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An American Classic: Who’s on First? Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Culture, English Language

Baseball has been a part of Americana for over 150 years. It is celebrated in folklore, song, cinema, theater, art, and literature. It is also celebrated in comedy. There is one comedy routine which has been a part of American culture for 80 years, and almost every American is familiar with it. The old vaudeville team of Bud Abbot and Lou Costello became household names, and the first non-players to ever be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, with a comedy skit called, “Who’s on First?”

It is a masterpiece of the English language, in which pronouns are converted into proper nouns, and fully deserves to be both studied and enjoyed by anyone learning the language. The premise is deceptively simple. Costello is a young ballplayer who has been promoted to a big-league team, but he wants to know the names of the players on the team. Abbot tells him that baseball players go by nicknames (which is still a common part of the game), so you really need to know their nicknames, not their real names. This is where the confusion begins, because the team is loaded with players whose nicknames are, unfortunately for poor Costello, pronouns.

A Little History

The skit has origins dating back well before the advent of radio. It came out of something called burlesque, a form of theatrical entertainment which consisted of short-form comedy, musical, and other acts. It was a variety show, and you can find examples of it in the United States dating back to the 1860s, around the time of the end of the American Civil War. We get the word from medieval Italian burla, meaning a mocking joke. Comedy was always a staple of the burlesque show.

Abbot and Costello were a successful burlesque comedic duo who managed to expand on that fame and move into radio shows and even movies. Abbot was the level-headed straight man, with Costello playing the role of the nervous, confused, and slightly dim comic foil. Abbot was familiar with variations on the word play that makes this routine so special, and he and his partner adapted it to have a baseball theme. They took their sketch of “Who’s on First?” to the world stage in film and television appearances, and rarely did it the exact same way twice.

Performing “Who’s on First?”

It’s the sort of routine which is extremely difficult to reproduce, because it relies upon rapid responses, and can easily get out of hand if the performers aren’t carefully listening to each other. As a stage veteran, I can tell you that this is one of the most demanding pieces of writing to perform. I once directed a play in which this routine was the centerpiece. The two excellent comedic actors who performed it would diligently rehearse it before going onstage every night. Even so, they had difficulties getting it precisely right. If they started to lose track of where they were in the routine, one of them would blurt out the line, “I don’t know!” and they would find their way back. The same things happened to Abbot and Costello, also. Their famous recording of it is marred by the sound of laughter from the recording crew, who were incapable of keeping quiet while the stars performed their routine.

The skit, as I have said, has permeated American society. In 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers promoted Taiwan-born Chin-Lung Hu to the major league club. In a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Hu singled to reach first base. Legendary announcer Vin Scully then said, “Okay, everybody. All together…Who’s on first!”

I have included both the script, and a video recording. If this is your first exposure to “Who’s on First?”, just sit back and watch the video. But I highly recommend that you later try to follow along with the script, and watch how something as simple as a few nicknames prove that the English language can be very, very confusing.

Costello: Look Abbott, if you’re the coach, you must know all the players.

Abbott: I certainly do.

Costello: Well you know I’ve never met the guys. So you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.

Abbott: Oh, I’ll tell you their names, but you know it seems to me they give these ball players now-a-days very peculiar names.

Costello: You mean funny names?

Abbott: Strange names, pet names…like Dizzy Dean…

Costello: His brother Daffy.

Abbott: Daffy Dean…

Costello: And their French cousin.

Abbott: French?

Costello: Goofè.

Abbott: Goofè Dean. Well, let’s see, we have on the bags, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Well I should.

Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy playing…

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

PAUSE

Costello: Look, you gotta first baseman?

Abbott: Certainly.

Costello: Who’s playing first?

Abbott: That’s right.

Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?

Abbott: Every dollar of it.

Costello: All I’m trying to find out is the fellow’s name on first base.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy that gets…

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: Who gets the money…

Abbott: He does, every dollar. Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.

Costello: Who’s wife?

Abbott: Yes.

PAUSE

Abbott: What’s wrong with that?

Costello: Look, all I wanna know is when you sign up the first baseman, how does he sign his name?

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: How does he sign…

Abbott: That’s how he signs it.

Costello: Who?

Abbott: Yes.

PAUSE

Costello: All I’m trying to find out is what’s the guy’s name on first base.

Abbott: No. What is on second base.

Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.

Abbott: Who’s on first.

Costello: One base at a time!

Abbott: Well, don’t change the players around.

Costello: I’m not changing nobody!

