Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca has an interesting investigation of the phrase “in [my, etc.] wheelhouse”:

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word wheelhouse, referring to the pilothouse on a boat that contains the wheel, back to 1835. And for over 100 years, from what I have found, all written references to people “in the wheelhouse” describe the person’s physical location in the wheelhouse of a boat. The OED does not yet have a definition for the metaphorical extension of the word, from the place on the boat where one is in control to other sweet spots (assuming this is the metaphorical extension).

Baseball holds the key to the transition from boats to areas of personal strength.[…]

The earliest baseball reference she found was from 1964; in an Update she credits Ben Zimmer with finding examples back to 1959 in Paul Dickson’s The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. I’ve always liked the phrase, which I learned as a young baseball fan, and always wondered how it got to mean “in the area where a hitter likes to hit a ball.”


  1. Jeffry House says

    It’s hard to be definitive, but I am pretty sure I remember Milwaukee Braves’ radio commentator Earl Gillespie using the phrase when describing home runs by Ed Matthews and Hank Aaron. I moved from Wisconsin in 1958, so I think the phrase was “out there” before Ben Zimmer’s find.

  2. Jim Brosnan, a longtime MLB pitcher, used wheelhouse in his book about the ’59 season in St Louis (published in 1960) in a way that suggests that the word is neither well-known among the public nor something obscure among ballplayers. Because of this, I am skeptical that the phrase originated with a SF newspaper columnist

  3. I don’t think anybody claims it originated with a San Francisco newspaper columnist. Dickson got the quote from Peter Tamony, a SF-based etymologist who followed the local sports pages. (Tamony’s the one who turned up the early evidence for jazz from reading sportswriter “Scoop” Gleeson in the S.F. Bulletin — in that case, San Francisco really did play a crucial role.)

  4. Given the sort of oafs who play professional sports you have to wonder whether it’s a euphemism for “in the whorehouse” or the like. It’s easy to score in a whorehouse, I’d imagine.

  5. P.S. When I say “oafs” I’m excluding cricketers, obviously. Well, most of them.

  6. Here’s some Google n-gram data, for what it’s worth.

  7. I hardly know anything about baseball or other professional sports, but since “wheelhouse” is a place in a boat, one would expect that the usage arose in a port city rather than an inland one. Or at least that the first player to use it was from a port city. Since the pilot at the “wheel” controls the motion of the boat, could “in the wheelhouse” mean or imply “in full control”? the place where the player feels most in control?

  8. @marie-lucie. It’s not that easy to come up with a name of a large American city which is not situated near a lake, a river, or an ocean. Maybe Dallas?

  9. D.O. a lake, a river or an ocean : most cities are on a river, but how many of those rivers are big enough for boats which require pilots?

  10. Before the 1960’s, the only major league baseball team not in a city that was historically a major port was the Washington Senators. Whether the sort of vessels that handled shipping traffic out of St. Louis and Cincinnati back in the day typically had “wheelhouses” is a question of maritime industry jargon which I’m not competent to address.

  11. John Burgess says

    Many–if not most–baseball players are recruited from university in the US. Latin American players, not so much. As for the odd Canadian or Australian…
    Paddle boats were pretty common on large American rivers, from New England to Washington State. They were certainly a hallmark of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Even Washington, DC had them, serving the ports of Alexandria (part of DC until 1846) and Georgetown.

  12. It seems I’m not enough of a baseball-history nerd (and none of the rest of you are either, it appears), but I prob should have pushed back the detachment of baseball from historic ports to the mid-50’s relocation of the A’s from Philly to Kansas City (which was originally founded because of its riverine location but rose to big-city status as a railroad town). The title of this blog suggests that at least in the current era “wheelhouse” is a normal feature of the tugboats that move barge traffic around the inland waterways of the U.S., so being away from the oceans or Great Lakes shouldn’t matter.
    I believe it is a comparatively recent phenomenon (as in, becoming significant in the 1970’s, and thus subsequent to the rise of the baseball sense of “wheelhouse”) for a substantial percentage (even now I don’t think it’s a whole lot above 50%) of US-born major league baseball players to have played college ball rather than gone into the minor leagues straight out of high school.

