June 18, 2006

Feeling hitterish with Diz and the Babe

During the broadcast of today's game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals on the YES network, announcer Michael Kay had this to say about Alfonso Soriano (once a Yankee, now a National):

"You know, one of the words we hear lately now is hitterish. And Soriano always looks hitterish. Always looks like something is about to happen."

Last year Dick Kaegel of MLB.com also noted the rise of hitterish in a column about Kansas City Royals right fielder Matt Stairs:

"I feel good. I know every time I step in the box I have a chance to get a hit," he said. "I feel hitterish."
"That's the word of the year," he declared. "I've never heard it before."
"I've heard it before," teammate Tony Graffanino interjected.
Stairs cast a doubtful look his way.
Anyway, "hitterish" was used by Mike Sweeney during Spring Training and, as they say, the word is spreading. Somebody call Mr. Webster.

Turns out the Recency Illusion is just as pervasive in baseball as it is in other fields of human endeavor. As the New Dickson Baseball Dictionary points out, hitterish was often used by Dizzy Dean (1910-1974), the pitcher-turned-broadcaster who was renowned for his eccentric use of  language. And it goes back even further than that, to the Babe Ruth era if not earlier.

Though I haven't found a directly attested use of hitterish by Babe Ruth, it has often been attributed to him, as in this reminscence by Ford Frick in Robert Creamer's 1974 book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life:

Sometimes before a game he'd say, "I feel hitterish today. I'm due to hit one."

The hitterish line has been repeated in various Ruthian representations, from the young adult novel Babe & Me to the 1992 biopic The Babe, starring John Goodman in the title role. But it wasn't just Ruth who was using the word. The earliest example I've found on the Proquest newspaper database is a 1927 quote from Washington Senators first baseman Joe Judge, commenting on his success against Ruth's Yankees (in the season of Murderers' Row, no less):

He always does damage with the willow in the Yankee stadium and, on the way back from the park after hostilities had been declared off, remarked that he was in "a particularly hitterish mood today."
Washington Post, Apr. 28, 1927, p. 15)

When Dizzy Dean became a broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns in the 1940s, hitterish joined his stable of much-derided "Dizzy-isms." Dean's linguistic stylings came to national attention on July 21, 1946, when the Associated Press reported that a group of Missouri schoolteachers had complained to the FCC about his "errors of grammar and syntax," claiming that his broadcasts were having "a bad influence on their pupils." The AP said that the teachers' complaint hadn't stopped "the former Arkansas cotton picker" from using "his graphic, if not grammatical expressions." Examples of Dizzy-speak given in the AP article include dialectal past-tense forms ("Slaughter slud safe into second," "Marion throwed Reiser out at first"), malapropisms ("The runners held their respectable bases," "Musial stands confidentially at the plate"), and good old-fashioned overnegation ("Don't fail to miss tomorrow's game").

A week after the AP article appeared in the nation's newspapers, the United Press gave Dean an opportunity to respond to the schoolteachers in his own words, and his piece was published in the New York Times and many other papers. He defended his use of non-standard dialectal forms, saying "I ain't dumb. I know most of the folks listening are from my part of the country — mostly from the Ozarks. They like it. A guy's got to do that sort of thing in this business." He stood by slud ("What do they want me to say — slidded?"), throwed, and also hitterish:

So I say Stan Musial or Chet Laabs is in a hitterish form down at the plate. What's the difference? Nine times out of ten they don't louse me up. They hit. Who cares what they call it?
(New York Times, July 26, 1946, p. 12)

Decades after the usage by Ruth and Dean, hitterish would linger in baseball circles, though its reappearance sometimes baffled sportswriters unfamiliar with the word's pedigree. At least twice it's been taken as a brand-new coinage:

Groping for an explanation for his team's recent batting revival, Angel manager Jim Fregosi coined a new word Saturday night. "The team has become hitterish," he said after the first-place Angels swept a doubleheader from the last-place Seattle Mariners.
(Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1978, p. D1)

"Doug Rader (the A's new batting coach) has everybody looking hitterish," said manager Tony La Russa, making up his language as he goes along.
(San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 10, 1992, p. F1)

More recently, hitterish has been associated with batting instructor Charley Lau. One of his most famous pupils, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, is fond of quoting Lau, as in this article about Carlos Beltran from 2000 (when Brett was working with Beltran, then a rising star with the Royals, on his hitting):

"It's like Charley Lau used to tell us, used to tell me: 'You look very hitterish up there. You look hitterish, you look like you're going to hit the ball hard,'" Brett said in camp.
(Baseball Digest, July 2000)

(That article was by Kansas City beat reporter Dick Kaegel, who must have forgotten about Brett's use of hitterish when he wrote about it as a "new" word in the Royals camp in 2005.)

The beauty of hitterish is that it can be revivified again and again, from Ruth to Diz to the current baseball era, and every time it sounds like a fresh innovation. In terms of its semantics and pragmatics, the word with its amorphous suffix -ish is usefully imprecise: how better to describe the vague state of mind of a batter who is performing well than hitterish? Successful hitting in baseball is, after all, far from an exact science. And in the tense struggle between batter and pitcher, "looking hitterish" like Alfonso Soriano (if not "feeling hitterish") may be half the battle.

(For a similarly nebulous neologism from the world of competitive snowboarding, see "Feeling all Olympic-y.")

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 18, 2006 08:04 PM