Q: After a fielding play, a baseball announcer recently said the batter “hit it right on the screws, but the first baseman snared it.” This caused me to wonder about targeting phrases like “on the screws,” “on the nose,” and “on the button.” How old are these and how did they develop?
A: “Hit on the screws” or “hit right on the screws” originated as a golfing expression in the mid-20th century, according to our searches of digitized books and newspapers.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from The Driver Book (1963), by Sam Snead: “The clubhead zings through the impact area just a fraction of an inch above the ground and this enables you to hit the ball right on the screws—smack in the center of the clubface—even though half of the ball was resting above the clubface at address.”
Why “on the screws”? The golf-club maker Hireko says on its website that the term originated when woods, the long-distance clubs, were still made from wood.
“To protect the wood against repeated impacts with the ball, wooden woods were equipped with face inserts made from many different materials. To keep the insert in place, some were fastened with ‘screws’ which were located in a small area in the center of the face (as pictured).”
(The heads of woods were generally made of wood until the late 1980s, but most are now made of titanium, steel, or various composites.)
The use of the expression in baseball showed up in the 1970s. The earliest baseball example we’ve found is a comment by Reggie Jackson in the Sept. 15, 1977, issue of the New York Times:
“The night before, I met George Steinbrenner in P. J. Clarke’s and he told me I’d win the next game with a home run. He also picked up my tab, so that’s another 30 dollars in the package. I hit the ball on the screws and I knew it was gone.”
(Jackson met the Yankee owner at the bar on the eve of hitting a 400-foot home run in the ninth inning of what had been a scoreless game with the Boston Red Sox.)
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) says “on the screws” describes “a hard-hit ball, esp. one that is batted solidly and squarely.”
We haven’t found the expression in any standard dictionary or in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary has this definition for “hit the ball on the screws”:
“To hit the ball even center with measured force, often resulting in a loud crack of the bat. A slumping batter might be comforted by ‘hitting the ball on the screws’ when not getting a hit. Taken from golf terminology, going back to an era when persimmon woods were used that had a face insert that was affixed by screws.”
As for those other targeting phrases you asked about, “on the nose” and “on the button,” the first one showed up first, according to citations in the OED.
The dictionary defines “on the nose” as meaning “exactly on target; precisely on time; to the point.”
The earliest Oxford citation (from the May 20, 1883, issue of Sporting Life) has a baseball for the target: “He hit the ball fairly on the nose, sending it clear to the right field fence.”
(The OED notes an obsolete 17th-century use of “on the nose” to mean immediately before or on the eve of. It also includes “on the nose” as both an Australian slang term meaning offensive or smelly and a vintner’s term for the aroma of a wine, as in “chocolaty on the nose.”)
As for “on the button,” the dictionary defines it as a colloquial expression meaning “on target, at exactly the right moment; exactly (right), precisely.”
The dictionary’s first example is from The Front Page, a 1928 Broadway comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, set in the Chicago newspaper world.
When Hildy Johnson, star reporter of the Herald Examiner, tosses an empty hip flask out the window of the press room at the Criminal Courts Building, a voice in the yard below yells out and Hildy responds, “On the button!”
The OED also has a 1921 boxing citation for the noun “button” used by itself to mean “point of the chin,” and this punchy 1936 example from P. G. Wodehouse’s 1936 novel Laughing Gas:
“He soaked him on the button, don’t you know.”
[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 6, 2017.]