Let’s welcome baseball season with this item by our late veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.
Baseball’s back. I realize a lot of people don’t care. To them, sports fans are knuckle draggers who probably also read comic books while chewing gum with their mouths open.
But baseball isn’t called “the grand old game” for nothing; it’s been a staple of American popular culture since the 19th century. Renowned authors from Ring Lardner to Bernard Malamud to John Updike have sung its praises.
But now let’s talk about Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean—because not many people do anymore. The Hall of Fame pitcher from the Deep South would have been 109 years old this past January. “Ol’ Diz” was a tall, rangy right-hander who was discovered on a Texas sandlot. During the Great Depression, an era of fearsome sluggers and high-scoring games, Dean dominated with an unhittable fastball and unshakable self-confidence. Of his cockiness he once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”
From 1933 to ’36, Dean put together four spectacular seasons. He won 30 games in 1934, a feat that has been accomplished only once since. Diz was beaned in the ’34 World Series by an infielder’s throw while sliding into second base. A newspaper headline the next day said, “X-ray of Dean’s Head Shows Nothing.”
He went on to become a popular radio and TV sportscaster who visited mayhem upon the language to the delight—sometimes outrage—of his listeners.
The St. Louis Board of Education tried to yank Diz off the air. His response: “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t,’ and they ain’t eating.”
Dean’s calculated simplemindedness led to on-air pronouncements such as: “He nonchalantly walks back to the dugout in disgust” and “Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s game.” Both sentences are variations on his clueless-rube routine: In the first one, he uses “nonchalantly” in place of “slowly” (the logical choice). Since both can mean “unhurriedly,” he figures they must be interchangeable. In the second, he makes us all dizzy trying to navigate three negatives (“don’t,” “fail,” “miss”)—whereupon we realize he just told us to miss tomorrow’s game!
One of Diz’s most infamous butcheries was, “He slud into third.” Dean vehemently defended “slud” over “slid,” insisting the latter “just ain’t natural…‘Slud’ is something more than ‘slid.’ It means sliding with great effort.”
In his prime, Diz once said, “I know who’s the best pitcher I ever see and it’s old Satchel Paige, that big, lanky colored boy.” And this: “If Satchel and I were pitching on the same team, we would clinch the pennant by July fourth and go fishing until World Series time.” Dean made these statements a decade before African-Americans integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Reading those two quotes, I was heartened by the generosity of spirit peeking out from behind Dean’s shroud of buffoonery.
Maybe Ol’ Diz knew the score in more ways than one. Later in life he said, “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is?” Could that there Shakespeare fella have said it any better?