6 Theories on the Origin of the Bullpen

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No one really knows where the term bullpen comes from, and no one theory has enough compelling evidence to support or refute the origin. No more certain is the debate about when the word bullpen was first used. OED sites the earliest use dating back to a 1924 Chicago Tribune article, while other sources say the area referring to where pitchers warm up (especially relief pitchers), was first called the bullpen in a Baseball Magazine article published in 1915.

Regardless, the National League Championship series between the Dodgers and Phillies opens tonight, and the pen is certainly going to figure heavily in it. So we thought we'd take a look at six popular bullpen origin theories that have been going around for some time. If we left one of your favorites off the list, by all means tell us about it in the comments below.

1. The fans herded like cattle theory

85563124ES015_NEW_YORK_YANKOne of the more likely theories goes like this: In the 1800s, a few innings after a game started, fans could get tickets at the box office for a big discount. But cheap tickets came with a, er, catch: you had to stand in a roped-off area off to the side of the field in foul territory. So the fans were treated a bit like cattle in a pen. When this area became the spot where pitchers warmed up, once relievers became part of the game, the name stuck.

2. The Bull Durham Tobacco theory

BullDurham1In the late 1800s, early 1900s, many stadiums featured giant Bull Durham Tobacco ads on the outfield fence. Because relievers warmed up behind the fence, the picture became associated with the pitchers.

3. The pitcher headed to slaughter theory

bullpenThis theory suggests that relievers, like bulls, sit in a holding pen before being sent off to slaughter. Though a clear metaphor, certainly as much could be said for a pitcher like Jose Mesa heading out into game 7 of the '97 World Series, right?

4. The Casey Stengel theory

caseyismOutfielder and manager Casey (at the Bat) Stengel, used to say that the term came from the fact that relief pitchers sat in the pen shooting the bullsh*t.

5. The rodeo theory

rodeo-bull-riding-smSome argue that the name was taken from another popular sport: rodeo. Here, of course, bulls (and their cowboys) are held in a small pen before being released into the arena. Perhaps the bucking bull is a metaphor for the opposing team ready to knock the cowboy out of the game.

6. The Jon Miller theory

worst-outfit-everIf you live in the Bay-area, you certainly are familiar with Jon Miller's voice calling the Giants' games. A favorite on ESPN's Sunday/Monday night baseball, as well, Miller has said that the term originates with the Giants—that is, the New York Giants, who used to play on the Polo Grounds in the late 1800s. According to Miller, there was a real bull pen out beyond the left-field fence, with real bulls in it! And the relief pitchers warmed up not too far from there.

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October 15, 2009 - 5:07am
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