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In baseball, a fungo bat is, according to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), "a long thin bat used for hitting fungoes," and a fungo is either "a fly ball hit esp. for practice fielding by a player who tosses a ball in the air and hits it as it comes down" or a "FUNGO BAT." The Eleventh Collegiate dates fungo to "ca. 1867" and fungo bat to 1926, but it reports that the origin of the word fungo is unknown.

San Francisco Giants bench coach Ron Wotus is quoted in today's Oakland Tribune discussing the bat he uses for hitting fly balls to fielders during outfield practice:

Model: Old Hickory PRO F3

Dimensions: 36 inches, 29 ounces, maple. It's a fungo! [Most game bats are 33.5 to 34.5 inches long and weigh 31 to 34 ounces.]

Upper cuts: "Can't go without the fungo! You know, I'm not sure how they got their name. I think it was in the Italian league."

But the Italian Baseball League was formed in 1948, which doesn't match well with the circa 1867 origin of the term fungo. The Wikipedia article subsection on fungo bat (part of a longer page on baseball bat) offers a different possible etymology for fungo:

The etymology of the word fungo (pronunciation: /ˈfʌŋɡoʊ/) is uncertain, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is derived from the Scots fung: to pitch, toss, or fling.

However, the entries for fung in Chambers Scots Dictionary (1911) are less baseball-friendly than the Wikipedia/OED treatment might suggest:

Fung, v. to strike, beat; to kick; to throw with force; to anger; to annoy, offend; to work briskly; to work in a temper; to lose one's temper; to give forth a sharp, whizzing sound.—n. a blow, thrust, kick; a 'bang' out, the pet, a fit of bad temper. —adv. violently, with a 'whiz'.

Fung, n. beer.

Fung about, v. to drive hither and thither at high speed.

I have three questions about fungo as used in U.S. baseball:

  1. What is the source of the word fungo?

  2. When was fungo in the sense of "a fly ball" first recorded in print?

  3. How (if at all) has the word's meaning changed since it was coined?

  • 2
    If it's any help, the word fungo is used a number of times in the "fly ball" sense in Ring Lardner's 1916 collection of baseball stories "You Know Me, Al". Some of these stories were previously published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914. – Hugh Meyers Mar 27 '16 at 20:19
  • Thanks, Hugh Meyers. I just checked The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (1989), which devotes more than 1½ pages to fungo, including coverage of five theories of its origin, without reaching any definitive conclusions: the 'fun/go' theory, the fungible theory, the fungus theory, the fangen theory, and the (Scots) fung theory. I'm hopeful that some obscure early newspaper account will turn up and offer insight into the origin. – Sven Yargs Mar 27 '16 at 21:09
  • If you have no other leads, maybe try the Chicago Tribune. Lardner was a sports writer for the Tribune in 1907 and from the context of his stories it seems he expected the term to be familiar to his readers. The Tribune has been around since 1847 so if the term was introduced around 1867 and was well established by 1907 perhaps some intermediate date might give an explanation. – Hugh Meyers Mar 28 '16 at 18:51
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The Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary is mistaken about "fungo bat" being only from 1926.

There is an ad in the 1916 Spalding's Official Base Ball Record :

No. F Hardwood "Fungo" Bat. 38 inches long, thin model.

An early meaning of "fungo" is given in the 1874 Chadwick's base ball manual, which has a section titled "Terms" in which there is an entry on page 54:

FUNGO.

This is a style of batting useful only in affording out-fielders a chance for practice in taking long, high balls on the fly. It, however, gets the batsman out of good batting form, for he has to hit the ball as it falls perpendicularly, and not as it comes to him in pitching, nearly horizontally.

An earlier use of the word "fungo" is from the 31 May 1871 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, page 4:

This is not skillful batting-it is little else than "fungo" hitting

And even earlier from the 2 April 1870 New York Clipper page 413:

They should certainly stop "fungo" batting, for nothing gets a batsman's sight out of training sooner than batting at a ball which drops perpendicularly, as in fungo

As to the origin, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary discusses 5 different theories of word origin.

One unresolved issue is whether or not "fungo" or "fungoes" is the original form of the word. Dickson and others cite to Chadwick's 1867 The Base Ball Player's Book of Reference which gives a short list of "Technical Terms to Base Ball" and includes on page 138:

FUNGOES.—A preliminary practice game in which one player takes the bat and tossing the ball up hits it as it falls, and if the ball is caught in the field on the fly, the player catching it takes the bat. It is useless as practice in batting, good for taking fly balls.

"Fungoes" and "fungo" also referred to a game played of its own right, no just as practice for baseball.

In fact, according to the 1893 The Eagle and Brooklyn... volume 2 :

fifty years ago ... Schoolboys played a sort of ball game they called "old cat" or "fungoes," a kind of apology for the base-ball of to-day

There is also the 1887 short book Jack Winthrop of Old 15:

The scene of this story is the Old Fifth Street school. It is a truthful narrative, without any exaggeration, of the career of a former pupil from his entrance into the Primary to the day of his graduation... 40 years ago... He could play "Fungoes" before he knew the alphabet

and the October 1888 Cosmopolitan article Our National Game says the game fungo preceded baseball:

Naturally the first form of play was what we now call “fungo-hitting;” that is, he hit the ball in the air for his companions to catch.

  • Very interesting information on both "fungo bat" and "fungo"—thanks! The earliest instance of fungo that I've been able to find is from a New York newspaper in 1876, which, curiously, draws a distinction between pregame fielding practice and pregame "'fungo' batting." – Sven Yargs Apr 12 '16 at 18:43
  • @SvenYargs Chadwick's 1867 "The Base Ball Player's Book of Reference" catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_1824552 is the oldest known reference if you include "fungoes". One sub-theory of the 5 theories is that "fungoes" originated from "fun goes", and was then shortened to "fungo". – DavePhD Apr 12 '16 at 19:00
  • @SvenYargs I added 1870 and 1871 newspaper references to the answer – DavePhD Apr 15 '16 at 16:43
  • Great stuff. It appears from the 1870 article that, in those early days (in New York, anyway), fungo referred to a form of batting practice that resembled slow-pitch softball or perhaps even a routine where the batter tossed the ball up in the air before hitting it himself. Thanks again for your answer. – Sven Yargs Apr 15 '16 at 16:58
  • @SvenYargs I think it had to be the player himself, because the oldest source, the 1867 book, says "one player takes the bat and tossing the ball up hits it as it falls". I added a link to the 1867 book, which was made available by the Henry Ford collection. – DavePhD Apr 19 '16 at 12:37

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