MUFFIN.

I am not referring to this kind of muffin (for a time I had apple-oat-bran muffins for breakfast every day, but that was another life) but to the nineteenth-century term meaning a poor baseball player, one who frequently muffs (misplays) the ball. I had been familiar with it for many years (being an aficionado of baseball history), but had not realized that the spread of professionalism in the late 1860s (culminating in the all-pro Cincinnati Red Stockings, who played the entire 1869 season without being defeated) was accompanied by a reaction in the form of “muffin teams” made up of people who just wanted to have fun and disliked the emphasis on skill and winning that had taken over the game. I learned about them from the best book I’ve read on baseball in years, Peter Morris’s But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870. It doesn’t have much to say about the prehistory of baseball—for that, you’ll want David Block’s magisterial Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game (Amazon, book website)—and it doesn’t focus on the details of games, leagues, and competitions (for which you should try to dig up a copy of Preston D. Orem’s 1961 self-published labor of love, Baseball 1845-1881 From the Newspaper Accounts); what it does, better than anything else I’ve read, is give a sense of how the game developed from the early days of the Knickerbockers (he makes a convincing case for which of their famous rules were truly “revolutionary”) to the coming of professionalism, seeing the points of view of all parties and not (as do most historians) siding implicitly with those that won out in the end. He makes you feel what it was like to be a young man getting involved with the game in the 1840s, or a middle-aged one resenting the changes twenty years later, and he ties the history of the game in with what was happening in the country at large (demolishing the usual simplistic assertions about the effect of the Civil War on the game). I heartily recommend it to anyone with any interest in the period.
But I’m getting carried away. I came here to bring you the following pseudo-etymology of the word muffin, from an undated committee report presented before a muffin game in Connecticut, found in the Chadwick Scrapbooks:

Your committee to whom was referred the inquiry as to the origin and definition of the word “muffin” beg leave to report: That from a careful examination I find the origin somewhat obscure, but am satisfied that it had a very early origin, from the fact that I find it compounded with the word “rag” as far back as the Crusades, when the appellation was esteemed highly honorable, indicating valor, virtue and perseverance; indeed, virtue has often been found clothed in rags. The definition of the word is less obscure, though some lexicographers have given it a very simple definition as “a spongy cake”; but it is evident that the error has arisen from a lack of knowledge of our illustrious order. The word Muffin is derived from the Latin Muggins, the French Mufti (high priest), and the German Bumm, and is a clear compound of Muff and fin. These words are then conjointly conjoined from their close proximity, indicating, among other things, comfort and grace, two conditions clearly assigned to our order. There are several other words I find belonging to the same family, e.g. puffing and bumming, and into the latter of these the Muffin generally merges. The definition of the word Muffin I have given in my earlier writings, where it can be found elaborately elaborated…

Well, it’s nineteenth-century Yankee humor, a little heavy, perhaps, but still tasty if you have a taste for it.

Comments

  1. That muffin “etymology” sounds very similar in style to Lewis Caroll’s faux etymology of the Belfry at his College. I wonder how close the two were in time?

  2. dearieme says:

    Two verbs from my childhood that meant “to make a mistake”, “to make a clumsy blunder”:
    “muff”, “maffle”. I don’t think I’ve heard “maffle” furth of Scotland.

  3. Let me throw in here my favorite baseball novel, indeed the only one I know which is also a time travel novel; it’s about the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back.

  4. I just ordered it—many thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Faldone says:

    And there’s a sequel: Two in the Field.

  6. John Emerson says:

    Amateur and semi-pro baseball was big in Minnesota small towns in my childhood (50s and early 60s). Every town had a team and in some towns the local boosters would compete with the minor leagues to hire college players and other promising players. Amateurism rules were lax. (Moose Skowron was the most famous player to go through this system; very few ever made the pros).
    The system still is flourishing among the smallest towns (fewer than 500 people). When I was bicycling around my home area last summer I saw a number of well-kept, fully equipped basebal diamonds in such towns.
    On 19th century Yankee humor: I’ve recently been dipping into Holmes’s “Autocrat at the Breakfast Table” and it’s pretty good. Lots of snark, a fair amount of erudition, and very little of the edification we dread from writers of that era.

  7. I discovered in Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which I read this year at jamessal’s instigation, that the Autocrat Holmes was Oliver Wendell’s daddy-o. The book is about Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Pierce and Dewey.

  8. Amateurism rules were lax.
    This made me smile, thinking of the last days of “amateur” rugby union, especially in France, where players were switching from the openly professional rugby league to play “amateur” rughby union and NZ rugby players were earning handsome salaries as “tennis coaches”.

  9. clodhopper says:

    Do not forget Gentlemen vs Players and those scoundrels the Lancashire league that drop 2 players so that they could get paid rather spend monies on good beer and song.

  10. “muff”, transitive verb related to blunders, especially in ball games, is still common in the US, and is in the OED but not found before the 1830′s.
    “maffle” meaning “to stammer” is in Webster’s Unabridged 1913. The OED has it going way back, but surviving only in some unspecified dialects, and also gives the senses “to blunder” and “to confuse, bewilder”.
    No indication of connection between maffle and muff.
    I’m glad to have learned “maffle” and “furth” today.

  11. Just got my copy of If I Never Get Back—can’t wait to read it!

  12. Well, when you finish, I hope to see a blog posting on it.

Speak Your Mind

*