Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Holy Cow! Hinduism and Baseball



Holy Cow! Hinduism and Baseball 

  (The connection goes back at least 100 years before Disney's Million Dollar Arm)



Holy Cow! In the United States, this well-known, exlamatory phrase is closely associated with well-known baseball announcers Phil Rizzuto and Harry Caray, although younger generations might be more familiar with parodies of them from Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live.  But since cows are actually holy in the Hindu tradition, you might expect the phrase to be more associated with cricket than with baseball.  Nevertheless, the origin of Holy Cow! seems to be intertwined with both baseball and Hinduism from its earliest days.

Harry Caray (?)
Holy Cow! appears to have originated among baseball players as a minced oath to avoid being penalized for using foul language.  They likely played off the sacredness of cows in Hinduism to avoid the sacrilegious (in the Christian tradition) Holy Christ! or the vulgar Holy [Ess-word]! Holy Cow! may also have borrowed from a Hindu phrase.

 

 

Baseball


The phrase Holy Cow! was in use in non-baseball contexts before either Rizzuto (1957) or Caray (1945) started their broadcasting careers.  It was used as the catchphrase in the F. Hugh Herbert’s 1943 play, Kiss and Tell, and the long-running radio show based on characters from that play, Meet Corliss Archer (1943-1956), as well comic book and television adaptations (1951-1955) of the radio program.  

Holy Cow! had also been used in baseball circles before Caray and Rizzuto started broadcasting.  Leo Durocher, the long-time Dodgers manager, used the phrase in a skit performed at the New York Baseball Writer’s Show in 1943. Leo Durocher, The Dodgers and Me, the Inside Story, Ziff Davis Publishing Co. (1948).

Sportswriters used the phrase before the 1940s.  The phrase appeared in William Heyliger’s football-themed, boys’ novel, Fighting Blood (1936).  Although that book focused on football, Heyliger wrote a number of baseball novels, including his first big hit, Strike Three!  Heyliger was a popular author in the then-popular genre of boys’ sports fiction.  Heyliger, who was described as a “cut above the rest,” among authors of the genre, wrote about sports using glowing, last-golden-rays-of-sunset language reminiscent of W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, or Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, the film adaptation of Shoeless Joe:

Their world was an American lost paradise of boyhood, porch gliders and rustling shade, girls who were "true-blue, plucky, with red hair and a nose not guiltless of freckles," and prep schools with playing fields "wide and free, the smell of early grass, the ripple of soft breeze...the damp give of springy turf." It was the twilight of a vanished innocence that had existed for only white, small-town, middle-class Americans.

Sports Illustrated (April 23, 1962). It is easy to see the influence that such books may have had on a young W. P. Kinsella.


Early Baseball


Hammering Hank Gowdy
But Holy Cow! reaches even further back in baseball.  When “Hammering” Hank Gowdy (famous for being the first major leaguer to volunteer to fight in World War I) returned from the war, his speech was brief:

“Holy cow, this is great.”

The Washington Times (DC), May 25, 1919.  The Big Apple online etymology dictionary cites even earlier evidence of use in baseball from as early as 1913.

An article about the retirement of White Sox catcher Billy Sullivan in 1915  suggests that he may have used the phrase, Holy Cow!, in baseball years earlier (he first played in the majors in 1901):

Billy Sullivan
Billy Sullivan, former White Sox catcher, who was with Minneapolis last season, announces that he has quit baseball forever.  Sullivan was unique in his use of expletives.  When angered he would cry “Gee whiz!” but if driven to distraction he would fire at an umpire these terrible words, “Holy cow, Mr. Umpire! Whatter you givin’ us? Holy cow!

The New York Tribune, November 14, 1915. 

Indecent or improper language had been subject to immediate fine, without appeal, since as early as 1883:
 
Rule 69. For the special benefit of the patrons of the Game, and because the offenses specified are under his immediate jurisdiction, and not subject to appeal by players, the attention of the Umpire is particularly directed to possible violations of the purpose and spirit of the Rules, of the following character: . . .

3. Indecent or improper language addressed by a player to the audience, the Umpire, or any player.  In any of these cases the Umpire should promptly fine the offending player.


Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book for 1883 (A. G. Spalding & Bros., Chicago).

But does any of this indicate that the phrase originated in baseball?  Although it does not constitute “proof,” exactly, the mere fact that nearly all of the earliest attestations of the phrase are from baseball contexts is at least suggestive of the fact that the phrase originated in, or was at least popularized or widely disseminated, by baseball players.  I did not include these early baseball examples here because of a particular interest in baseball; these early baseball examples are the only attestations from this period that I (or anyone else) have found.


