One of the mysteries of the game of baseball is the origin of the term bullpen, the name for the area in which relief pitchers warm up. Several competing theories vie for the origin. About all we know for sure is the earliest recorded use of the term to refer to the pitchers’ warm-up area was not until 17 August 1913 in the Washington Post:
He corrects the faults of the youthful trajectory hurlers and takes them to the “bullpen” in the afternoon and keeps them warmed up.
And next season the same paper had this to say about the Chicago White Sox on 12 April 1914:
At this juncture Manager Callahan crooked his index finger and “Butcher” Benz ambled in from the “bull pen.”1
The theory that is best supported by the linguistic evidence is that the baseball use of bullpen is simply a specialized use of the term which already carried the meaning of a waiting area. Bullpen has a long use meaning an enclosed holding area, dating back a more than a century before the baseball sense arose. In 1809 making a reference to 1780, Parson Mason Weems, in his Life of General Francis Marion wrote:
The tories were all handcuffed two and two, and confined together under a sentinel, in what was called a bull-pen made of pine trees, cut down so …as to form …a pen or enclosure.
Bullpen was used throughout the 19th century to mean a jail cell or prison. By the beginning of the 20th century, the term was being used to refer to any enclosed waiting area. From O. Henry’s 1903 Works:
Unlock him …and let him come to the bull-pen …the warden’s outer office.2
The association of relief pitchers with both big, strong animals and convicts undoubtedly had appeal for some as well. So the term would work on several levels.
But there is also evidence of the waiting area sense being used in baseball in the 19th century as well, only not for the relievers’ warm-up area. In some 19th century ballparks, spectators would be admitted to a fenced-off area in foul territory (where many modern bullpens are today) where they could stand and watch the game. This area was known as a bullpen. From the 7 May 1877 Cincinnati Enquirer:
The bull pen at the Cincinnati grounds with its “three-for-a-quarter” crowd has lost its usefulness.3
Another popular theory is that around the turn of the century relievers would warm up near the outfield fence, where signs for Bull Durham Tobacco. The picture of the bull, associated with the pitchers, who were usually the largest and strongest members of the team, was enough to create the imagery for the term. Beginning in 1909, Bull Durham ran a promotion offering $50 to any player who hit one of the signs with a fairly batted ball during a game. That year there were 50 parks with such signs. The next year there were 150 such parks.4
The 1988 movie Bull Durham depicts such a sign in a modern minor league park and a prize of a steak dinner for a player who hits it with a ball:
Catcher “Crash” Davis: Look at that, he hit the fucking bull! Guy gets a free steak! You having fun yet?
Pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh: Oh, yeah. Havin’ a blast.
LaLoosh: God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!
Davis: He did know.
Davis: I told him.5
Given the earlier uses of bullpen to mean a waiting area, especially the 1877 Cincinnati citation, it seems unlikely that the Bull Durham signs were the origin of the term, although it is easy to see how people could associate the name of the area with the sign and the signs may have played a role in popularizing the term.
Finally, no less than Casey Stengel weighed in on the subject. Stengel’s explanation is probably more indicative of his opinion of relief pitchers than of the term’s origin. So we’ll just leave off with Stengel’s own words from 1967:
You could look it up and get eighty different answers, but we used to have pitchers who could pitch fifty or sixty games a year and the extra pitchers would just sit around shooting the bull, and no manager wanted all that gabbing on the bench. So he put them in this kind of pen in the outfield to warm up, it looked like a place to keep cows or bulls.6
1Barry Popik, “Last in the American League (1904); Bullpen (1913),” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 2 Dec 2002.
2Historical Dictionary of American SlangHistorical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 303.
3Paul Dickson, The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999), 91.
5Ron Shelton, Bull Durham (Orion Pictures Corporation, 1988).
6Dickson, Baseball Dictionary, 89.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton