In sports, officials such as referees or umpires make calls, that is, they declare by speech and/or understood gestures a decision concerning play. Initially, the whole affair is quite literal:
At one o’clock the horses were at the starting post, and the Umpire called “off!” — Sydney Monitor, 14 Apr.1832.
Starting pistols, apparently, were not used until the early 20th c., as in the 1904 Olympics.
Use of the verb can be a bit opaque. To call game (no article) means to declare a winner and the game over:
The other side then went in, and had succeeded in running up a score of 34 for six wickets, when the time agreed upon (half-past six) for drawing crickets arrived, and the umpire called game in favor of the Press on the first innings. — Bendingo (VIC) Advertiser, 11 Nov. 1861.
To call the game means to declare the game over or postponed, usually due to weather, darkness, etc.:
At the end of the eighth inning, a heavy rain began to fall, and the umpire called the game. — The Press (Philadelphia PA), 11 Sept. 1865.
To call a game, however, can mean to serve as an official who makes calls:
Where two umpires call a game what is to stop the man doing the bases from announcing the players as they come to bat ? — The Arrow (Sydney), 11 June 1908.
And it is an axiom of this great sport that the umpire is doing his best work when both sides are against him. In other words, when the umpire is calling the close decisions accurately, without fear or favor, the very partisan fans roar their approval or howl their condemnation, by turns. — Coronado (CA) Eagle and Journal. 2 April 1942.
Judgment call, i. e., a close decision that may enrage or elate spectators as in the California paper, does not appear in the press until the 1950s:
He admitted officials make mistakes, but he’s never heard of a case where a decision has been reversed in the case of a judgment call. — San Bernadino (CA) Sun, 18 Oct. 1952.
You can't very well argue with a ref on a judgement call. After all, he is closer to the play than any reporter or fan, but when it comes to a simple interpretation of the rules, there is only one way to call it, and that is just what the rule book says. — San Bernadino (CA) Sun, 16 Nov. 1954.
With few exceptions, basketball officiating is one judgment call from beginning to end of a game. — Indianapolis Recorder, 15 Mar. 1958.
Sports usage explains the origins of judgment call and it’s your call, i.e., your decision, both expanding beyond sports. A close call, then, should simply be a hybrid of judgment call and close decision, and indeed, in the 1970s it began to be:
Every time one of the line judges made a close call for the other team, there was Billie Jean running up to the throne of the head judge, waving her arms, flapping her lip. — San Bernadino (CA) Sun (from New York Daily News), 8 June 1974.
This is a close decision, not a narrow escape from death, danger, or disaster. The origins of this more ominous close call lie somewhere else.
Guns, Cannons, and Warfare
Close call emerges in the press during the American Civil War as a near miss from gun- or cannonshot:
A shot was fired by the accomplished lady of Major Rowland, at the same distance, which made a close call to the centre. — “Letter from a Minnesotan in Berdan’s Rifles,” Washington DC,10 Oct. 1861. The Weekly Pioneer and Democrat (St. Paul, Minn. Terr.), 25 Oct. 1861.
… and I had a canister shot go through my hat. It made a hole as big as my fist. It was a close call for me. — Charles Shattuck, 6th Ohio Cavalry, Letter (excerpt), Mt. Jackson VA, 6 June 1862 The Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon OH), 20 June, 1862.
A Close Call. The R. B. Hamilton, while on her way down the Cumberland river, received a 4 pound round shot in her hull about 9 inches above the waterline, and about 3 feet below and forward of her engines, for which no doubt the ball was aimed. It was a close call, well aimed and shows to some extent the dangers of navigation on the Cumberland river. — The Daily Evansville (IN) Journal, 28 Jan. 1863.
I have had some rough times, scouting; they give me some close calls, sometimes. — Weekly Commonwealth (Denver City, Colo. Terr.), April 30, 1863.
I like to have forgotten to mention that most of the time I have been engaged in writing this letter cannon have been booming 5 or 6 miles away; what it has amounted to I am unable to say hoping however their shot and shell will never make me a closer call than at Stone River. — Maj. C. M. Hammond, “Letter from the 100th [Illinois Volunteers], Joliet Signal (IL), 21 July 1863.
Of note: Many pre-1865 instances of close call occur in first person narratives written by soldiers themselves, all of whom are from Union states or western territories.
Even during the war, and of course thereafter, the expression begins to appear in other contexts:
Headline: Struck by Lightening. A Close Call. — Cleveland Morning Leader (from the Akron Beacon), 3 June 1864.
Helena. A fire occurred in the Young America Hotel, Main street, on last Friday evening, about half-past 12 or 1 o’clock. … It was, however, a “close call,” as it considerably charred the roof, and only its quick discovery prevented a serious conflagration. — The Montana Post, (Virginia City, Montana Terr.), 2 Feb., 1867.
The quotation marks suggest the writer considers the expression slang, a novel usage, or both.
A Scottish Connection?
This meaning of call has little to do with the human voice or what one does with it. In Scots, however, to call — the final consonants palatalized to caw — meant to drive a nail or wedge, drive a horse or horsedrawn vehicle, and in one early source, to hurl a spear:
And there will never a nail ca’ right for me. — Sir Walter Scott, ed., “Archie of Ca’field,” Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, 1803.
Catch yer naig an’ pu’ his tail;
In his hin’ heel caw a nail;
Rug his lugs frae ane’ anither;
Stan’ up, an’ ca’ the king yer brither. — George Macdonald, Warlock o’ Glenwarlock, 1881.
A much earlier source returns to the world of weapons:
His spear before him could he fang [seize, clutch], … And called right fast at Sir Gray Steel, … — The History of Sir Eger, Sir Grahame, and Sir Gray-Steel, ca. 1500, pub. 1669, 1711, 1824.
In general a notion of a Scottish meaning of call surviving in some form in the United States should not be particularly controversial, though close call appears to be an American coinage, at first military jargon. There is no corresponding noun listed in dictionaries of Scots. Perhaps somewhere there is a first person account from American soldiers who had close calls, say, in the War of 1812, but if there are, they don’t appear online.
Beyond the lack of intermediate attestations of projectile call, the absence of the expression in the American South until some years after the war gives me pause. Given the number of Scottish immigrants to Virginia and the Carolinas, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Scotland and the South are the only regiolects that permit multiple modals (might could do that). Thus if someone were to ask me where a Scottish relict would more likely survive in the US, I would have named these states or the Mountain South, where many Scots-Irish settled, not Minnesota.
Sports jargon gave the language judgment call and it’s your call, where anyone doing the calling is an umpire unaware, even in the most critical circumstances. “Call it!” in the emergency room of television medical dramas always means to give up all resuscitation attempts and declare the time of death.
The first instance quoted for close call,where in 1861 Maj. Rowland’s “accomplished lady” narrowly misses dead center by making a close call, survived until around 1920, in both America and Australia:
Of 4 starters in the Chairman's Handicap, Lady Bonnilly was favorite, and upheld her position by winning, but Admiral Dawn, who was left be [sic] a couple of lengths at the start, made a close call, and at the finish was only a head away second. — Wagga Wagga (NSW) Express, 1 Sept. 1914.
Somehow, it always gets back to sports. Current usage with a meaning of narrow escape, however, is a direct decendant of Union soldiers dodging Confederate artillery, where they are the target narrowly missed. Whether Sir Grahame’s sixteenth century spear called at Sir Gray Steel is behind it all must remain an interesting parallel.