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Posted: Friday December 15, 2006 10:15AM; Updated: Friday December 15, 2006 10:15AM
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Hat Trick
The Hat Trick has become one the most fun events for hockey fans, who litter the ice whenever one occurs.
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Welcome to the second edition of "Ask the 10 Spot," in which we answer readers' inquiries as to the origin of sports idioms. Since the questions were typically asked by more than one reader, they've been paraphrased here for simplicity's sake. Check out our first edition for more history.

1. Why are three goals in hockey or soccer referred to as a hat trick?

Answer: According to Robert Hendrickson, author of The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins as well as Grand Slams, Hat Tricks & Alley-Oops: A Sports Fan's Book of Words, the term originated in cricket in the 19th century. Bowlers were awarded a new hat (or received the proceeds of a collection made by passing a hat) when they bowled down three wickets. From there the phrase moved to horse racing (for a jockey who rode three consecutive winners), hockey and soccer. Some credit the genesis of the hockey term to a Toronto hatter in the 1940s named Sammy Taft, who gave free chapeaus to Maple Leafs who scored three goals in a game. (We don't know whether Taft was aware of the cricket connection.) Over time, fans began to toss hats onto the ice when a player scored his third goal.

2. Why is a high pop fly known as a can of corn?

Answer: The prevailing theory is that the phrase comes from old-time grocery stores. The grocer would use a pole or a mechanical grabber to tip an item, such as a can of corn, off the top of a high shelf, so it would tumble straight down into his hands or apron (which he'd use like a fireman's net). Another school of thought is that the term stems from "cornball," a confection of popcorn and molasses that was once popular with young people. Thus the pop fly was like the piece of corn "popping" into the air. We agree, the first explanation makes more sense.

3. Why is a bases-loaded home run called a grand slam?

Answer: The phrase originally came from bridge, in which as early as 1895 it was used to describe taking all 13 tricks in a deal. Next up was golf, as the term was widely used to describe Bobby Jones' feat of winning the four major tournaments (the U.S. Open and Amateur plus the British Open and Amateur) in 1930. The first citation in baseball in its current sense as the best possible hit (scoring four runs in one blow) came in 1940. But as Paul Dickson notes in his excellent The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, the phrase was first applied differently. There is a 1938 Sporting News headline that referred to the Yanks' four-game sweep of the Cubs in the 1938 World Series as a "Grand Slam," similar to Jones' feat. In the vernacular, the term is used to describe anything extraordinary and/or powerful, such as the cholesterol-busting breakfast at Denny's.

4. Why is an assist in basketball known as "dropping a dime" or simply as a dime?

Answer: The most logical explanation comes from the '60s phrase "to drop a dime," which the Dictionary of American Slang (HarperCollins) defines as "to give information, especially to the police." Most pay phones used to cost a dime; an informant would "drop a dime" to call police and thus "assist" in an arrest. (For our younger readers, pay phones were what people used to make calls outside the home or office before cell phones. Ask your parents.) Somehow the phrase made its way into hoops in the similar sense of providing an assist. Just don't tell Carmelo Anthony.

5. Why is a ground ball that bounces high in front of the plate known as a Baltimore chop?

Answer: The tactic was perfected in the 1890s by Baltimore Orioles great Wee Willie Keeler, presumably when he got tired of "hitting them where they ain't." The art was also furthered by Baltimore teammates John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, who both became Hall of Fame managers. According to Dickson, the dirt near home plate was purposely hardened at the Orioles' home park to make the ball bounce higher, so it would either soar over an infielder's head or take so long to come down that the runner might beat the throw to first.


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