- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2011

By Paul Dickson
Norton, $24.95
974 pages

Edited by Paul Dickson
Dover Publications, $9.95
256 pages

As baseball has evolved — for the better and worse — its language has changed as well. The words and phrases of the national pastime provide an important prism through which to understand an important part of our social and cultural history. Unfortunately, many books about the language are dull and not particularly enjoyable to read. That is not the case with The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition).

Paul Dickson’s work is, to be sure, extraordinarily factual and detailed. It isn’t, however, bland. For example, if you want to know the meaning of an asterisk as it pertains to baseball (“a figurative symbol that indicates a special achievement”), you’ve hit the jackpot with this book. Mr. Dickson devotes two columns to defining it, including an extensive discussion over whether there should be an asterisk beside Roger Maris (because the season was shorter in 1961, when he had his record-setting 61-home-run season) when his achievement is mentioned.

Mr. Dickson doesn’t weigh in but presents all the evidence. Although the personalities who dominated the game make frequent appearances, this isn’t an encyclopedia. Therefore, if you want to look at the data to determine if Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter is underrated or overrated or compare this season’s Pittsburgh Pirates to the team’s record in its heyday, this isn’t the place to turn.

However, when it comes to word origins and the evolution of meanings, Mr. Dickson may be baseball’s answer to Noah Webster or, at the very least, William Safire. This writer, for one, never knew that the person who is scheduled to bat behind the person “on deck” is considered to be “in the hole.” The phrase was first used by Red Barber when broadcasting the 1937 World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. That, however, is a variation of the nautical phrase “in the hold,” which refers to the cargo space in the hull of a vessel.

Mr. Dickson also explains that the designated hitter, which the American League has used since 1973, originally was discussed (albeit not with that name) in the 1890s. He goes out on a limb and speculates that the phrase “may have been directly appropriated” for use in the term “designated driver,” someone who refrains from drinking at a social event so he or she can drive drinkers home.

We also learn that Pittsburgh’s baseball team had been called the Alleghenies and then the Innocents. In 1891, the team changed its nickname to Pirates after it signed a player from the Philadelphia Athletics and the Athletics’ management termed the signing as “piratical.”

Mr. Dickson notes that baseball is a complicated game, and that is reflected in its language. “If baseball is a game of slang, it is also a game of heaped-on modifiers. A word like single seldom stands naked,” he observes.

In an engaging introductory essay, Mr. Dickson discusses how the game has introduced many phrases into the American language. To back up his theory about the game’s significance, he cites Reggie Jackson’s comment that the “country is as American as baseball.”

If you want more wisdom about the importance of baseball, a book Mr. Dickson edited, “Baseball Is …: Defining the National Pastime,” deserves a place on your bookshelf. Yogi Berra, A. Bartlett Giamatti and Walt Whitman are among the wise men whose words are quoted by Mr. Dickson. Although many of the phrases attributed to Mr. Berra aren’t necessarily his, he has owned up to having said: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner and president of Yale University, said baseball “is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Whitman wrote that “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game - the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us.” The combination of insightful word origins and wisdom about America’s national pastime make both of these books well worth your time.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, has written book reviews for the Boston Globe, the Wilson Quarterly and the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times.

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