in his wheelhouse

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Mon Jun 11 18:19:43 UTC 2001

     Paul Dickson's  _The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary_  gives 1959
as the first attestation of baseball "wheelhouse":"'It just seems
he's not seeing 'em the way he used to...He had a couple that came
right into the wheelhouse--the kind he used to knock out of
sight--and he fouled 'em off.' (Bill Rigney on Orlando Cepeda's
slump, _San Francisco Chronicle_, May 11, 1959; Peter Tamony
[Collection of Americanisms]."
      Dickson also gives an 1987 attestation: "[Ken] Dixon put a
fastball in [Charlie] Moore's wheelhouse...and dared Moore to hit it"
(_Washington Post_, June 7, 1987)."
        As for the etymology, Dickson first presents an unconvincing
derivation suggested by Tamony. Since it's unconvincing, I'll pass
over it in silence. Dickson then adds correctly: "In nautical terms,
a wheelhouse is the pilothouse or the place from which a vessel is
       So we're led back to 1959, the _San Francisco Chronicle_, and
Bill Rigney, who must have been a sportswriter. Peter Tamony, who
provided the 1959 attestation in his Collection, was seriously
collecting newspaper and magazine items of all sorts from the late
1920s, especially those from their native San Francisco.  Each day he
and his sister Kathleen (neither ever married) would go out and buy
all the newspapers and magazines they could, then return home where
they would spend two hours clipping and filing the interesting items.
By the time of his death in 1985 the collection was, as can be
imagined, huge, and it now resides in the Western Historical
Manuscript Collection (Columbia , Missouri).
     The point is that if baseball "wheelhouse" had more than minimal
currency prior to 1959, that currency would have been reflected in
the sports pages of the San Francisco newspapers. And if it appeared
there, it would have turned up in Tamony's Collection. And prior to
1959 it's not there.
     So if Bill Rigney did not draw his knowledge of baseball
"wheelhouse" from San Francisco baseball lingo, where did he get it
from? Did he perhaps initiate the baseball usage? And what is his
background?  Did that background perhaps include considerable
familiarity with boats and their wheelhouses, leading to the
inspiration to apply "wheelhouse" to a baseball context?
     So the next step is to find out something about Rigney.

---Gerald Cohen

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