Zimmer: ‘Southpaw’ film heats up debate about boxing or baseball origins

From Ben Zimmer at the Wall Street Journal on July 22, 2015, with mention of SABR members John Thorn and Tom Shieber:

In the movie “Southpaw,” which is opening Friday, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a tough-as-nails former boxing champ who uses the unorthodox “southpaw” stance favored by left-handed boxers. Conventional wisdom has it that boxing borrowed “southpaw” from baseball, but where does the word really come from?

The team behind the film, which also starts Rachel McAdams and 50 Cent, had been developing the “southpaw” theme for years. “It’s a much harder road for a southpaw than a right-handed boxer,” screenwriter Kurt Sutter told Deadline in 2010. At that time, Mr. Sutter was writing the script as a possible vehicle for the rapper Eminem, himself a lefty.

In baseball, “southpaw” has referred to left-handed pitchers since the 19th century. One origins tale notes that old ballparks were oriented with home plate to the west, so that a lefty facing west would be throwing with his “south” paw.

Paul Dickson, in the 2009 third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, dismantles this explanation, but as early as 1908 a player-turned-writer named Tim Murnane threw cold water on that etymology. In an article for the Boston Globe, Murnane remembered being called a “southpaw” back in 1876. He picked up the term for left-handed pitchers in his own writing “simply because they were left-handed, and not because they pitched the ball towards the sunny south on certain grounds.”

But the word goes back further than that in baseball. Tom Shieber, senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, found it in an 1858 article in the New York Atlas, referring to a left-handed first baseman, not a pitcher.

Read the full article here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/southpaw-first-a-boxer-or-ballplayer-1437586600

Originally published: July 22, 2015. Last Updated: July 22, 2015.