You Could Look It Up

I have a confession to make.

Nothing scandalous, mind you. But it’s a long way off to Yom Kippur and I want to get it off my chest. Besides, my confession has more to do with this column than with the Yom Kippur variety. (The Alter Vorker Rebbe said, “You know why the viduy on Yom Kippur is in the order of the alef-beis? Because otherwise we wouldn’t know when to stop!”)

Before I get into my specific wrongdoing, you need to know something. I am not a baseball fan. In fact I’m not any kind of sports fan. In certain circles, that already makes me persona non grata. But it might please some of my chareidi friends — especially in Israel.

That wasn’t always so. I grew up in a time and place where baseball wasn’t merely a sport. It was part of communal life. (I was born in 10 B.D.B. — 10 years Before the Dodgers left Brooklyn.) So, even though I have no interest in the game, the vernacular of baseball is imprinted in my mind. Even now, if I want to write that someone made a sly move to keep things moving and not take the risk of overreaching, I say he bunted. You don’t need to be Jackie Robinson to know that means to lightly tap the ball instead of taking a full swing … just to move the runners and minimize the risk of getting thrown out.

The game is part of the American psyche. Jacques Barzun, noted historian and educator, wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

From the boardroom to the beis medrash, you will hear people say “hit a home run,” or “couldn’t get to first base,” or a “screwball.”

OK, back to my confession. In a recent column, instead of listing all eight definitions for the noun form of the word “sanction,” and all four definitions for the verb form, I said, “You can look it up.” And then I added parenthetically, “No, not Casey Stengel; James Thurber said it first. You can look it up.”

(I see now that I got the quote wrong, sigh… . It should have been “You could look it up.” Maybe it has something to do with my having type-o blood. But I digress; that’s not the confession I’m talking about.)

After reading the column, my friend Rabbi David Sears, author of The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, wrote me:

“I was confused by: ‘You can look it up. (No, not Casey Stengel; James Thurber said it first. You can look it up.)’ … Said what first?”

Now, Rabbi Sears deserves special kindness not only because he is kind to animals, but because of his unsung role in this column. An astute reader, he volunteered as my vic… I mean assistant … for the first dozen or so performances in this verbal knife-throwing act. If my aim was off, he screamed “Ouch!” and kept me on target

OK. We’re coming to my confession now.

I have to admit that adding the line “You could look it up” was indulging in inside baseball. (That phrase originally meant minutiae of baseball strategy and tactics. But it went out of the ballpark and became a metaphor. Safire’s Political Dictionary defines inside baseball as “Specialized or private knowledge; the minute details savored by those in the know, found boring by most others.”)

In this case, the pitch was low and inside. And I don’t only mean that it didn’t make it into the strike zone. I mean it was an inside joke and a low trick to befuddle readers like that.

Let me explain.

I threw that screwball — on a whim — as a bonus to any William Safire fans who might read the column.

Safire would often refer to some source and say, “You could look it up!” And then he would add, “… as Casey Stengel said.”

Then one of his loyal readers corrected the word maven. He wrote to Safire, pointing out that James Thurber wrote a short story in 1941 about a baseball manager who put in a midget as a pinch-hitter. The title came from one of the players who kept filling in the memory lapses in his reminiscences with “You could look it up.”

So how did Safire come to attribute the phrase to Stengel? Turns out “The Old Perfessor,” as Stengel was known, did often say “You could look it up.” But he probably picked it up from the Thurber story.

Stengel did have the last word, though: “In his old age,” goes a story quoted in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, “Stengel was asked how he was doing. He sighed and said, ‘Not bad. Most people my age are dead. You could look it up.’


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