March 17, 2014

Rephrasing: Sittin' in the Catbird Seat

Gray Catbird
My first Gray Catbird (August 11, 2011, Bluffer's Park, Toronto)
It showed me those orange undertail coverts and it even meowed at me.

There's an association between baseball and birds that goes back with me about as far as I can remember. It's probably only natural growing up in a town where the home team is the Blue Jays. Maybe people who grew up in Baltimore and St. Louis can say the same. For me as a kid in the Eighties and Nineties, I was part of new breed of Toronto kid -- still a minority then and now -- more into baseball than hockey. I lived and breathed Blue Jays baseball. When my dad took me to get my first real baseball glove, I remember looking at all the different gloves in the store and being slightly overwhelmed, but knowing as soon as I saw it that I wanted the Tony Fernandez model.

Ball boy Jeff Pinchuk covers the corpse
Photo credit: unknown
A few years earlier, back in 1983, I wasn't even ten years old, but I remember how this city went crazy when Dave Winfield, then centrefielder for the hated New York Yankees,killed a seagull at Toronto's old Exhibition Stadium. Depending on who you choose to believe, just before the bottom of the fifth inning Winfield either casually tossed or intentionally chucked a warm-up ball at a Ring-billed Gull. The gull died almost instantly. After the game Winfield was taken into police custody and charged with cruelty to animals, which led manager Billy Martin to quip, "They wouldn't say that if they'd sen the throws he'd been making all year. It's the first time he's hit the cutoff man!"

Years later, soon-to-be Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson created one of the craziest sports highlights of all-time when one of his trademark fastballs was intercepted halfway to home plate by a dove. There was an explosion of feathers, one dead dove, and an official call of 'no pitch.'

These intersections of baseball and birds all came back to me recently as I was looking up the origin of the idiom "sitting in the catbird seat", and I found yet another one. The phrase, which as we all know essentially means 'to be in an enviable position', is generally given to have originated in print with the American writer and cartoonist James Thurber. Thurber's short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker, include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was made into a well-received Danny Kaye film in 1947 and a poorly-received Ben Stiller film in 2013, and The Catbird Seat, published in 1942 and, funnily enough, also made into a film, this time starring Peter Sellers.


In The Catbird Seat, Mr. Martin, mild-mannered head of the filing department at "F & S", plots the murder of a Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, a woman brought in to find 'efficiencies' in the company. These efficiencies tend to take the form of the firing of the company's employees and Mr. Martin feels he could be next. More than this, though, he is repulsed by Mrs. Barrow's boorish manner, most notably her speech which is peppered with phrases like "Are you hollering down the rain barrel?" and "Are you sitting in the catbird seat?" One of Mr. Martin's coworkers, notes that Mrs. Barrows must be a Dodgers fan and she would have picked these phrases up from Red Barber on the radio.

Gray Catbird
Is this the seat?
One of the true pioneers of baseball broadcasting, Red Barber called the games on the radio for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees from 1934-1966. It is Red Barber who is credited for such broadcasting mainstays as calling "back...back...back..." on a long flyball or homerun, and, one of my personal favourites, the simple exclamation after a big play of "Oh, Doctor!" Born and raised in Mississippi, Red was a true Southerner and was well known for the many folksy phrases that he brought to his broadcasts -- phrases like "tearin' up the pea patch", "slicker than boiled okra" and, of course, "sittin' in the catbird seat."

It's an interesting side note that Barber's own daughter claims that her father never even used the term until after he had read Thurber's story. Did Thurber attribute a fictitious Barber-ism (if you'll pardon the pun) to Barber that was eventually co-opted by the real guy to whom it was credited or does Barber's daughter have her facts wrong? And does it even matter? Because as much as this whole story is what you'll read if you look up the origin of the saying, it actually far predates James Thurber and Red Barber. While those gentlemen are both certainly responsible for bringing 'catbird seat' into wider usage in the 20th century, like many of the other phrases used by Mrs. Barrows in Thurber's story and by the real Red Barber, this one is a colloquialism of the American south of the 19th century.

Gray Catbird
Maybe this one
But why the catbird? What is it about the catbird's seat that makes it such a favourable spot? I have read many attempts to explain the phrase by suggesting that the Gray Catbird (the only catbird found in North America) will always find the highest perch in a tree to sing and display. Personally, I have a couple of problems with that explanation: most birds that sing to attract a mate, do so from a high and visible perch. This is certainly not something that describes any peculiar behaviour of the Catbird and, aside from that, in my own experience, I find that Catbirds will quite often sing from any medium level branch, in partial cover, or wherever they happen to be. I have also read someone try to pass off a theory that this actually refers to one of the Australian species of catbird, of which there are four and which are part of the Bowerbird family, where the males are inclined to collect objects often shiny or of certain colours to decorate an attractive bower in order to entice a female to mate. This well-adorned 'seat' is then the natural origin of the phrase, according to proponents of this theory, although it seems like quite a stretch to me that an Australian bird could be the subject of a southern US idiom. Perhaps we may never know the full history of this saying.

I've made this connection between baseball and birds in my mind and it may seem tenuous, but consider Dave Winfield again. He probably didn't think he was in a very enviable position that evening in Toronto back in 1983, but as fate would have it almost a decade later, in the winter leading up to the 1992 season, he would sign a one-year deal with the Jays. That season, Toronto made it to their first World Series and in Game 6 with Toronto up three games to two over the Atlanta Braves, Winfield, who had struggled at the plate for most of the series hit a two-run double at the top of the 11th inning. That second run would prove to be the World Series winning run. Catbird seat, indeed.

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