Home Book Reviews The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson

by Matt Smith

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson (Harvest, 1999), 579 pages

Anyone unfamiliar with baseball has to face a steep learning curve during their early forays into the sport. Whether watching or reading about a game, it soon becomes apparent that baseball has its own language; a lexicon containing dingers, sacrifice flies and RBIs. At first, this can be a barrier to understanding. In time, the rich, vibrant language becomes an integral part of your own vocabulary, allowing you to feel part of the large baseball family. Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary is an invaluable tool to help you bridge this gap. 

After much painstaking research, Dickson produced his first dictionary in 1989 before this thoroughly revised edition was published in 1999. Containing over 7,000 words, terms and phrases, it is a formidable piece of work. Each entry includes a definition (or several if more than one applies) as well as information about the usage of the term and its history. The dictionary is complimented by a short thesaurus, a guide to common abbreviations and symbols, and an annotated bibliography. The book is written in such a way that the reader can use it as a reference tool as well as dipping in and out of it, reading sizeable passages at a time. The many photographs and illustrations emphasise the fact that this is by no means a dry text book.

The dictionary content can be broadly split into three main categories: rules and official terms, historical references, and slang.

This book does not pretend to be an authoritative guide to the rules of the game; its alphabetical structure obviously doesn’t lend itself to such a task. However, if you are confronted by a particular rule that you don’t completely understand, such as a “force out”, you can easily look it up and find a useful explanation. The initially cryptic world of box score abbreviations (ERA, LOB etc) are also quickly demystified in each case.

As well as reeling off endless abbreviations, baseball commentators and writers have a habit of throwing historical references into their dialogue or text on the assumption that their audience will be familiar with them. That may well be the case for Americans, but British fans don’t grow up hearing stories of great moments in baseball history. Dickson’s explanations of these references therefore not only help you understand what the commentator/writer is referring to, they help you learn about the history of the game as well. When a strong batting lineup is described as the new Murderers’ Row, you can appreciate their quality while learning of the great Yankees lineup of 1927 with whom they are being compared, for example.

Finally, a large amount of the terms can be defined as “slang”, which should be expected. Perhaps more than anything, slang brings a language to life by finding colourful and unique ways of explaining typical events. Why talk about home runs when you can describe big flies, longballs, jacks, blasts, bombs, taters, dingers, round-trippers, four-baggers amongst many others?

We do have to ask a fundamental question though: are paper reference books relevant in the twenty-first century? Wikipedia may not always be the most accurate resource (despite the sometimes misguided faith put in it by TV researchers and the like), but you can rarely claim that it is out of date. While the use of the word “new” in its title may have been correct when the book was first published, it is now nine years old. That’s not to say it cannot be trusted as a reference source, just that you have to take into account that language by its very nature is constantly evolving and no reference book can hope to keep up entirely with new words and new meanings. Dickson doesn’t avoid this fact, indeed he provides many examples of phrases and terms that were once considered lost but have come back into fashion, such as using the term wheelhouse to describe “the area of the batter’s greatest hitting strength”. Still, there are examples when the definitions in this dictionary are now out of date or incomplete. Dickson writes about the winter meetings as a thing of the past as they were temporarily discontinued in 1993, yet they are now a regular feature of the off-season again. And no current description of the Curse of the Bambino could fail to acknowledge the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series victory, which finally “reversed the curse”.

Accepting the limitations of the paper medium, this is still an invaluable resource for baseball fans and particularly for us Brits. Dickson includes a quote dating from 1919 at the beginning of this book from an English visitor, which could easily have been said in 2008:

“Reading the baseball news in some of the daily papers is like reading a totally unfamiliar language. Some of the terms used awaken a faint comprehension in my doubtless dull brain, but others leave me simply gasping for breath”.

That’s probably not changed: there is plenty of scope for confusion and misunderstanding without a helping hand. If you don’t know what a fungo is, you will struggle to work it out on your own. If you are used to the British meaning of shagging then you won’t know what to make of Dusty Baker’s claim that Greg Maddux “shags better than anybody I’ve ever seen”! Dickson explains the obscure and saves you from potential embarrassment, which is a compelling reason to invest in his dictionary.

There was a ten-year gap between the first and second editions of this book, so perhaps a new version will be hitting the shelves in the next year or two? If so, it will provide a great test case on whether there is still a desire to own hard copy reference books, because if any such baseball book would be worth buying, it would be an update of this one.

Have you read “The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary”?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.  Can you recommend any other similar books?  If so, let us know.

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