  13. Marie-Lucie – Until the trains were put in, the only efficient way to move large quantities of goods around the interior of the country was by water, so where the rivers weren’t navigable, the cities didn’t grow. All kinds of raw materials are still moved around by barge and tug-boat. (Incidently, those barges are terrifying to come across in a crew shell in the dark at 6 am. The rivermen are just as scared as the rowers: crew shells don’t maneuver quickly and barges don’t stop.)

  14. Not sure that this data isn’t more telling. A definite uptick post-1960.
    I’d always associated this phrase not with boats but with the kind of mechanical device that might pull a cable car. A baseball player tries to swing on on a smooth plane, much like the large wheels I’m imagining.

  15. Thanks for setting me right on US hydrography, at least for the Eastern half or at least third of the country.

  16. Marie-Lucie – Definitely half, at least, the few cities of the great plains states are mostly on on the few major rivers. Plus the west coast. To the point, very nearly all the population centers over the first half of the century, which is when we’re talking about.

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    And the same is at least partly true in far-inland Canada. Edmonton, for example, is where it is because that’s where the Hudson’s Bay Company situated one of its fur-trading outposts (ditto for Winnipeg, except there they took over the site of a pre-existing French trading post), and those outposts were situated on rivers to allow the furs to be transported back east by water to the maximum extent possible. Regina, by contrast, is in the middle of nowhere from a riverine-commerce perspective, because it wasn’t settled until the railroad had already come through.

  18. I spent way more time than necessary goofing off on wikipedia and google maps to research that last comment (Bismark and Fargo, ND, are or were on accessible waterways and a lot of the western states had populations of maybe 200,000 in 1950). I ended up wondering, among other things, what’s different about Europe and/or Eastern Canada that Marie-Lucie even thought to ask the question, (did the shorter distances between european farms and markets mean that extensive large-scale waterway transportation was never needed? Or did they just stick to small canals with tow-paths and mules until trucks or trains made the mules obsolete?) (I suppose european cities are mostly on rivers, too, but not for reasons of 19th century commerce), also why Paris has low stone bridges that weren’t built for large boats to go under, and how Denver got to be so large: it seems out of scale of any apparent economic drivers in the region?

  19. what’s different about Europe and/or Eastern Canada that Marie-Lucie even thought to ask the question, (did the shorter distances between european farms and markets mean that extensive large-scale waterway transportation was never needed? Or did they just stick to small canals with tow-paths and mules until trucks or trains made the mules obsolete?)
    Though fur-trading outposts had been established in Western Canada for many years, Canada’s Great Plains area was settled only with the coming of the railroad. The agriculture that followed was always geared strongly for export, and could not have existed without subsidized rail rates. See Crow Rate and Canadian Wheat Board.

  20. There are some large rivers in Western Europe, some (including the Seine) used for transporation of heavy, bulky goods, and canals between some of them, but they are not on the scale of the Mississippi! or even the Saint-Laurent. The bridges in Paris are fairly low because they were built to accommodate barges not sailing ships. The Seine is not (comparatively) very wide in Paris, it becomes wider as it goes West, but also slower, with many meanders which greatly increase the length of a barge’s trip from Paris to Le Havre, for instance, compared to the trip by road or railway using a more direct toute.
    Between rivers and canals there is a vast network of waterways in France. Some travel companies rent out boats to tourists who prefer the slower pace and different scenery of travel by water rather than by road, using rivers and canals.

  21. Canada’s Great Plains area was settled only with the coming of the railroad
    … which, by the way, is why Ontario English became the English of Western Canada with essentially no changes.

Speak Your Mind