October 25, 2011
Baseball's Brief History of Headline Puns
Peripheral vascular disease is what is known as a disease of affluence. Such diseases tend to correlate positively to a society’s wealth, so that a rising standard of living causes greater incidence of the disease. Peripheral vascular disease—which creates a narrowing of the arteries that supply the legs, and resulting pain, swelling and discoloration—is caused by hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, all of which are also diseases of affluence. Asthma is a disease of affluence. Gout is a disease of affluence.
Puns in baseball headlines are a disease of affluence. One hundred years ago, nobody would have ever thought to use a headline like this:
That’s Huffington Post after Sunday’s game. I could have used Sports Illustrated:
Or the New York Daily News:
Or Grantland,the Atlanta Journal Constitution, thePalm Beach Post, theBoston Globe, and the Twitter accounts of ESPN and Keith Olbermann. Or even Baseball Prospectus:
Like I said, though, it wasn’t always this way. Baseball headlines have gone through five eras in the last century, with some overlap between the eras. And the better our quality of life, the more pun headlines about baseball we are exposed to.
THE FIRST ERA: 1906-1930
The Los Angeles Times, which is what we’ll be relying on for the bulk of our historical headlines, didn’t cover or pick up the AP accounts of the first two World Series. In 1906, the Times did, topping the inside story with a two-line headline:
Chicago White Sox
Stare at it for hours. There’s no pun.
Within a few years, the World Series outcome was the lead story in sports each year. Here’s the banner headline in 1912:
Muffed Ball Makes Red Sox Champions
Considering 1912 was the World Series of Snodgrass’ Muff, and considering what a copy editor would do to it today, this is an especially restrained headline.
1912 Copy Editor 1: Say, what do you suppose our headline shall be for tomorrow’s first edition? We have a strong start by Hugh Bedient, Smoky Joe Wood got the win in relief, Snodgrass made a terrible error to blow the game in the 10th, Larry Gardner driving in the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
Other LA Times headlines from the era:
THE SECOND ERA:1925-1965
During this era, which began toward the end of the prosperous 1920s, headlines started to get more colorful, with descriptive verbs and mild attempts at humor.
The liberalization of headline style might seem to be fertile ground for puns, except that puns—quite popular in American comedy around the turn of the century—had become taboo, writes John Pollack in The Pun Also Rises. “The public’s changing comedic tastes began to maroon the humble pun. Although the precise tipping point is hard to pinpoint, puns began to draw more and more groans. Postwar audiences didn’t reject the pun entirely, but responded better to humor that was a little more raw and a little less obviously constructed.”
Still, some puns did sneak into baseball headlines. After the 1927 World Series, the LA Times used “Wild Pitch Sinks Floundering Pirates Baseball Craft” as a deck headline. In 1960, the St. Petersburg Times’ World Series headline was “Bucs Make Yankees Walk That Final Plank.” In 1937, the New York Times wrote this headline: “Giants and Yankees Will Lead With Their Aces.” I suspect that’s a bridge pun.
But these are mere flirtations by an otherwise virtuous culture – restrained experimentation, you might say. Tom Brokaw illustrates this in The Greatest Generation:
Shortly after the attack, Winston Churchill called FDR from the prime minister’s country estate, Chequers. In his book The Grand Alliance, Churchill recounted the conversation. “Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?” Roosevelt replied, “It’s quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We’re all in the same boat now.” Churchill paused. “Was that a pun?” Churchill asked. Roosevelt replied, “Maybe a little bit of one. But only a really, really little one.” “OK,” Churchill told him. “But you’d better check yourself.” Roosevelt paused. “Was that a pun? Like Chequers, the name of my estate? Chequerself. Like that?” Churchill snapped, “Absolutely not!”
THE THIRD ERA: 1965-1985
The pun era spread slowly through the nation’s news pages in the late 1960s; puns certainly weren’t automatic, but they lost their stigma.
Some of the LA Times’ headlines from the era:
And so on. These headlines all have puns, but there were other years where there was no pun. And, notably, many of these are quite good. “Alston leans left” is relatively complex wordplay for a headline. “Mugging in the Bronx” is both a baseball and sociological pun. None of the puns rely on proper names. Pun headlines in this era are a new tool in a copy editor’s box, but not a priority.
The era is best reflected by the New York Times’ style guide on puns: “Puns have a place in the paper, but as a trace element rather than a staple. A pun should be a surprise encounter, evoking a sly smile rather than a groan, and flattering the intelligence of a reader who gets the joke. Plays on personal names never qualify.”
THE FOURTH ERA: 1976-2006
“It wasn’t always so. Back in the day, Post heads were as staid and conventional as any other paper’s. What made the difference? When were we granted leave to be wacky? It had to be the Australians and the Brits. There is no other way to explain the sea change that occurred after Dorothy Schiff sold The Post to Rupert Murdoch in 1976. Headlines rapidly shifted from the pedestrian and institutional to the rollicking and attitudinal.”
After Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in 1976, the tabloid turned headlines into a sort of populist art form and implicitly created a daily cleverness contest against the Daily News and other newspapers. This realignment of headline priorities quickly spread to non-tabloid front pages. These are some of the newspaper headlines, nationwide, for just the final two games of the 1986 World Series. There’s a pun for every story angle:
And so on.
The LA Times’ headline for that year’s Game 7, incidentally, was “A Knight Turns The Mets Into Kings.” Which is just awful. But most of the headlines of the era were awful. Headline writers were jamming puns into lengthy banner heads. Puns are, after all, supposed to be funny, and lack of brevity destroys the wit. Here are some of theLA Times’ other World Series headlines in the era:
THE FIFTH ERA: 2005-Present
Most people are terrible at art. That’s why there aren’t many working artists. It’s hard.
Even prestigious publications now follow the web’s headline conventions for big stories. Here are some of the LA Times’ recent World Series headlines:
This year’s headlines after Game 7 will be puns. Your Twitter feed will be flooded with puns. Puns are pretty much inevitable. Otherwise, though, modern life is amazing.