Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Look Back...

A while back, I posted a comment on Doug Ramsey's jazz blog Rifftides in response to his brief rant against misuse of certain words (in particular, "sophomore" as vaguely indicating the second item in a series). I thought I was being alert and clever when I identified one sentence of his complaint--"You could look it up"--as a quote from Ring Lardner's comical baseball stories of the 20th century 'Teens and Twenties.

Doug emailed me that he didn't mean to be quoting Lardner (or anyone else, maybe), and so I Googled the words to get a precise source... and found that I was wrong; the line is the title of, and a repeated refrain in, a James Thurber story from 1941, though critics do agree that Thurber was consciously mimicking the slangy, colloquial style employed earlier by Lardner.

My curiosity was piqued by then, so I drank deeper in Google's Pierian Spring and learned the following...

Thurber's story involves a baseball trainer recounting a 30-year-old yarn about some manager unexpectedly sending a midget up to pinchhit in a crucial game, needing him to draw a walk. But the midget ignores orders and grounds out. As the narrator insists, it really happened: "You could look it up."

Well, it also turns out that a couple of decades later--in our own beyond-fiction world--a couple of possibly related things happened. First, in 1951 then-new St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (pronounced Veck as in "wreck"), a canny expert of sports promotion, did exactly that, sending a little person named Eddie Gaedel to the plate (with strict orders not to swing) and thus causing quite a well-publicized ruckus when, the opposing pitcher laughing so hard, Gaedel drew a walk on four straight balls. Supposedly, Veeck always denied he got the idea from Thurber, claiming instead to have been inspired by old New York Giants manager John J. McGraw, who had a diminutive team mascot named Eddie Morrow. (No, not Edward R.)

Then in a 1965 interview, Casey Stengel, manager of a certain other New York team and a well-known master at word-mangling, used Thurber's phrase in passing (probably without intending the source), in such a comical, quoteworthy way that the five-word sentence from then on was associated with Stengel, and eventually even became the title of a 1979 book about the manager and his malapropisms. (Asked about his future in baseball, evidently Casey had replied, "How the hell should I know? Most of the people my age are dead. You could look it up.")

Over the next decades the Thurber/Stengel phrase cropped up frequently, used by historically minded baseball fans, sabermetrics enthusiasts, English professors making a point about dictionaries, and diverse others. (The five words show up in a slew of Google entries.)

And finally, in 2004, on-line baseball commentator Steven Goldman began offering regular blog essays at taking that for his main title--"You Could Look It Up" indeed. Dozens of these commentaries are available because his column has been appearing weekly ever since.

Meanwhile of course, as the 21st century staggers on, thanks to the Internet in general and Google in particular anyone can now easily look up almost anything--Lardner or Thurber, Veeck or Stengel, fun sports quotations from a Negro Leagues pitcher or scurrilous political rumors about a beleaguered (American or National, take your pick) President.

And in a fine self-referential irony, as soon as I post this blog chapter, you can look it up too!

(Move over, Lardner, Barber, Angell, Boswell... by accident and over your well-founded objections, I've joined the ranks; it seems that stunted writers have a place in the line-up too.)


Alan Kurtz said...

James Thurber was the first writer whose work I fell in love with. At age 13, I stumbled across an entire shelf of his collected works at the public library. Over the course of one summer, I devoured them all. His best known pieces are "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," both of which are brilliant. But the best is "The Catbird Seat," which contains references to a psychiatrist named Dr. Fitch. For some reason, that name struck me on first reading (and every time since) as so perfect for a shrink that it invariably propels me onto the floor, shrieking and flailing my limbs in hysterics. I have the same reaction to the first paragraph of Terry Southern's "I AM Mike Hammer," where the narrator imagines that Jean-Paul Sartre, having gone mad, has written a ballet. "And then, despite the philosopher's lack of formal training, his unwieldy girth, and the wise counsel of friends, he had insisted on dancing the leading role himself." As much as its context, the word insisted, which Southern italicizes, shows that a writer of genius can achieve immortality with a single stroke. I am in awe of these guys. Incidentally, did you know that when A Thurber Carnival was staged in New York in 1960, directed by Burgess Meredith and starring Paul Ford from the Sergeant Bilko TV series, it included jazz by the Don Elliott Quartet (featuring Jimmy Raney)? You could look it up.

I Witness said...

I actually have owned many Thurber books over the years, though I hadn't come across the story in question. My own fall-on-the-floor moments came mostly via My Life and Hard Times (yes, "The Night the Bed Fell"!)--while the show album of A Thurber Carnival is around here somewhere, but sadly forgotten. Thanks for the memories. (Hmmm, wonder if Bob Hope read Thurber...)