How did a vegetable become baseball slang for an argument or fight? A rhubarb is baseball slang for a fight or argument among players and/or umpires. We do know that the term was popularized by famed baseball broadcaster Red Barber, but how rhubarbs became associated with altercations is not known with any certainty, but there are several explanations that merit mention:
- The word rhubarb was used by radio actors to imitate the sounds of raucous crowd. The actors would murmur “rhubarb, rhubarb” in the background to simulate crowd noise. From radio plays to sports broadcasting is a short leap.
- Sportswriter Garry Schumacher may have coined the term in 1938. Schumacher claimed to like the term because “it suggested an untidy mess, a disheveled tangle of loose ends like the fibers of stewed rhubarb.” Schumacher claimed to have used it in the press box of a Dodgers-Reds game and Barber overheard and subsequently used it on the radio.
- Rhubarb was often used as purgative and mothers would force their children to eat several doses a day. Children in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn were often sent outside with rhubarb sandwiches, which became missiles and weapons in fights.1
The acting use of rhubarb is recorded from 1934. From Alan P. Herbert’s Holy Deadlock of that year:
The chorus excitedly rushed about and muttered “Rhubarb!”2
The baseball use is attested to from 1943. From Baseball Magazine of January of that year:
A “rhubarb,” which has become Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires.3
On 13 July of that same year, the New York Herald Tribune cites Barber using the term:
Mr “Red” Barber,...who has been announcing the games of the Brooklyn Dodgers, has used the term"‘rhubarb" to describe an argument, or a mix-up, on the field of play.
Rhubarb was also WWII fighter-pilot slang for a strafing mission. Whether this comes from Brooklyn-born fighter pilots who had heard Barber use the term or from the other possible sources is not known. From Time magazine, 22 March 1943:
When a fighter pilot flies low over France, strafing whatever he finds—trains, troops, airdromes—he is “on a rhubarb.”4
The name of the root vegetable is from the Old French rubarbe, and English use dates to c.1400.
1Paul Dickson, The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999), 411.
3Dickson, Baseball Dictionary, 411.
4OED2, rhubarb, n.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton