Baseball Tops All Sports as National Phrasemaker

This article was written by Matthew E. Lieff

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

That Americans are a highly competitive and sports-minded people is clearly evident in our speech. Images borrowed from sports and games pervade our language, adding color and interest to everyday expression.

“Monday morning quarterbacks” may criticize the president’s “game plan” if administration officials “fumble the ball.” Career changers who make a “false start” in an uninvolving job might yet “have a field day” in a new profession if they “overcome all the hurdles” on their way back to the “fast track.” But business leaders whose performance is not “up to par” may lose their job in a corporate “power play” if they get too far “behind the eight ball.”

While these expressions come from football, track and field, golf, hockey and pool, the champion phrasemaker from the world of sports is unquestionably baseball. Images and ideas from the national pastime are so widely used in the American language that we hardly notice how indelibly the game has marked our vernacular. Indeed, even non-sports fans who cannot tell a passed ball from a forward pass understand and use many baseball phrases. The following brief essay on consumer awareness was written especially to illustrate baseball’s linguistic influence.

“Guarding against consumer fraud is necessary when dealing with door-to-door salesmen. A salesman who strikes you right off the bat as a screwball, someone way out in left field, will obviously not get to first base with you. But some smoother talkers can make a hit by using a pitch that is way off base without ever seeming to throw you a curve. The key to protecting yourself from these con artists is to stay on the ball and observe some simple ground rules. First, stay away from bush league sales outfits that do not also switch hit as service or maintenance providers. Do not deal with tiny, one-product companies either; firms need not feature an all-star lineup of well-known products, but should at least be fairly well established. To check if a particular organization is in the right ballpark or not, touch base with your local consumer protection agency, which should be willing to field your questions.

“If you are victimized by fraud, contact your local district attorney or state attorney general’s office, who should go to bat for you and play hardball with the crooks. But be aware that you may be asked to testify in court; the authorities cannot pinch hit for you on the witness stand, and without credible witnesses, they might strike out with the jury.

“Many of these hit-and-run sales fraud artists are picked off every year by alert law enforcement officers, but so many con men are after your money that the police cannot possibly cover all the bases alone. So be on your guard against sucker pitches from fly-by-night salesmen. If you have the feeling that a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

This little essay used 24 baseball expressions in just 12 sentences. All are well known phrases in general use; no special knowledge of baseball is needed to understand them. All apply specifically to baseball, not to other sports. More general sports expressions not used here include “even the score,” “making a play” and “there goes the ball game.”

Doubtless many other commonly used phrases originated in baseball and other sports. A sociolinguist who was moved to compile a comprehensive list of such phrases might be able to determine with some precision which sport has made the greatest impact on the American language and, by extension, our national psyche. Some formula could be devised to rate each sport in terms of the number of phrases it has contributed to the language and the popularity of each phrase. But pending such a conclusive study, this writer is willing to bet, on the basis of personal experience, that baseball has had the greatest impact on our language.