The Political Nature of Baseball Jargon – The Hardball Times


Is it too much to ask to recognize Aaron Judge for his on-field accomplishments? (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Writing, particularly as a profession, is supremely difficult. It requires a mastery of the English language as individual words and the relationships among and between them all. It also requires continuous moral judgments about which truths should be included and what would be irresponsible to omit. The writer thus owes responsibility to one’s readership, one’s subjects, and to the English language as a whole. These responsibilities do not escape those whose subject is baseball, which involves the crafting of narratives, a practice that is frequently mindlessly undertaken by writers and announcers alike.

In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” in which he addresses the four largest writing follies: dying metaphors, poor operators, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. At the core of these issues is that they obfuscate the key to good writing: conveying an idea as plainly as possible. Any combination of these four follies results in “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Their repeated usage divorces them from their strict dictionary definitions and instead imbibes them with cultural significance, leaving readers the task of deriving meaning from overly complex, cliched writing.

Baseball thrives on this style of diction, imbibing jargon into every element and crafting stories based on old metaphors. A number of aspects of the game are described via phrases that work themselves into other areas of life, such as “batting 1.000,” “out of left field,” and “give me a ballpark number,” wherein they typically lose their original meaning. The language of baseball has become so specialized that it is difficult to read an article or watch a broadcast without having prior knowledge.

For example, rather than saying a runner is on second or third base, we now use the term “scoring position,” which, to somebody in the ‘know’ is a completely useless phrase–technically all runners/batters from home to third are in scoring position. The game certainly involves more complexities today than it did in its origin, particularly with the introduction and refinement of sabermetrics, and many terms are justified in their uniqueness. But the complexity of the jargon does not only seek to create a more refined understanding of the game, it attempts to narrow baseball’s exclusivity. Would-be or new fans are routinely mocked for using the wrong term or not understanding an obvious idiom.

As with any method of communication that describes human beings, baseball writing carries with it an immense burden. When writing about baseball–or anything, for that matter–it is assumed that a large portion of it is finding accurate words to describe the events taking place. In such a vast language as English, it should not be difficult to do so–there should be a word to describe everything. But language is not nearly so passive; it does not merely trail behind events, capturing still shots every now and then. Language can, and is, used to influence thoughts and events, to shape society in particular ways.

In the essay, Orwell lays out this connection between language and humanity and the problems it poses for the advancement of society:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

[…]

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

There is no shortage of instances of which Orwell writes, particularly in this current era of “fake news.” And it is frequently those who are in a position to know better who commit these linguistic crimes, because their position allows them to do so. Indeed, one instance occurred during this year’s All-Star Game. In between the second and third pitches of Aaron Judge’s second at-bat, Joe Buck discussed the impressive nature of his character via these remarks: “He was raised well. His mom and dad, two educators. Adopted. A biracial background. Grew up in Linden, California, and a credit to his parents, Wayne and Patty.”

On the surface, this statement seems fairly mundane, not particularly noteworthy in either direction. But it’s all there in the language: “raised well,” “biracial,” “adopted.” It feeds into a longheld belief that black parents are incapable of giving their children good lives because of their own deficiencies compared to white parents. It’s the same as saying that Aaron Judge is “well-adjusted” because of his proximity to whiteness. In other circumstances, his blackness would hold him back, but luckily he’s not too black.

Buck probably did not think about the connotation of his words, merely parroting common descriptors of many successful black people. It is this thoughtlessness that should give us pause, though. With this one statement, we are reminded that baseball is not divorced from the rest of society, that discussing the sport bears the same responsibility as discussing politics. Language matters, and baseball is laden with common phrases that normalize racism.

Latino players are typically described as having “flair” or being “fiery,” which devolves into accusations of egotism, while white players are frequently described as “gritty” people who “play the game the right way” and provide leadership. In 2012, The Atlantic conducted a study that found announcer biases in favor of white players, wherein white players were 10 percent more likely to be praised for their effort and character than non-white players, who were far more likely to be called over-aggressive or impatient.

Non-white players are frequently treated as lesser players, typically through labeling them less polished or unable to grasp the complexities of baseball. Throughout his career, Willie Mays was described as possessing “childlike enthusiasm” for the game, dismissing the hard work and baseball intelligence he possessed. Non-white players are also typically described as being “natural athletes” who have “raw” talent; the implication here is that they are lazy, coasting on their natural ability rather than working hard and playing a smart game, like white players do. These words all point to the same thing, something that a number of ballplayers throughout the years have been all too eager to point out: white America views baseball as a solely white American game. If non-white players, particularly Latino ones, want to succeed in baseball, they had better learn to play according to white American standards.

There is a common assumption that baseball players should play hard, sacrifice for their teammates, and do so in a manner that “respects the game.” This final element in particular denotes the racism of standard baseball language. It points to the long-standing history of baseball, arguing that its tradition automatically commands respect. But baseball’s history is laden with racism, beginning with banning black players in the 1800s and Japanese players in the 1900s, and continuing to make it difficult for non-white people to play the game.

There are many beautiful, praiseworthy aspects of baseball, but its appeal to this tradition is not one of them. It is despicable to ask non-white players to respect the game’s racist roots and irresponsible to reduce the future of the game to its past. Respect is something that is earned, and professional baseball should be trying to earn the respect of everyone it has excluded, belittled, and villainized rather than forcing them to yet again yield to their oppressors.

The trouble with continuing to give credence to these phrases is twofold: it normalizes racism and supports the oft-used argument that “baseball is the only language that matters.” Concerning the first, Orwell writes, “a speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.” Tired idioms divorce the speaker from critical thought, instilling conformity and perpetuating the current political climate through pretending to be apolitical. It allows the longstanding tradition of racism to go unquestioned.

The second issue, as all issues of politics do, relates closely to the first. It posits that the only thing that matters is how players perform on the field, ignoring all other aspects connected to language and culture that impact on-field play, beginning with the fact that there is no one “correct” way to play baseball, aside from following the basic rules of throwing the ball and running the bases. It automatically labels Latino players as “wrong” and then shames their efforts to integrate and communicate with their teammates. It reinforces NESN broadcaster Jerry Remy’s opposition to on-field translators.

So many of the racist elements of baseball are beyond the scope of the simple writer or broadcaster, but there are some that live almost exclusively in the words of these people. And these phrases are no less political or damaging:

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.

Writing toward the end of World War II, Orwell speaks of a world that is in turmoil, whose resolution requires departure from traditional language and political ideas. But his assertion that “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” is no less valid today. Language has always been a tool used to disseminate political ideas, and in baseball, these phrases are used in the service of racism, to protect the sport against encroaching multiculturalism. It is essential to understand that language is not fully organic, and it can be molded to fit society’s best self, through addition and elimination, if those who wield it prove willing.

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