When the United States began to recover from the terrible trauma of the Civil War in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s, the game of baseball provided a healing tonic for many Americans. Baseball (or base ball, as it was typically written back then) had been around in one form or another for several decades prior to the Civil War, but that national tragedy provided fertile soil for the sport to grow exponentially in popularity. Soldiers from both Northern and Southern armies played baseball, and they took it home with them when their military service ended. A mere four years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the first professional baseball team had formed in Cincinnati, and two years later, in 1871, the first professional baseball league had been (loosely) organized.
As baseball’s popularity skyrocketed, newspapers featured detailed accounts of games, box scores reduced each contest to a quick-and-easy statistical snapshot, and top ball players—or “ballists”—became the idols of boys everywhere (men, too, if they were honest). Enthusiastic devotees rose up from all walks of life, but guardians of polite society frowned upon them and referred to them as “cranks,” a decidedly pejorative term. A crank, by definition, wasn’t quite right in the head—his mind was bent, crooked, and out-of-joint. He was enthusiastic about a subject or activity—overly enthusiastic—and therefore not stable. He was considered uncultured and unruly—not someone you’d want your daughter to socialize with at the church picnic.
By the late 1880s, the national game had found new descriptors for its devoted followers. We begin to see “rooter” occasionally and “fan”—short for “fanatic”—appearing in newspapers and magazines. Fanatic is derived from the Latin fanaticus: “mad, frantic, enthusiastic, inspired by deity,” a word with roots in fanum, “temple.” A baseball fanatic was almost religious in his devotion to the national game. It wasn’t much of an improvement over crank, at first. But when Cincinnati sports writer Ren Mulford Jr. coined the abbreviated form, fan, it somehow caught on with the general public.
As the national game evolved into the National Pastime, crank and rooter gradually fell by the wayside and fan took its place in America’s sports lexicon. Its less than complimentary “fanatic” connotations were forgotten, and baseball devotees everywhere proudly wore the fan moniker.
But the story isn’t done. Early in the twentieth century another word came on the scene, featured in Tin Pan Alley songs of the era: bug. This label for a baseball fan, popular between roughly 1904 and 1916, was borrowed from the everyday slang for an unspecified illness, a term we still use today, as in “I came down with a bug and was sick for a week.” In the early twentieth century, baseball devotees might say they were stricken with “baseball fever”—that they had “caught the baseball bug.” It didn’t take long for that “sickness” to be applied to the person him- or herself: one didn’t simply catch the bug, one was a bug—a baseball bug.
But bug didn’t have the staying power of fan, and by 1920, fan had regained its preeminent spot in the baseball lexicon. Soon, all sports had their fans. Were they “fanatics” in the literal denotation of the word? It’s true that some fans are fanatical in that sense: borderline crazy, frantic, seemingly possessed by a deity in the form of their favorite team or sport, a deity worshiped fervently on game day. We call them rabid fans—another term borrowed from the realm of disease—or, more respectably, “dyed-in-the-wool” fans.
But most fans are moderate in their fandom. They are knowledgeable about their sport, they enjoy watching or playing it, they follow the achievements of their favorite teams and players, and they enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded folks. And they recognize the common bond their fandom creates with folks everywhere. Baseball fans in California share something special with baseball fans in Texas, and Missouri, and Illinois, and New York. Though their educational, political, religious, economic, and ethnic backgrounds may differ, they share a certain unity as fans. And American fans share those same things with fans in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea, and many other places throughout the world. That commonality of interest unites us in ways few other things do. And that’s why I’m proud to say I’m a baseball fan.
But when I want to be quirky—which is frequently—I just say I’m a bug.
© Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.