Earlier Sources


The phrase “holy cow!” was known in Minnesota at least as early as 1905.  The phrase appeared in a humor column in the Minneapolis Journal, in a response to a purported letter to the editor.  A “lover of the cow,” perhaps a dairy farmer (Minnesota is dairy country), defended the honor of cows with tongue firmly planted in cheek:

A lover of the cow writes to this column to protest against a certain variety of Hindoo oath having to do with the vain use of the name of the milk producer.  There is the profane exclamations, “holy cow!” and, “By the stomach of the eternal cow!”  These are Hindoo cuss words of great fierceness and antiquity and probably correspond to the American farmer’s hostile invective, “by hen.”  Then there’s grandma’s blasphemy in times of great stress:

“Cat’s foot!”

Evidently the mind needs some familiar figure from which to start explosively when things go wrong.  Eugene Field’s favorite “by the dog” should not be forgotten in this connection for it is often very soothing.

Minneapolis Journal, November 24, 1905.  

Although the article gives no indication as to how widespread the phrase was, or in what contexts the phrase was used, it at least displays an awareness of the existence of the phrase and shows it being used as an exclamation.


Hindu Origins

But was “Holy Cow” actually a Hindu oath, as the writer of the above letter suggests?  The letter was, after all, a humor piece and likely not a reliable source for information on Hindu curse words.  But two nineteenth century English authors suggest that a similar phrase may have been in use in India, or at least believed to be used in India, as early as the 1820s.  

In Richard Garnett’s short story Ananda the Miracle Worker (published in Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales (T. Fisher Unwin, 1888)), a Hindu nobleman who was tricked into believing that a Buddhist priest had performed a miracle says, “[b]y the holy cow! . . . this is something like a religion!”  William Hockley’s Pandurang Hàrì, or, Memoirs of a Hindoo (Geo. B. Whittaker, 1826) contains several references to swearing by the holy cow.  In the first use of the phrase, a character says, “I swear by the holy cow never to give up my revenge.”  A footnote describes the phrase as a “solemn Hindoo adjuration.”  Other uses of the phrase throughout the book similarly invoke the holy cow to make solemn promises or to request divine help or guidance.

Although these books do not necessarily prove that the phrase was actually ever used by Hindus in India, they at least reflect that the origins of the American exclamation Holy Cow! may have been drawn from English descriptions of life in India.  

I do not mean to suggest that Billy Sullivan or other baseball players were well-versed in English-Indian literature.  However, they may have had a general awareness that cows were holy somewhere, and adapted the phrase as a humorous, neutral riff on more-offensive phrases, to avoid the penalties for indecent language in baseball.  Whether they were up on English-Indian literature or not, they certainly had the opportunity to learn about holy cows from numerous other, more readily available sources.  Holy cows had been mentioned with some regularity in American newspapers during the years leading up to the first appearance of Holy Cow! in 1905. 

A short story by Broughton Brandenburg, entitled, "Four-legged Fakir," (Metropolitan Magazine, 1904) was reprinted in newspapers in every corner of the country, from New York to Louisiana and South Carolina, and from Virginia to Washington State and Hawaii, and places in between.  The second line of the story, as well as some of the headlines accompanying the article, refer to "holy cows and sacred monkeys."  

In 1905, some accounts of the excavation of the tomb of King Mentuhetem III in Egypt described scenes showing the "holy cows and calves of Hathor." The Evening Star (Washington DC), July 10, 1905.  

In the late 1890s, a widely-reprinted story about hidden gold in India described masons who were, "sworn to secrecy in the temple of the holy cow." See, e.g., Indian Chieftain (Vintia, Oklahoma), February 6, 1896 (reprinted from Chambers' Journal).  

An article about ornamental iron-work described a New Orleans church with, "a prayer to the holy cow upon the altar of a Christian church!"  The designer had copied the inscription, believing that they were merely ornamental details. St. Paul (Minnesota) Daily Globe, October 11, 1891. 


Holy Cow!'s Legacy

Holy Cow! was a home-run.  It left the park and is now used in all fields of endeavor.  But we can thank baseball, and perhaps Hinduism, for giving us one more way to strike the right chord while avoiding foul language.

       Holy Cow!!!
Phil Rizzuto
 
Harry Caray

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