater America, we are called to listen marvelously to tales of their CW television show lifestyle. So we trekked up to the family homestead, a handsome two-story in the fairly well-to-do suburb of Fairlawn.

Weekends with my in-laws are like a master class in Théâtre de l'Absurde. The levels of destructive neurosis aren't quite as dramatic, but the bizarre conversations are just as entertaining. The most common theme is What are We Doing for Dinner? The characters (my wife, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law) take turns playing different roles: the "Let's Do What I Want to Do for a Change," the "I'm Just Trying to Please Everyone," the "I'm Tired of this Conversation," and the "Let's Just Get Chinese" characters are inhabited in turn by each of the actors. It is a nauseating carousel befitting the likes of Beckett, Stoppard, or Albee. The show is so intensely personal and compelling, the three or so hours seem to take an eternity to pass.

The audience usually consists of myself and my sister-in-law, a quiet, artistic, and comely Russian immigré. We normally sit uneasily, reacting to the tense fevers of the show with bitten lips, fidgeting fingers, and uncomfortable, knowing glances. At the beginning of this latest performance, the one from our recent trip to Akron, I noticed an Indians game was just starting while I was flipping nervously through the channel guide on the television. Knowing full well the length of the performance would cleanly outpace that of the ball game, I was happy for the opportunity to pass the time with a worthwhile distraction.

My sister-in-law, the immigré, saw an opportunity as well. Growing up in Russia, she knew next to nothing about the game of baseball. She has lived in the US for more than half of her life, but she has never had the desire or the opportunity to acquaint herself with it's past time. Perhaps it was a moment of genuine interest in the game, or more likely an interest in self-preservation in the face of the oncoming dramedic deluge, that led her to begin asking questions.

What follows is not a word-for-word transcription of our conversation, but rather a reflection after the fact. I realized in retrospect that this might serve as a useful primer for those with no understanding of baseball at all and a curiosity of it, so I figured it could be fun to write it up here.

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"Bunt" is actually onomatopoeic. This might be mildly surprising to some, but what is probably more surprising is that not only does it describe the muted sound made when the bat deadens the ball, but it also describes the sound made when one knocks together the heads of its advocates.

America is one of the few places where runners advance around the bases in a counter-clockwise fashion. Just like driving on the other side of the road, baseball players in many other countries (like France) run the bases clockwise.

The score in baseball is kept in runs, rather than points or goals as in most other sports. The reason for this is still somewhat disputed by baseball scholars. The prevailing theory is that "runners" must "run" the bases in order to earn a "run," so the term for the score was directly derived from the action on the field. However, others argue that this mistakes cause for effect. The term "run" can actually be traced back to ancient Norse, when Viking warriors would tally their victories in battle by scoring "rounks." This roughly translates to "grizzly dismemberments." It is just a short etymological leap from rounk to run, though clearly baseball is not nearly as violent as this history suggests.

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The segments of the game are called "innings," but were not always. Initially, they were called "outings," which obviously makes much more sense. The game is played outside, the team is out in the field, and the word is synonymous with "endeavor" and "undertaking" and, you know, like something happening. The word "inning" is more or less nonsensical.

The switch was made during the Red Scare of the 1950s. More famously, the Cincinnati Reds, fearing the wrath of the sanguine anti-Communist McCarthyites, changed their name to the "Redlegs." This was a dark time in American history, surely. The McCarthyites weren't the only folks organizing themselves into persecution squads in those days, though. Persecution was all the rage in those times, much like Rock and Roll in the subsequent decade, key parties in the '70s, and line dancing in the '90s. Persecution groups sprung up across the country, yelling at and denouncing any number of things. There were groups against sales tax, groups against hunting, groups against bowling, groups against collared shirts, groups against sugar, groups against people who kept their dogs outside, and groups against barbers, just to name a few.

Seeing the Cincinnati ball club effectively parry the anti-Communists with their slight name change, Major League Baseball was inspired to act preemptively in attempt to sidestep the fast-rising "Organization Against Perversion." The "Pervies" were against a lot of things that they thought were perverted or estranged from the normal. They aimed their collective vitriol at many things like women with short haircuts, advertisements for bathroom products, and, most concerning to MLB, people with outie belly buttons.

Not knowing if the fast-forming Pervies would be able to control the public discourse the way the McCarthyites had, and not knowing if their hatred of outie belly buttons could lead to a denouncement of baseball "outings" (these were truly paranoid times, in case you had not understood that already), baseball decided to quietly change the term "outing" to "inning." Fortunately for baseball and America, the Persecution Craze of the 1950s faded quickly. But the name change stuck, presumably due to a clerical oversight.

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The positions on the field are named much more intuitively, save for the shortstop. The first baseman plays at first base, the right fielder plays on the right side of the outfield, and the catcher catches the pitch. But the shortstop is so named in honor of "Twee" Peter Dallithwick.

In the game's infancy, the position was called "midfield," as the player patrols the middle portion of the infield. Dallithwick played baseball as a professional for only a short time, serving as midfielder for the Chicago Sugar Lumps of the Organized Base Ball Association of North American Whites (OBBANAW) for portions of the 1872 and '73 seasons and then with the Indianapolis Cornstackers from '75 to '77. The French-Canadian-born Dallithwick was derisively given the nickname "Twee Petit" due to his small stature and thick accent. Standing only 5'3", Twee was nimble and athletic enough to more than meet the demands of the most challenging defensive position, but he was also an easy target of fun for his more robust teammates.

One running gag was that he was difficult to see from the dugout when he was at the midfield position because of the height of the pitcher's mound. The manager of the Cornstackers, Gus "Smack" Blerntz, would often shout to the pitcher, but quite loud enough for all in attendance to hear, to "tell Shorty to stop when he reaches the point where the bare field meets the grassed field, as I cannot do it myself. You see, the mound obscures his countenance!" The entire crowd would then get in on the joke, shouting "SHORTY, STOP!" in unison when he reached his familiar position. Dallithwick was later recorded as saying he didn't so much mind the joke made at the expense of his size, but rather that the joke was poorly constructed, as it implied he was too stupid to know how to get into position without the aid of his manager and the crowd, and so hard of hearing that he didn't hear Blerntz's original directive to the pitcher. "It just didn't make sense to me, logically," Dallithwick said.

Very soon, the nickname "Short Stop" came to be used for most all midfielders, much the way name-brands like Band-Aids, Velcro, and Smuckers are used for all similar products. This turned out to be something of a happy accident, as a common problem for early baseball scorekeepers was confusion of the terms "midfielder" and "center fielder." This is a commonly cited reason as to why early defensive metrics cannot be trusted.

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And so my sister-in-law (the immigré) and I had a nice time together watching baseball, with me instructing her on some of the finer points of strategy and history. Although I could tell she was slightly bemused, she was polite as ever and agreed that she had had a good time.

In the end, it was decided that we all go for Chinese.