I'm a rabid baseball fan, and often my friends depend upon me to provide the wisdom from on high when it comes to the grand old game. But the one thing people invariably ask is: "Why is the shortstop called the shortstop? I get all the other ones, but that's the weird one!" I've got enough problems with self-esteem as it is, and I don't need it undercut any further by not being able to answer that question. I look to you for the answer. I promise to credit you every time I repeat your reply.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
That’s the spirit. The origin of the word “shortstop” appears to have been lost in the mists of antiquity, but the absence of the facts has never prevented me from making something up, and the present case is no exception. I have here a Currier & Ives lithograph that purports to depict the first officially recorded baseball game, which occurred on or about June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey, between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine. Notwithstanding the fact that the Knickerbockers had made up the rules, they lost. Not what you would call a team of destiny.
Anyway, the print shows most of the infielders standing more or less on top of their bases, with the shortstop situated on the infield grass, perhaps 20 feet closer to home than his modern counterpart. Other sources confirm that this was the usual practice in the early days.
We may further note that the baseballs of yesteryear were fatter and, how shall we say, deader–that strikes me uneuphoniously, but you know what I mean–than they are today, and partook more of the bulbous quality that is commemorated nowadays in such phrases as “heave the old tomato, Jack.” Moreover, this was the era before the introduction of the mechanical lawnmower, when infields were savage jungles that captured and ate innocent baseballs, or at least kept them from getting very far.
So it is not difficult to suppose that in the infancy of the game, there may have been a need for an infielder who could deal with short-range ground balls expeditiously, before they dribbled to a halt and got lost somewhere–who could “stop them short,” you see. Sure you do. Later, of course, when the ball got livelier and the grass was more carefully attended to, the velocity of the average grounder would increase considerably, requiring the shortstop to retreat and join the other infielders in the wide arc that characterizes modern defensive alignment.
There are a couple holes in this theory, but I leave it to the inevitable gang of malcontents to point them out.
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