Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Party at Gary Hill's House | Re: Pot-Laced Meatballs »

Thursday, December 6, 2007

More Obscene Baseball News

posted by on December 6 at 10:36 AM

The story about the recently discovered baseball memo from 1898, warning players in the National League to lay off the fucking filthy language (which I slogged about the other day) has hit the online MSM, with a story in today’s Salon. Salon writer King Kaufman is a bit more skeptical about the provenance of the memo than either the auctioneers or I am. A linguistics prof at Berkeley insists that this couldn’t be legit, since no one would use such language in the formal setting of an office or business memo. And it would put the earliest printed uses of the terms “go fuck yourself” and “cocksucker”(though it was still hyphenated then) back by many years.

My response: it might indeed be a hoax, but if it is one, it would be from the 1898 period nonetheless. The punctuation and the quirks of the non-obscene language strikes me as authentically of that era. Some secretary who sat in on the meetings among owners might’ve cooked it up as a joke.

But it also could be legit. The memo ends “[UNMAILABLE: Must be forwarded by Express](bold caps sic).” This strikes me as a period detail that wouldn’t occur to most people today. If the League had mailed this, it would have been a federal offense: sending obscene materials through the mails. But they could send it by private courier (then known as “Express” services) and hand-deliver it to its audience, keeping it in-house.

What this suggests to me is that the owners wanted to shock the players into cleaning up their act by not using the euphemisms or printing tricks (d--- for "damn") that censorship rules of the day required. The National League had 12 teams that year (Cleveland, Louisville, Washington and Baltimore would soon be jettisoned, creating the familiar 8-team league of the pre-expansion 20th Century). If every player and coach on each team was given this memo, that would be only 400 or so copies to be distributed. The issue of obscene language at the ballpark was huge then, as baseball was perceived as a low-class game, unfit for women and children or respectable society. (The parallel today is the NBA's rules of conduct for its players, requiring suits and ties when traveling, for instance, to prevent players from seeming "ghetto.")

Finally, who would gain by a contemporary hoax? Counterfeit baseball stuff that makes big money are game-used equipment, autographs, and so on. Internal baseball memos are of little interest to anyone but historians--only recently has the collecting craze expanded to this kind of document. Someone could've hoped to make a few hundred bucks on it (before the current media attention--now it will be more) but it's hardly the bait for serious counterfeiting.

Still, it's possible. Short of convening a team from CSI: Cooperstown, I don't know how to prove that it's either legit or a hoax. If another copy of the memo is found in some file at the Hall of Fame, or in some other collector's possession, that would be some evidence that it existed and was distributed back then.

RSS icon Comments


I'm inclined to believe it's legit, too. There's just no real motive to counterfeit something like that.

So, what are the linguists saying about the origins of "cunt-lapping dog"? Or does that go a ways back?

Posted by JasonC | December 6, 2007 10:58 AM

Cunt is a pre-Shakespearean word, as is fuck (as is cock as a euphemism for penis, for that matter), so it's well within the bounds of reality that these phrases were in embarrassingly common use at the time by ballplayers. Just because we picture the past in black and white with everyone wearing a suit and speaking Oxford english doesn't mean our great-grandpappys (and mammys) weren't telling each other to get fucked. It meant the same thing then as it does now, they just wrote it down for posterity less than we do.

Posted by switzerblog | December 6, 2007 11:36 AM

Yah! "Cunt lapping dogs" has a very 19th century ring to it. Got to remember that one!

Posted by Hal | December 6, 2007 11:42 AM

Remember who played baseball in 1898. It wasn't today's tightly-groomed college boys. It wasn't the false image of the hayseed farmer boy, either; baseball has always been an urban game. It was Irishmen, Germans, Bohunks, and other fairly recent immigrants of the lower classes. The Berkeley prof may not have ever encountered people like that in his studies.

Or it could be a hoax. I'd like to see some forensics on the paper, ink, typewriter, etc. All of these features you mention could be faked by someone well-steeped in the era.

Posted by Fnarf | December 6, 2007 11:48 AM

"...has hit the online the online MSM"? Hate to burst your bubble, but The Stranger is part of the MSM.

Posted by bigyaz | December 6, 2007 1:48 PM

Anybody got an image of the document?

Posted by Greg | December 6, 2007 2:58 PM

Greg - Click on the first link of the post for the images.

Posted by Jason | December 7, 2007 7:24 AM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).