A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Where does the baseball term "bullpen" come from?

June 28, 1974

Dear Cecil:

Where does the baseball term "bullpen" come from?

Cecil replies:

All right, etymology fans. Here are three theories, arranged in order of preposterousness. You can stop when you've had enough:

1. The bullpen looks like a bull pen. That is to say, the area set aside for practicing pitchers looks like the fenced-in spot where fighting bulls were kept before bullfights and rodeos. Veteran fans will recall the similarity between Fernando Valenzuela in the heat of warm-up and an enraged bovine preparing to charge.

2. The bullpen looks like a bullpen. In the early days of this century, policemen were popularly called "bulls," out of respect for their towering strength and masculinity. Jail cells, particularly those crude arrangements of wire fence that were (and are) used to temporarily hold prisoners awaiting arraignment, were consequently dubbed "bullpens," i.e., pens maintained by the "bulls." After Black Sox scandal of 1919, many of Chicago's beloved ballplayers, accused of throwing the World Series, had an opportunity to check out the similarity first hand.

3. It was all a cheap publicity stunt. One of the regulation features of early ballparks, supposedly, was a gigantic billboard advertising Bull Durham tobacco, inevitably located out in left field, near the pitchers' warm-up area. Hence the bullpen was the pen near the Bull. (Which, frankly, sounds like a lot of bull to me.)

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