Q: Why is it such a good thing to be “in the catbird seat”? And where did Red Barber get the expression?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “the catbird seat” as American slang for “a superior or advantageous position.”
The OED’s earliest published example of the usage is from “The Catbird Seat,” a 1942 story by James Thurber in the New Yorker: “ ‘Sitting in the catbird seat’ meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”
One of the characters in the story is said to have picked up “sitting in the catbird seat” and other colorful expressions while listening to Red Barber do play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions—picked ’em up down South,” the story explains. (We’ve added to the OED citation.)
The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms describes the usage as “a Southern Americanism dating back to the 19th century,” but popularized by Barber and Thurber.
The earliest example we could find in a search of digitized books and newspapers does indeed come from the South, but it dates from the early 20th century, not the 19th.
One of the speakers at the 1916 annual meeting of the Georgia Bar Association says the frustrations of the legal profession make it hard for a lawyer to act like a card player “in the catbird seat as he squeezes an ace-high flush.”
The use of the term “catbird” (for the gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis) dates from the early 1700s, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.
The first DARE citation is from John Lawson’s New Voyage to Carolina (1709): “The Cat-Bird … makes a Noise exactly like young Cats.”
The regional dictionary says the phrase “catbird seat” probably refers to the gray catbird’s habit “of delivering its song from a high, exposed position.”
We’ve seen a lot of gray catbirds where we live in New England, and from our experience the birds don’t deliver their cat-like call from a particularly high or exposed position. But maybe Southern catbirds are more uppity.
Where, you ask, did Red Barber get the expression? In Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, his 1968 biography, the Old Redhead says he first heard it while playing poker with friends in Cincinnati.
Barber describes one hand in which he raised repeatedly, but ended up losing when another player “turned over his hole cards, showed a pair of aces, and won the pot.”
“Thank you, Red,” the winner said. “I had those aces from the start. I was sitting in the catbird seat.”