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President Obama's recent visit to Cuba has prompted some news sources to dust off the term "baseball diplomacy" (one example here).

According to a paper I found on the topic,

"the ... term [baseball diplomacy] was first used in the 1970s to describe specific efforts at using high-profile exhibition baseball games to generate political goodwill between the Washington and Havana governments."

My question(s):

  1. What specific year was the term coined?
  2. Who coined it? (I'm assuming it was either a politician or journalist.)
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    "XXX diplomacy" is probably better known from the idiom ping-pong diplomacy. As I recall, the attempted Cuban interchange occurred very shortly after the Chinese interchange. As for "baseball diplomacy", try Google. The first US-Cuban games since the 50s occurred in 1999, after 20-odd years of wrangling (with the US government, not the Cuban one).
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 28, 2016 at 12:04
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    @Hot Licks: Erm... I think the original was gunboat diplomacy Mar 28, 2016 at 12:30
  • @FumbleFingers - Sorta. "Gunboat diplomacy" was an entirely different technique. Likely "ping-pong diplomacy" derives from "gunboat diplomacy", but certainly "baseball diplomacy" derives from "ping-pong diplomacy".
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 28, 2016 at 12:33
  • (It's instructive to look briefly at the history of the 1970s baseball effort. It was torpedoed by the Nixon government. The ping-pong exchange likely came off because it was set up so quickly that the Nixon government couldn't stop it.)
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 28, 2016 at 12:35
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    I'm finding a number of instances of pre-Fidel Cuba, even in the 40's using ngrams/google. It's a lot of work to sort out through all of those the actual originator. Probably some sports writer rather than a political journalist.
    – Mitch
    Mar 28, 2016 at 16:15

1 Answer 1

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My research suggests your source was not just off in claiming the phrase was first used in the 1970s: your source was off by more than half a century. The most generous interpretation of the source quote, wherein the sense of the phrase as describing

specific efforts at using high-profile exhibition baseball games to generate political goodwill between the Washington and Havana governments

is intended by "first used in the 1970s", is contradicted by the much earlier appearance of that sense of the phrase in the Google Books corpus in a play published in 1916:

Here's an account of a baseball game in Cuba, between the Giants and the Almendares. There are nine American words to one of Spanish, and there's not an English word in it. The difference in language is what keeps people apart. ... You'd better abandon warship diplomacy and dollar diplomacy for baseball diplomacy ... baseball, that's the true sport of democracy ... Imagine trying to raise armies during a World's Championship series.

(The Wastrel Hoard: A Drama of the Greater Love, Frank Hendrick, Puritan Play Company, 1916.)

Aside from the appearance in that 1916 play with the specific sense cited by your source, the phrase appears in freely available electronic popular press corpora from the late 1800s with more general senses. The first such instance I found was this:

baseballdiplomacy1

(New-York Tribune, August 31, 1887.)

Instances of the phrase recur in press corpora searchable with Elephind.com between 1887 and 1931. The last such is an obituary in 1931.

These finds, to be sure, don't take us far toward discovering

  1. the specific year the term was coined;
  2. who coined it.

My best surmise, for 2, is that the phrase was a 'natural' phrase to be used with reference to machinations surrounding baseball, and so that use by players or managers was adopted by writers for the popular press. For 1, the evidence suggests the phrase was in use for some time, possibly as long as a decade or more, before its appearance in The New York Tribune in 1887.

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    Excellent answer, and I realize in hindsight it may be truly impossible to track down a definitive origin for the phrase, let alone the specific year it was first used. (Also, thanks for sharing the Elephind site--I will add it to my "research toolbox" for similar questions in the future.)
    – pyobum
    Mar 29, 2016 at 7:25

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