Old-time baseball and all that "jazz"

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On December 5, 2002

In the second of his three-volume study of old baseball terms, University of Missouri-Rolla Professor Gerald Cohen digs up the early meanings of "gunner," "kale," and the term that led to the book project in the first place: "jazz."

"Jazz" was originally a baseball term, originating in San Francisco and later transplanted to New Orleans, where it was applied to music.

"This most American of music owes its name to the most American of sports and, in particular, to a sportswriter who did his best to help his team along."

Cohen recently published the second part of a three-volume "Dictionary of 1913 Baseball and Other Lingo (G-P)." Volume one was published in 2001. The final volume is due out in 2003.

Cohen’s project began as an effort to get to the bottom of the term "jazz," naturally assumed to have musical roots. According to Cohen, the word was actually applied to baseball meaning "vim," "vigor" and "fighting spirit" before it acquired its musical meaning. Cohen gives credit to two researchers who preceded him in this study of baseball "jazz" but says he is now undertaking a more thorough search for all the evidence.

As Cohen read through the baseball columns of the newspaper, he noticed numerous other interesting baseball terms and items from slang and began jotting them down. "For example," explains Cohen, "a ‘gunner’ was a pitcher, ‘greensward’ was the ball field, ‘Jupiter Pluvius/Jup Pluv’ meant rain god, mentioned often when rain canceled play, ‘kale’ was money and ‘larry’ meant praise."

All are presented in context, with the exact references. "The main contribution concerns the numerous attestations of ‘jazz,’ introduced and used repeatedly by San Francisco Bulletin sports writer ‘Scoop’ Gleeson as a lexical rabbit’s foot to help the local team do better in 1913 than its weak showing in 1912," says Cohen. The term was used almost exclusively to describe players on the San Francisco Seals team, the idea being that maybe they didn’t have much talent, but their vim, vigor, and fighting spirit would help them to a respectable showing.

What about the 1909 listing of "jazz" in a musical context in the Oxford English Dictionary? "That’s an error," says Cohen, and is now recognized as such by the dictionary’s editor.

For Cohen, the project has been slow, steady work. "One of these days the San Francisco newspapers will be digitized and that will speed up the process dramatically for ‘jazz,’" Cohen says. "But to find all the interesting baseball items, there’s nothing to compare with reading through all the articles individually.

"By the way," Cohen adds, "jazz was certainly played in New Orleans prior to 1913, but it was not yet called jazz. The name came from San Francisco."

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On December 5, 2002. Posted in News