May 15, 2006

Pulling (to) within: the paper trail

Last week I wrote about the peculiar sports expression "pull (to) within N" meaning 'narrow a differential of points, runs, etc. to exactly N' — and the even more peculiar construction "pull (to) within X-Y," where X-Y represents the score of two teams in a game. I traced the turn of phrase back to the language of boat-racing and horse-racing, which feature competitors shifting positions along a continuous course. When the spatial metaphor was borrowed into team sports like baseball and basketball, where scoring is discontinuous (expressed in whole numbers), the prepositional phrase "within N" came to be understood as 'previously more than N behind, now exactly N behind.' I sketched out a vague chronology for this shift, suggesting that by the mid-20th century it was common for sports commentators to talk about "pulling (to) within N points, runs, etc.," and that the newer version with a game score as the object of "within" was common by the 1970s. I based that chronology on a cursory glance through digitized newspaper databases, finding plenty of examples for the first sense c. 1950 and plenty for the second sense c. 1975.

My imprecision and lack of citational support did not impress Dr. Metablog, who had previously griped about the sportscaster usage of "within." Dr. M wrote:

I can't say that my memory supports his version of history.  I've been listening to basketball games on the radio since just after World War II, when the NBA came into existence, and I'm moderately sure that I didn't hear the idiom "within two points" until the 1980s at the earliest.  It was an unpleasant innovation in language that stuck painfully in my ear.  To the best of my recollection, "within" was an invention of Marv Albert -- one of his extremely limited repertoire of linguistic tics. Others: "from downtown," "served up a facial," " yesss," "a spec-tac-ular move."

Since I was remiss in providing actual citations the first time around, I'll do so below. As it happens, Dr. M has fallen prey to the dastardly Recency Illusion, as these semantic shifts emerged much earlier than I had initially estimated.

First, it's important to recognize that the sporting version of "within" has been percolating for quite a long time independent of its usage in the longer phrase "pull (to) within." For instance, during the 1880 baseball season (back when the National League was the only game in town), the Chicago White Stockings opened up a big lead over the other teams in the standings. At the time, the league championship was awarded to whichever team had won the most games at the end of the season. As the season wound down, the Chicago Tribune kept track of how close the White Stockings were to clinching the championship (a calculation that baseball buffs would later call the "magic number"). On Sep. 10, 1880, the Tribune reported that the White Stockings were "now within four games of the championship goal," meaning that they could lock up the championship with four more wins. Two days later, the Tribune continued the countdown with the headline, "The Chicago team now within two games of the championship." Clearly, "within two games" could not be construed as "less than two games away from," since the article explains that two was the exact number of wins that would guarantee Chicago the National League pennant.

Now what about the full expression with "pull"? By the early years of the 20th century, one variant form of the phrase had already become popular with sportswriters: "pull up to within N points, runs, etc." (This echoed less quantifiable expressions of the time like "pull up to within striking/hailing/speaking distance.") I found that "pull up to within N" was most common in baseball, with cites back to 1891 if not earlier. But by the turn of the century it could also be applied to a variety of other sports, such as bowling, tennis, and the burgeoning pastime of basketball:

Atlanta Constitution, Sep. 5, 1891, p. 6
For five innings the contest was interesting. Then the visitors pulled up to within one of tieing the score, and it became still more so.

Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 12, 1900, p. 4
In the seventh frame the visitors had pulled up to within 37 pins.

Washington Post, Aug. 24, 1900, p. 8 (headline)
Rally fell a run short. Phillies pulled up to within one run of Giants last time at bat.

New York Times, June 9, 1901, p. 20
Miss Jones made a splendid effort when the score stood at 5-3 against her, pulling up to within a single point of the set only to lose it finally after a long struggle by 10-8.

Trenton (N.J.) Times, Oct. 28, 1901, p. 7
During the last ten minutes Millville pulled up to within seven points of Trenton.

The version with "pull up to within" was eventually overtaken by the shorter variants "pull to within" or simply "pull within." Here's a selection of cites from 1924 and 1925 (as above, drawn from ProQuest and Newspaperarchive) showing that these variants were already becoming firmly entrenched by that time:

Danville (Va.) Bee, May 14, 1924, p. 11
McGraw's worried outfit lost their fourth consecutive game to St. Louis yesterday, 8 to 3 and the Cubs pulled to within half a game of second place by defeating Brooklyn, 3 to 1.

Washington Post, June 9, 1924, p. S2
The Cubs, by winning two games from New York, pulled to within one game of the Giants.

Olean (N.Y.) Evening Herald, July 11, 1924, p. 10
Cleveland pulled to within a game of St. Louis by squeezing a 4 to 3 win out of the stubborn Athletics.

Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent, Sep. 26, 1924, p. 17
The Pirates, however, went down with colors flying in the ninth inning when with two out they rallied and pulled to within a run of the champions on Carey's home run drive.

New York Times, Dec. 21, 1924, p. S2
At one time in the first half Franklin and Marshall had pulled to within one point of the Hoboken team, the score standing at 7 to 6.

