Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Wordsmith: "Stuff" in Baseball
“Proctor’s stuff was electric tonight.”
Things. Substance. General materials of undisclosed nature. ‘Stuff’ has evolved through the centuries into a placeholder-word preferred by many who grasp at ambiguity in a long history the Wordsmith may someday trace. To baseball people—players, scouts, writers, fans—‘stuff’ points to something even more ephemeral: the indeterminate quality a pitcher possesses that make his pitches dance, that special something that he has on a good night, the absence of which can leave a great pitcher feeling ordinary. Unlike the origins of the general meaning of ‘stuff’ or the history of baseball itself, the roots of ‘stuff’ as a baseball term are easily traceable to one of the game’s early greats.
Robert Moses ‘Lefty’ Grove built a Hall of Fame career as the mild-mannered ace of the Philadelphia Athletics in the Depression era, one of the last pitchers to win over 30 games in a season and the only one ever to strike out the side on nine pitches twice in a season. During this time, the sporting public knew Grove as much for his easygoing demeanor as for his on-field feats. Following a downturn in the Athletics’ fortunes, team owner Connie Mack sold him in 1933 to the Boston Red Sox, who were also struggling at the time and needed a left-hander to bolster their three-man rotation. Grove spent much of his first two seasons in Boston on the disabled list with a tired arm, prompting endless questioning from the notoriously-impudent Boston sports media of which he quickly grew weary. A few games into the 1936 season, however, it was clear that Grove had returned to form. After one particularly-dazzling start against the Detroit Tigers in June 1936 in which Grove struck out 13 batters en route to a complete-game shutout, baseball journalist Walter Barnes of the Boston Globe cornered Grove in the changing room and asked to what he attributed his impressive outing. The now-surly southpaw replied, “I don’t know. Stuff.” Not picking up on Grove’s sarcasm, Barnes ran with the description, poeticizing the intangible difference Lefty had so tersely quantified. The article ran in the next morning’s paper under the famous headline, “Grove’s Stuff Tames Tigers.”