Q & A with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler

Baseball-Thesaurus-2e-cover_v2-fIf you know me, you know a love words/phrases.  I love their spellings, their etymologies, their pronunciations.  Well baseball is certainly full of great terms and phrases.  If you are a fan of “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” then you should also have in your library a copy of “The Baseball Thesaurus” by Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.

You may know Goldberg-Strassler as the voice of the Lansing Lugnuts baseball team, but he’s also a lover of phrases, and the Thesaurus is now in its second edition. I spoke with him about the book, his influences growing up, and his love of baseball and words.

 

 

 

 

VORG: HOW DID YOUR LOVE OF WORDS EVOLVE?

JGS: Fullest credit goes to my parents, who read to me and with me ever since I was young. As I grew older, we took constant trips to the library, returning an armload of books in exchange for a new exciting stack to lug to the car. (I clutched them to my chest, with the bottom book at my belly button and my chin atop the top-most book. It was precarious.) The more evocative the writing, the more I was enthralled. I still read through a Gordon Korman or a Diana Wynne Jones novel and marvel at how their worlds are brought to life. In sports books, I was a devotee of Matt Christopher, whose baseball heroes were always wonderfully walloping or lacing the pitch, such that I could see the ball soaring out of sight. Combine this love of the written word with my family’s lack of cable: I had to read the newspaper or listen to the radio in order to follow the latest goings-on. My evenings and weekends were spent in the company of such wordsmiths as Jon Miller and Chuck Thompson delivering the Orioles’ games, and Jack Buck and Vin Scully handling the Game of the Week — and they painted clear pictures with choice phrasing.

VORG: HOW DID YOUR LOVE OF BASEBALL HISTORY EVOLVE?

Every baby in my family receives a baseball glove as one of her/his first gifts. Loving sports is just a way of life, with baseball clearly the #1 sport. As a bookworm, I grew up loving stories as much I loved baseball. The best baseball books were filled with great stories, all of which cried out to be remembered and retold. One day I was reading about Pete Browning and the part he played in building Hillerich & Bradsby’s legacy, and it energized me so much that I dropped the book and rushed into my grandparents’ living room to regale my family with the ballad of the original Louisville Slugger. I had a book about the “greatest World Series moments,” covering 1920, 1941, 1947, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1960, and 1975, and I just about memorized every single word in it. When I was eight years old, my grandfather bought me the greatest book I had ever seen: “The Baseball Encyclopedia.” I would stretch out on the carpet, propped up on my elbows, working my way through the summary of every World Series game or seeing just how great Henry Aaron and Willie Mays were. By high school, I believed that I had memorized the results of every World Series, or, if not, then at least the results of every World Series that mattered.

I have really enjoyed a wonderful coming-of-age journey through baseball history thanks to the field’s literature: I was captured at a young age by Nash and Zullo’s “Hall of Shame” series; I read and reread (and continue to reread) Okrent and Wulf’s “Baseball Anecdotes” many times over; and I happily discovered David Halberstam and Bill James when I was in my early teens. I still find a fine balance between sabermetrics and historical literature, going to and fro between “The Book” and the excellent works of such varied writers like Rob Neyer and Tom Stanton.
VORG: WHY THE NEED FOR A “THESAURUS” WHEN PAUL DICKSON ALREADY GAVE US A “DICTIONARY”?

JGS: A dictionary forthrightly tells you what words mean (and where they came from), while a thesaurus brings the lexicon to life in telling how those words are used — how they’re talked, how they’re written.

Baseball has a lively, nuanced language, and the Baseball Thesaurus explores how we speak it. (Consider that one of the game’s most well-known songs is titled Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball.”)

The origin of the Thesaurus began on a personal level. I was on a verbal treadmill, describing everything the same way. Runners raced, batters drilled the baseball, pitchers delivered. It was lazy, uncreative brain-to-mouth activity, and I suspect many a broadcaster and writer before me has found herself/himself in the same rut. Mr. Dickson’s dictionary provided a powerful, authoritative reference, but I needed something different — an easily accessed handbook that showed how diversely the game could be described. I began creating lists — all of the different ways an outfielder could make a catch, a runner could steal a base, one team could defeat another, etc. — and shared them with friends. This proved so popular that I realized a proper baseball thesaurus could aid far more than just me. Things blossomed outward, with those lists joined by quotes, anecdotes, and more, all intended to demonstrate how baseball is talked.

One of the best parts of seeing the Thesaurus in print and in the hands of readers is seeing everyone bring their own personal uses to it. Every reader finds new, personal value in its content.

VORG: CAN YOU GIVE US AN EXAMPLE OF HOW YOU AND PAUL DIFFERED IN DEFINING/DISCUSSING A SPECIFIC TERM?

JGS: Take “foul ball.”

In his Dictionary, Paul Dickson defines what a foul ball is and offers instructive history on how it came to be. The first use, he writes, dates back to the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845.

In the Thesaurus, I delight in describing an ‘ugly seeker,’ a ‘loud strike,’ the directive to ‘Straighten it out!’ Ernie Harwell naming the precise city the souvenir-collector hailed from, Orioles P.A. announcer Rex Barney booming, “Give that fan… a contract!” etc.

VORG: ANY MEMORABLE STORIES DURING THE RESEARCHING OF A PARTICULAR TERM THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?

