The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s play ball

Q: Given the start of the baseball season, it occurs to me that “play ball” is a rather interesting expression. Your thoughts?

A: Now that you mention it, the expression “play ball” is interesting. The “ball” is what’s being batted around, and “ball” here also happens to be the clipped name of the game.

In the US, “play ball” generally means “play baseball,” though the usage is often heard in connection with football, basketball, and other sports.

In fact, the phrase or various versions of it had been around for hundreds of years before any American stepped on the mound and threw the ball toward home plate.

In the early days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression simply referred to a game played with a ball.

But you asked about baseball, so let’s consult Paul Dickson, who (in the words of a Washington Times book review) “may be baseball’s answer to Noah Webster or, at the very least, William Safire.”

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines “play ball!” as “the command issued by the plate umpire to start a game or to resume action. It’s sometimes abbreviated to a simple order of ‘play!’ ”

Dickson quotes (from the Boston Globe on May 13, 1886) what may be the first use of the baseball phrase in newsprint:

“McKeever held a long discussion with Pitcher Harmon about signs. The crowd got impatient; one man yelled ‘Get a telephone!’ while the umpire ordered them to ‘play ball.’ ”

The phrase certainly caught on, showing up a few years later in James Maitland’s The American Slang Dictionary (1891): “Play ball (Am.), go on with what you are about.”

The expression appeared more colorfully in a poem, “The Umpire,” in the July 27, 1893, issue of the Atchison (Kan.) Daily Globe:

“With features rigid as a block of stone, / He cries, ‘Play ball!’ ”

But apart from its use by umpires, Dickson says, “play ball” has a special meaning to baseball fans. It’s the “emblematic phrase for the start of any baseball game, from Opening Day to the opener of the World Series.”

The dictionary credits the pitcher Cy Young with the first use of the term in this sense, in 1905. It adds this quotation by a former baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, some 80 years later:

“The best words—the most fun words—in our language are ‘play ball.’ Those words conjure up home runs and strikeouts, extra innings and double plays. … ‘Play ball’ is what baseball is all about—its call to arms—and there isn’t a baseball fan … who isn’t a little excited over the beginning of a new season.” (From USA Today, 1986.)

The OED says the word “ball” in “play ball” is a noun meaning “a game played with a ball (esp. thrown or pitched with the hand).”

Today in the US, as we’ve said, the phrase refers to baseball, but it predates baseball by several centuries.

The expression was first recorded in the Middle Ages as “play at the ball,” which was later clipped to “play at ball” and finally to “play ball.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a description of St. Cuthbert in a medieval manuscript (circa 1300):

“With younge children he pleide atthe bal.” (Here we’ve changed two Middle English characters to “y” and “th.”)

An abbreviated version of the phrase first appeared in Nicholas Breton’s poem A Floorish Upon Fancie (1577):

“And let him learne to daunce, to shoote, and play at ball, / And any other sporte, but put him to his booke withall.”

During the 17th century, both “play at the ball” and “play at ball” were used. The modern form, “play ball,” finally emerged in the mid-18th century.

The OED cites an example from John Brickell’s The Natural History of North Carolina (1737). In a passage describing Native American games, Brickell writes: “Their manner of playing Ball is after this manner.”

The expression “to play ball” acquired another meaning in the early 20th century—to act fairly or cooperate.

The OED’s first example is from a 1903 novel, Back to the Woods, by Hugh McHugh (pen name of George Hobart): “Well, if Bunch should refuse to play ball I could send the check back to Uncle Peter.”

But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from a slightly earlier novel, Edward Waterman Townsend’s Chimmie Fadden & Mr. Paul (1902):

“He’ll give him de time of his life if he’ll sign up to play ball wit him whenever he’s wanted.”

Today, many of our most familiar expressions (or clichés, if you prefer), come from ball games of one kind or another. Here’s a sampling of figurative uses of sports terms, with their earliest recorded appearances, all from either the OED or Random House.

● “keep the ball rolling”—to maintain a momentum, 1770

● “keep (or have) one’s eye on the ball”—to be careful or alert, 1907

● “home run”—a great success, 1913

● “have something (or a lot) on the ball”—to be capable, 1936 (a reference to throwing a speedy or deceptive pitch, a sense first recorded in 1911)

● “carry the ball”—to assume responsibility, 1924

● “run with the ball” or “take the ball and run with it”—to take control, 1926

● “from out in left field”—from out of nowhere, 1930s (a subject we discuss on the blog)

● “on the ball”—accurate or alert, 1939

● “drop the ball”—to fail at something, 1940

● “curveball”—something tricky and unexpected, 1944

● “throw a curve”—to do something tricky and unexpected, 1953

● “that’s the way the ball bounces”—that’s life, 1952

● “ballpark”—approximate (adjective), 1957

● “there goes the ballgame”—it’s all over (1930)

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