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Now, Everything Is in Black and White : Sportswriters Aren't Nearly As Colorful As They Used to Be

March 17, 1985|BILL SHIRLEY | Times Staff Writer

In the 1890s, the average American had about five years of schooling. To entice this unlettered lot into reading their newspapers, publishers began adding pages devoted exclusively to sports. Apparently comic strips, which had appeared a few years earlier, were not doing the job.

After William Randolph Hearst had started the forerunner of the modern sports section at the New York Journal in 1895, sportswriters began to fill their pages with what one historian called, "their informed, partisan prose."

Today, sportswriters and their prose are frequently described in less delicate terms. We are thought to be arrogant, hyberbolic and irreverent by many readers. We tend to give everybody advice--often when we don't know what we're talking about--and, in the pursuit of drama, make outrageous use of metaphors, similes, alliteration and one-liners.

All that aside, sportswriters have left their colorful stamp on the language many Americans speak.

Their bright lexicon, in fact, is so popular that it has become almost a second language to the millions of people who find sports attractive. Sports jargon is heard today from the pulpit and in classrooms, boardrooms, the halls of Congress and the Oval Office.

Politicians play hardball. Even presidents have game plans and win elections in photo finishes. Issues often become political footballs. Men with power are heavyweights and have clout. Labor negotiators throw out ballpark figures. Kickoff dinners start all kinds of campaigns. Men may refer to a woman as a knockout. Many things come out of left field, people who can't get to first base sometimes throw in the towel and start from scratch, and virtually all of us at times feel under par or find ourselves behind the eight ball .

Sports has a language of its own. Some of it originates with the athletes in the clubhouse and on the field, but much of it makes its way into the conversation of fans and nonfans through the prose of sportswriters who, to embellish accounts of boring events, often invent verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

By all accounts, however, sportswriters aren't as colorful as they used to be. Today they call a game a game; it is not a fracas, tilt, skirmish or battle. Two games are no longer a bargain bill, or even a twin bill. Innings are innings and quarters are quarters, not chukkers, stanzas, frames or panels.

Baseball games are played in parks or stadiums, not at the orchard. At least they are in most newspapers.

Teams are said to win championships today. They don't cop crowns, garner gonfalons or waltz off with diadems anymore. Donnybrooks or brouhahas are seldom mentioned. Neither are pigskins, horsehides, melons or casabas. Hoops are still around, however.

Pillows are no longer purloined, nor are sacks swiped; bases are stolen. Portsiders and southpaws have become left-handed pitchers, and circuit clouts, four-masters and four-ply wallops are mere home runs. Foul balls are foul balls, not cackle clouts or henhouse hoists.

Professional golfers play for money; they don't swing for swag. Football players score touchdowns; they don't run for paydirt or the promised land. Hockey players are sent to a penalty box, not a sin bin.

Boxers today are knocked out, not cold-cocked or the victims of a lowered boom or a haymaker. They are not cuties anymore; they have deceptive moves, and they almost never get on a bicycle, end up on queer street or get hit by a sucker punch. Banties are bantamweights and dreadnoughts are heavyweights. They use their fists, not their dukes. They are knocked down; they don't kiss the canvas.

Football skull sessions and chalk talks have been replaced by team meetings.

Suicide squads and kamikaze corps are now special teams. Chain gangs no longer are summoned by the referee. Gamers seem to have disappeared, too. Today, some players simply play better in games than they do in practice. Curbstone coaches and grandstand, armchair and Monday morning quarterbacks seem to be extinct.

Nobody has been mousetrapped lately, and teams use reverses and other trick plays instead of razzle-dazzle.

Journalists today view the colorful lingo of the past as dreadful writing.

Still, "He air-mailed his tee shot into the cabbage," has more of a ring to it than "He hit a long drive into the rough." And, "He hit a banana ball onto the beach," describes perfectly the act of slicing a shot into a sandtrap.

Even if you don't understand it, "He snaked in a Dolly Parton from 40 feet," (sank a curling, 40-foot putt over a hilly green) certainly gets your attention. If a player is in jail or lost in tiger country, you know he is not on the fairway. And is there a better way to describe a ball partly buried in sand than to call it a fried egg? Would you guess that Mr. Aerosol sprays his shots?

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