JGS: Yes! For the “home run” entry in the second edition, I sought to include every broadcaster home run call I could find. It was staggering and took quite a while, but I also had the time of my life including the calls of Arch McDonald, Rodger Brulotte, Jacques Doucet, Jaime Jarrin, Ernesto Jerez, and Felo Ramirez, among others. (I preferred to include trademark calls rather than famous one-off calls, but a few notable home run descriptions deservingly sneaked in.) During my search, I came to Ted Patterson’s “The Golden Voices of Baseball,” which included an unfortunate gem of an anecdote from Jim Britt while with Boston in 1946. Britt’s trademark call was “That’s one ball we won’t see again” (or “That’s one ball we’ll never find”). He delivered the line on a Bill Nicholson home run… only to find the ball waiting for him in the front seat of his car after the game. The home run had shattered his windshield.

I was amazed, in researching “designated hitter,” to learn, first, that a young Connie Mack was in support of instituting the DH all the way back in 1906, and, second, how close the National League had come to adopting the DH in 1980. With a twist or turn here or there, we could have ended up in a world where the pitcher would nearly never have to bat. (I am not a fan of our current system, with two leagues playing by different rules.)

VORG: DEPENDING ON WHERE ONE LIVES …. ITS EITHER SODA OR POP, A SUB OR A HOAGIE. DO ANY OF THE TERMS SHOW A “REGIONAL DIFFERENTIATION” LIKE THIS?

JGS: Not as best I can tell, though I have a guess as to why this would be the case: Baseball brings people from many different regions together, allowing them to share their slang. Red Barber’s arrival into Brooklyn introduced the ‘catbird seat’ to a whole new corner of the country. In the same fashion, a Dominican player’s arrival to a team might bring the word ‘linea’ to denote a line drive (or similar slang through translation), with players and coaches exchanging vocabulary and breaking down any cultural barriers by speaking baseball. Thus a term may derive from, say, Georgia, but it may shortly be spread throughout a team’s organization by force of catchiness and good humor.

Counter this easy transferral of language with regionalisms like ‘pop’ or ‘soda.’ Folks are fiercely loyal to their region. This loyalty to our home region has been transferred to specific regionalisms — like what we call a carbonated beverage. A Midwesterner might think nothing of laughingly dropping in a ‘linea’ in communicating with a teammate, but he would not dare be caught saying ‘soda,’ lest he betray his roots.

VORG:. I FOUND IT INTERESTING THAT “WALKOFF” WAS NOT LISTED IN THIS EDITION. WAS IT IN THE FIRST?

JGS: Uh, oh! Guess that means a third edition will have to come along down the pike!

Actually — I just completed a Football Thesaurus, and it’s helped me solve some of the obstacles I had in organizing the Baseball Thesaurus. Take ‘walk-off.’ Where should it be catalogued? Under ‘Home Run’? Under ‘hit’? Organizing was a test — think of all of the jargon that comes under ‘pitcher’ or ‘pitch’! — and that was one of the challenging terms that never found a place. I think I’d have a much better handle of how to deal with them down the road.

As an aside: I’m amused by folks who despise the term ‘walk-off.’ I’m a fan of the term since I believe it’s quick and easily comprehensible. A ‘walk-off,’ whether a walk-off walk or homer or fielder’s choice, instantly wins the game for one of the competing ballclubs. Its synonym is “game-winning.” Kudos to you, Dennis Eckersley.

VORG: ARE THERE ANY “WHITE WHALE” TERMS OUT THERE . . . TERMS THAT YOU HAVE TRIED TO NAIL DOWN SYNONYMS FOR BUT CAN’T SEEM TO FIND?

JGS: Oh yes. A perfect game is a “perfecto” or “perfection,” but that’s not good enough for me. A perfect game is remarkable, requiring everything to be in the pitcher’s favor: the umpires’ decisions, the defense’s sure hands, the batters’ bad luck, the break of a good bounce, and the ideal weather, since a wind gust at the wrong time can ruin everything. There has to be a better synonym than “perfecto” to out there somewhere to denote just how dominant yet lucky a pitcher has to be.

VORG: HAVE YOU AND PAUL CONSIDERED COLLABORATING ON A COMBINED BASEBALL DICTIONARY/THESAURUS?

JGS: The second Dickson Baseball Dictionary actually had a Thesaurus section, and it was this section which Paul Dickson and Skip McAfee sent to me to aid my efforts. I would be a little awed to ask Mr. Dickson. I am certain that if he wished, he would simply put out a combination dictionary/thesaurus without my aid. But… if Mr. Dickson were willing, I would be a proud collaborator.

VORG: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE SYNONYM THAT YOU UNCOVERED FOR WHAT WOULD OTHERWISE BE A COMMON TERM?

JGS: This changes every year, and sometimes more often than that. My favorite synonyms always come from on-field conversation. When Drew Hutchison dropped by my Minor League affiliate in 2009 and 2010, I loved learning that his change-up was a ‘dead fish.’ (How vivid is that?) I remember the first time, too, that I heard a ballplayer describe an opposite-field home run as an ‘oppo taco.’ Language is wonderful. Give me a month or two of baseball in 2015 and I promise you that I’ll have a new favorite term or phrase.

VORG: HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHN THORN REGARDING YOUR BOOK, AND IF SO, WHAT DID HE HAVE TO SAY?

JGS: Each year at the Winter Meetings, I go up to Mr. Thorn and shake his hand, lose my tongue out of awe and admiration and increasing embarrassment, and then we part ways. (One year, he did give me the firm advice to not be a writer. I am choosing to disregard these words.)

I have never mustered the courage to ask him about my book.

(I am the same way at the Meetings with Rob Neyer, whom I also hold in great esteem: I am able to stammer out my thanks for supplying the world with great baseball books, and then I awkwardly wish him well.)

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I think Goldberg-Strassler’s book would be a great stocking stuffer for any baseball fan!

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