For more than three decades, Jacques Doucet was the French-language radio voice of Major League Baseball.
Many Montreal baby boomers grew up listening to his mellifluous descriptions of lanceurs staring into home plate, frappeurs swinging for the fences and voltigeurs tracking down fly balls at la piste d’avertissement, or warning track.
But the Expos migrated south and started playing this spring as the Washington Nationals — the first move by a major-league team since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers 33 years earlier. That meant the disappearance of big-league baseball in French from North American airwaves.
Mr. Doucet and other announcers from the Expos’ early days were more than just broadcasters. They also helped hone modern French baseball lingo, polishing terminology that had been adapted from English over the course of a century.
A 1935 French-English lexicon put out by the Societe du Parler francais au Canada rendered the game, literally if awkwardly, as jeu de balle aux buts, and featured such quaint translations as batteur risque-tout (literally, daredevil batter) for “slugger” and gardien de but, (goalkeeper) for “baseman.”
In 1969, the Expos’ first season, the brewery sponsoring the team hosted a symposium for journalists and commentators to hash out terminology for le baseball. The recommendations included such colorful and enduring turns of phrase as balle papillon (butterfly ball) for “knuckleball” and vol-au-sol (theft at the ground) for “shoestring catch.”
But in a game of tactical nuance and long pauses, it often fell to the radio play-by-play men to figure out how best to paint word pictures in respectable French. Over the decades, Mr. Doucet, a former newspaper reporter who switched to broadcasting in 1972, became the acknowledged master of that art.
When Mr. Doucet described infielders moving to serrer les lignes de demarcation in the late innings of a close game, listeners would envision the players hugging the foul lines to guard against an extra-base hit. And if a frappeur de puissance (as sluggers are now known) hit a fleche (an “arrow,” or line drive) into the right-center field allee, listeners held their breath to hear whether the coureur (base-runner) would round third base and file vers le marbre (dash toward the “marble,” or home plate).
Mr. Doucet, “created the perfect words” to bring the action to life, says Jean Lapointe, a popular Quebec entertainer who is now a member of Canada’s Senate. “The quality of his language in French was incredible,” says Mr. Lapointe, who used to have aides record games during his stage performances so he could listen to them later…
A wonderful piece of nostalgia, both baseball and linguistic.
Incidentally, there’s a tornado watch over the Berkshires for the next hour, so if the house gets reduced to a pile of bricks, there may be a delay in posting…
Update. No tornado, just a rainstorm. And I was all prepared to blog from the cellar, too.