Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What Is The Rhubarb

I'm currently reading the book Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race by Larry Colton. I highly recommend it in terms of both Baseball History and Social History of the United States during the Jim Crow era in the South. While there have been many things that have stood out to me, one particular term caught my eye. On page 175, Colton talks about how manager Haywood Sullivan of the Birmingham Barons would end up earning the respect of his players by engaging in one of Baseball's oldest activities, interestingly referred to as "The Rhubarb". Here is how Colton describes it:
No sport embraces its eccentricities as much as baseball, with its seventh-inning stretch, ubiquitous spitting, interminable statistics, and the time-honored skirmish between manager and umpire, aka the rhubarb: two grown men face-to-face, jaw-to-jaw, chest-to-chest, mere inches apart as they unload verbal tirades and sprays of spittle, the veins in their necks pulsing with rage. They kick dirt, madly gesticulate, and throw hats, performing the signature gestures of ritual tantrums whose sum effects are zero.

Should behavior such as this happen in a corporate office, a courtroom, or a university lecture hall, the involved parties would be unemployed the next day, if not arrested. Yet within baseball, a failure to argue against any perceived injustice is seen as a sign of weakness, revealing a lack of passion for the game. Fiery managers and players are beloved by hometown fans. With children, temper tantrums beget scoldings, time-outs, and in the days of yore spankings. In baseball, they are celebrated, encouraged, demanded. If a player pitches a fit at the ump, he needs to know the skipper has his back. Sullivan was about to state his case.
Now Barry and I at the bar have touched upon how the rise of instant replay might seem to spell the end of the manager umpire arguments in the mold of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, etc. Don't tell that to Red Sox manager John Farrell who seems to have had his share of arguments this season after losing numerous instant replay challenges. I decided to check online to see where the use of the word Rhubarb came from in reference to a Baseball argument.

Legendary Baseball writer Robert Creamer gives the following etymological note on the use of the word Rhubarb in Baseball from the June 11, 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated:
Sports Illustrated June 11, 1956
The word "rhubarb," meaning in baseball a fight or argument, is of recent origin. In 1938 a Brooklyn Dodger fan shot and killed a New York Giant fan in a barroom argument over baseball. A bartender described the incident to Baseball Writer Tom Meany as a "rhubarb," though no one is quite sure why. Meany repeated the word to Baseball Raconteur Garry Schumacher, and Broadcaster Red Barber picked it up after hearing both Meany and Schumacher use it. Barber later utilized the word frequently on his radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. He had an immense listening audience and the word soon passed into the language.
Leave it to a Brooklyn bartender to have come up with the term randomly.

So while instant replay in Baseball seems to have cause manager/umpire arguments to decline somewhat, we shouldn't forget that these entertaining interactions are called rhubarbs. At the very least, it provides for good Baseball conversation when one happens or during a rain delay.

Until Then Keep Playing Ball,
Baseball Sisco