Washington Post, Feb. 21, 1925, p. S1
With Ryan and McNaney playing in place of Farley and Gitlitz, Bucknell pulled to within 8 points of the Hilltoppers.

Decatur (Ill.) Daily Review, Jan. 18, 1925, p. 9
Taylorville led all the way until the last quarter when the Y staged a rally and pulled within one point of the visitors.

Washington Post, Mar. 23, 1925, p. S1
The bakery team seemed to find itself at the start of the second period and at one time pulled to within six points of its opponents.

Bridgeport (Conn.) Telegram, Aug. 7, 1925, p. 9 (headline)
Senators pull within game of Athletics by twin win over George Sisler's club.

As with the earlier cites, there is no mistaking that "pull (to) within N" meant 'narrow the gap to exactly N.' This is true even when the expression was used to refer to "games behind" in the standings, despite the fact that such calculations can involve half-games. To take the last citation as an example, on the morning of Aug. 7, 1925 the Washington Senators were exactly one game behind the Philadelphia Athletics in the American League standings, not a half a game. (The nifty website Retrosheet verifies this.)

What about the second sense of "pull (to) within," where a game's score is the object of the preposition? It turns out my previous estimate of the 1970s as the time of its emergence was significantly late. (The Recency Illusion spares no prisoners.) I've found attestations all the way back to 1930, with frequency increasing to a high level by about 1950. Here are some cites taken from Newspaperarchive's database of regional papers, providing a range of sports coverage from local beat reporters to nationally syndicated wire stories:

Decatur (Ill.) Herald, Nov. 26, 1930, p. 7
The Banner Blues were slow getting started, and found themselves trailing 6 to 0 when the first quarter ended, but they pulled to within 11-10 by halftime and took the lead in the third quarter.

Nebraska State Journal, Jan. 13, 1937, p. 11
Then Coach Pop Klein put in his reserves and Hebron pulled to within 19-15 at the half.

Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail, Aug. 24, 1937, p. 14
Carbide pulled within 3-4 in the sixth when Ware got on base as his third strike got away from the catcher.

Clearfield (Pa.) Progress, Feb. 19, 1941, p. 3
The Bisons made a fourth-quarter surge, pulling to within a count of 25-28, but couldn't quite make the grade.

Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman, Mar. 20, 1945, p. 11
St. John's pulled to within 14-13 at halftime and went ahead at 15 soon after second half started.

Joplin (Mo.) Globe, Feb. 28, 1946, p. 12
Greenfield pulled to within a 27-30 shade starting the last period and kept on the heels of the eventual winners all the way.

Post Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.), Feb. 10, 1947, p. 11
Kentucky had pulled to within 49 to 47.

Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle, Dec. 13, 1947, p. 6
The Vikings, paced by their big center Johns, found the range in the third period and pulled to within a 23-16 count.

The vast majority of the "pull (to) within a score" citations from the 1930s onwards come from coverage of basketball, which was gaining quickly in regional popularity. It's not too surprising that basketball reporters would be the ones to develop this new usage, since the sport involves a great deal more game-score fluidity than relatively low-scoring sports like baseball, hockey and even football.

Finally, I wondered about the application of the "pulling (to) within" idiom to the political calculus of voting. Though I still haven't found much of a parallel to the "pull within a score" expression in the world of politics, citations for "pull (to) within N votes" are easy to spot by the 1940s:

Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, May 10, 1944, p. 1
Edging steadily upward, Atty. Gen. Thomas J. Herbert pulled to within 8,225 votes of James Garfield Stewart today in a stretch finish for the Republican nomination for governor.

Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette, June 25, 1948, p. 1
On the second [ballot] he [sc. Thomas E. Dewey] raided opposition camps, lassoed stray votes from delegation after delegation and pulled to within 33 votes of the glittering goal of 548.

The precise nature of these vote tallies suggests once again that "within" is used to denote an exact differential, though perhaps the 1944 example rounds up to the nearest 25. But if we return to the older variant of "pull up (to) within N," we can find citations in electoral contexts going all the way back to the late 19th century:

Bucks County (Pa.) Gazette, Sep. 7, 1882, p. 2
The sixty-seventh ballot put Evans 3 1/2 ahead of Weand, and on the sixty-eighth Weand pulled up within 1/2, he having 35 1/2, Evans 36, Thropp 29 1/2, Godshalk 15, and Bean 2.

Fitsburgh (Mass.) Daily Sentinel, Oct. 27, 1883, p. 3
G. H. Kellogg said that Mr. Thayer was nominated a few years ago and pulled up within 300 of an election.

Frederick (Md.) News, Nov. 7,  1890, p. 3
The result of the canvas, however, so impressed itself upon the public mind that last year Mr. Russell again made the race and pulled up within 6,775 votes of Governor Brackett.

Again, it's possible that "within 300" rounds up the differential to the nearest 100 and "within 6,775" to the nearest 25. The citation from 1882, however, leaves no room for ambiguity: the difference between 36 and 35 1/2 is exactly one half. So it looks like this sense of "within" had already made the jump from sports to politics about 125 years ago. Marv Albert, you've been well and truly exonerated. ("Yesss!")

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 15, 2006 05:59 AM