|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
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.
|Is this the 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.
|Maybe this one|
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.