Foot & Meter: In the Clutch

footmeter.jpgDejan Kovacevic, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written an excellent article on the concept of clutch-hitting in baseball (thanks to Baseball Musings for the find). Clutch-hitting is a somewhat nebulous concept in baseball. There are players who are known for their “clutchness” (or, if you prefer, “clutchity”), such as David Ortiz and Derek Jeter. There are also players who are known for being particularly lousy in the clutch, such as Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. The question has always been one of defining a clutch situation. Any baseball fan watching a game can tell you, as its occurring, that thisis the clutch moment. However, looking over the course of a season, it’s nearly impossible to isolate any situation in which players like Ortiz are more dazzlingly excellent than they already are. As a result the “traditionalists”–writers like Bill Conlin and coaches like Ozzie Guillen–do frequent battle with the “nerds”–sabermetricians like Bill James and Nate Silver about whether or not “clutch” exists.

Kovacevic’s article looks at a couple of statistics, and interviews a number of players, coaches, and stat nerds about whether or not clutch-hitting exists. Now, being enthusiastic about baseball, I’ve got plenty of thoughts about the existence of clutch-hitting, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.

Foot&Meter asks, “Where did “clutch” come from?”

Checking in with Foot&Meter mentor-in-absentia William Safire, we can find his take on the origins of clutch from a May 2005 On Language column:

Clutch has a variety of meanings, from the ancient verb ”to claw” to the noun ”a rapacious hand” (as in ”to be in one’s clutches”) and now even ”a small purse” held in manicured claws. Its origin as ”a critical moment” is obscure, but this now standard sense of clutch was born in baseball. On June 2, 1929, The New York Times reported, ”When a batter produces a safe ‘blow’ at an opportune moment, his fellow players say that he has hit ‘in the saddle’ or ‘in the clutch.”’

Says Foot&Meter, “Safire, that’s some lazy work!” Now, Safire tells us that, indeed, clutch has been around baseball for some time, but why say clutch at all? According to Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary, clutch finds origin in, ahem, mechanisms. First, Dickson inaccurately indicates that the first use of clutch was in 1937. Normally, finding the wrong first usage isn’t a big deal, but when the New York Times beats your usage by 7 years, you lose. If the Podunk Periodical beats you, not a big deal, it’s not like their microfilm is widely available, or their entire history searchable online. But the Times? Well, let’s just take what else Dickson’s has to say with a large grain of salt. After indicating the wrong early usage, Dickson’s points use to the 1954 Gillette World Series Record Book, which apparently has some knowledge about the well-shrouded origins of this term.

Says the book (again, I’m not in possession of this book, so I’m making no promises as to the veracity of this quotation): “‘When a clutch is engaged in any machinery, parts are made to move, and any defect in the clutch will cause faulty operation or danger. …Extended use: A key situation in any endeavor.”

This seems, well, stupid. This is someone trying to tell you, that at some point, a baseball announcer or sportswriter produced words along these lines:

“In Game 5 of this 1937 World Series, with the Giantstrailing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth to the crosstown rival New York Yankees, the Giants have two outs with Moore and Bartell aboard 1st and 3rd. Up the the plate comes big swinging Mel Ott, Master Melvin, who led the National League in home runs this year, and could give the Giants the win with another one here. Like in a car, with all its parts moving about and roaring, when it’s time to change gears, to find that extra level, every needs to become still when the clutch is pressed. If it doesn’t, the entire machine falls apart. That’s where Ott is now. He’s in the clutch, with thirty-eight thousand fans screaming around him, with Don Brennan staring down on him from the pitchers mound, and with the hopes of his teammates on the bases and in the dugout riding on him, Master Melvin is in the clutch. Either he takes everything to the next level here, or the wheels fly off and the season is over.”

It seems like a stretch, to me, especially given its dubious source. At least as likely to me is that some writer or broadcaster had been reading WE Henley before a game. Specifically, his poem Invictus. Here’s the poem in full, with emphasis mine:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Here, the poet Henley gives us an image of a man who has been through battle, no matter what else he wished he could have done. And not only does he find himself in that “fell clutch of circumstance” than does he seem to succeed, in the end. “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.”

It seems more plausible, to me, that a broadcaster would see a game as a battle, and relate that crucial moment to being in the “fell clutches of circumstance”, wondering whether the ballplayer in question would succumb to curveballs and other Forces of Darkness, or if he finds himself unafraid of the moment and the opposition, and comes through “when it matters most.”

Sports in general, but baseball especially, have long given mainstream culture some of its most common expressions. It may be worthwhile investigating some more of its contributions in future columns.

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4 Comments

Filed under Baseball, Foot & Meter, Print

4 responses to “Foot & Meter: In the Clutch

  1. Pingback: Voodoo Sabermetrics - Lou Piniella « The Extrapolater

  2. Andy

    TC, I love these Foot & Meter jaunts.

  3. Pingback: Link and you'll miss it. « The Extrapolater

  4. Pingback: Friday Show and Tell « Mr. Thursday’s Curious Mechanism

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