Can of Corn? A Short Lesson on Baseball’s Lexicon
Suddenly, even before March Madness ends in eight days, the Major League Baseball season is upon us.
There are six MLB games scheduled for opening day, Thursday.
Well before the college basketball season ends, sports fans might hear something like this from their TV sets: “With two out, the southpaw gave up a Texas Leaguer but got out of trouble by getting the next batter to hit a can of corn to right.”
In plain English it would go something like this: “With two out, the left-handed pitcher gave up a hit just over the infielder’s head but got the final out on a lazy, high fly ball to right that was an easy catch.”
Every sport has its unique idiom. Baseball, in particular, has developed over its century-and-a- half of existence a terminology that is part of the beauty of this wonderful game. It is a jargon I thought all true baseball fans knew and understood. But I was wrong.
During recent conversations, I found out that some baseball fans don’t know what “a can of corn” means and, of course, they have no idea where the expression originated. How could they? They are too young to remember any food stores other than huge supermarkets.
Also, the younger fans haven’t heard the terms because some radio and TV sportscasters may feel the expressions were overused for so many years that they have become worn-out clichés.
To prepare fans for the coming MLB season, we will now have a short lesson on a few bits of baseball lexicon that one might expect to hear during the months ahead. This is particularly aimed at many baby boomers and their children who are among the ones who never went food shopping in a grand old country store or sat on a wooden board seat under the hot sun way out in center field.
Why is a left-handed pitcher called a “southpaw?”
This comes from the fact that most baseball fields and stadiums are designed so that the setting sun is behind the batter and shines in the face of the eight defensive players other than the catcher. This means that center field is to the East and home plate is to the West. Thus a pitcher’s left arm is on the south side of his body as he faces the batter and goes through the pitching motion. Ergo, a lefty is a “southpaw.”
In all my years in sports, I never heard anyone call a right handed pitcher a “northpaw.”
A “Texas Leaguer” is a bloop single that goes just over the infielders’ heads and is too short for the outfielders to catch.
Supposedly, but not proven to be absolutely true, this expression originated with Ollie Pickering, a professional baseball player of the late 19th century and early 20th century. He broke in with the Fort Worth Panthers and then the Houston Mudcats of the Texas League before being called up to the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1896.
In his first 30 times at bat in the majors, Pickering got 10 singles. Each one of these hits just made it over the infield and landed in front of the outfielders. After so many hits landing between infielders and outfielders, one Louisville writer said Pickering’s singles must be what “Texas Leaguers” hit.
A high, easy-to-catch fly ball to the outfield became known as “a can of corn” because of the way local grocery stores were designed and operated for decades prior to the post-World War II era when the cold and impersonal supermarkets of today took over.
Going back eons to the dark ages before television, before cell phones, before PCs and the Internet, before jet planes and ugly shopping malls, there was your friendly neighborhood grocer who called his customers by name and served their every need.
I remember well tagging along with Mom when she went grocery shopping to our local store in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Like all such food stores around the country, this one had 15-foot- high ceilings with floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with canned goods, bottled drinks, cereals, breads, flour, sugar, salt, condiments and just about anything else my mother had on her weekly shopping list.
If it was a can of vegetables that Mom wanted, the grocer might have to pick it off a shelf that was almost 10 feet over his head. He did this by taking a 10-foot pole that had metal claws at the top end attached by a long wire to a grip at the bottom end. He would squeeze the grip as the claws grabbed around the can of beans, beets, corn, etc. Then he would lift the can off the shelf and release the grip. This let the can drop easily and softly into his hands. That is how he and every local grocer of that era caught the “can of corn.”
And that is how an easy fly ball to an outfielder became known as “a can of corn.”
When managers change pitchers, they call upon a relief pitcher to come into the game from the bullpen.
There are numerous explanations for how the term “bullpen” got into baseball’s lexicon. The one that makes most sense is that the term comes from rodeos where the bulls are kept in a pen to await their turn to be called into the ring.
When a batter swings at a pitch and the ball bounces right in front of home plate and bounds high in the air off hard ground, it is called a “Baltimore chop.” Such high bounding balls are often beaten out for singles by fast runners since the infielders have to wait for the ball to come down as the batter runs at top speed for first base.
This term originated with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, a team that included such future Hall of Fame players as John McGraw, Joe Kelley and Wee Willie Keeler. Each of them was a good hitter and quite fast.
Tom Murphy, the Orioles’ grounds keeper, packed down and dried out the dirt immediately in front of home. Those good hitters learned to slap pitches down onto that turf and beat out the “Baltimore chop” before the infielder could catch the high bouncer and throw out the runner.
A “rhubarb” is any non-physical baseball argument or altercation. The term was first used in the early 1940s by Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ radio sportscaster, to describe a shouting match between teams.
There are many other expressions that give understandable descriptions of baseball plays and actions, such as “room service,” which is a ground ball to an infielder who does not have to move to make the play.
Years ago, many baseball fans sat on wooden plank seats behind the outfielders. These boards were subject to the sun’s blazing rays all year around, thus bleaching the seats to a very light color. That is how those cheap seats became known as the “bleachers.”
Nowadays many fans are couch potatoes instead of being bleacher creatures. However they watch the game, here’s hoping all baseball fans enjoy the 2011 MLB season and that your team wins the World Series.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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