Abbott: Take it easy, buddy.

Costello: I’m only asking you, who’s the guy on first base?

Abbott: That’s right.

Costello: Ok.

Abbott: All right.

PAUSE

Costello: What’s the guy’s name on first base?

Abbott: No. What is on second.

Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.

Abbott: Who’s on first.

Costello: I don’t know.

Abbott: He’s on third, we’re not talking about him.

Costello: Now how did I get on third base?

Abbott: Why you mentioned his name.

Costello: If I mentioned the third baseman’s name, who did I say is playing third?

Abbott: No. Who’s playing first.

Costello: What’s on first?

Abbott: What’s on second.

Costello: I don’t know.

Abbott: He’s on third.

Costello: There I go, back on third again!

PAUSE

Costello: Would you just stay on third base and don’t go off it.

Abbott: All right, what do you want to know?

Costello: Now who’s playing third base?

Abbott: Why do you insist on putting Who on third base?

Costello: What am I putting on third.

Abbott: No. What is on second.

Costello: You don’t want who on second?

Abbott: Who is on first.

Costello: I don’t know.

Abbott & Costello Together:Third base!

PAUSE

Costello: Look, you gotta outfield?

Abbott: Sure.

Costello: The left fielder’s name?

Abbott: Why.

Costello: I just thought I’d ask you.

Abbott: Well, I just thought I’d tell ya.

Costello: Then tell me who’s playing left field.

Abbott: Who’s playing first.

Costello: I’m not… stay out of the infield! I want to know what’s the guy’s name in left field?

Abbott: No, What is on second.

Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.

Abbott: Who’s on first!

Costello: I don’t know.

Abbott & Costello Together: Third base!

PAUSE

Costello: The left fielder’s name?

Abbott: Why.

Costello: Because!

Abbott: Oh, he’s centerfield.

PAUSE

Costello: Look, You gotta pitcher on this team?

Abbott: Sure.

Costello: The pitcher’s name?

Abbott: Tomorrow.

Costello: You don’t want to tell me today?

Abbott: I’m telling you now.

Costello: Then go ahead.

Abbott: Tomorrow!

Costello: What time?

Abbott: What time what?

Costello: What time tomorrow are you gonna tell me who’s pitching?

Abbott: Now listen. Who is not pitching.

Costello: I’ll break your arm, you say who’s on first! I want to know what’s the pitcher’s name?

Abbott: What’s on second.

Costello: I don’t know.

Abbott & Costello Together: Third base!

PAUSE

Costello: Gotta a catcher?

Abbott: Certainly.

Costello: The catcher’s name?

Abbott: Today.

Costello: Today, and tomorrow’s pitching.

Abbott: Now you’ve got it.

Costello: All we got is a couple of days on the team.

PAUSE

Costello: You know I’m a catcher too.

Abbott: So they tell me.

Costello: I get behind the plate to do some fancy catching, Tomorrow’s pitching on my team and a heavy hitter gets up. Now the heavy hitter bunts the ball. When he bunts the ball, me, being a good catcher, I’m gonna throw the guy out at first base. So I pick up the ball and throw it to who?

Abbott: Now that’s the first thing you’ve said right.

Costello: I don’t even know what I’m talking about!

PAUSE

Abbott: That’s all you have to do.

Costello: Is to throw the ball to first base.

Abbott: Yes!

Costello: Now who’s got it?

Abbott: Naturally.

PAUSE

Costello: Look, if I throw the ball to first base, somebody’s gotta get it. Now who has it?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Who?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Naturally?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: So I pick up the ball and I throw it to Naturally.

Abbott: No you don’t, you throw the ball to Who.

Costello: Naturally.

Abbott: That’s different.

Costello: That’s what I said.

Abbott: You’re not saying it…

Costello: I throw the ball to Naturally.

Abbott: You throw it to Who.

Costello: Naturally.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s what I said!

Abbott: You ask me.

Costello: I throw the ball to who?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Now you ask me.

Abbott: You throw the ball to Who?

Costello: Naturally.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: Same as you! Same as YOU! I throw the ball to who. Whoever it is drops the ball and the guy runs to second. Who picks up the ball and throws it to What. What throws it to I Don’t Know. I Don’t Know throws it back to Tomorrow, Triple play. Another guy gets up and hits a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don’t know! He’s on third and I don’t give a darn!

Abbott: What?

Costello: I said I don’t give a darn!

Abbott: Oh, that’s our shortstop.

 

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Comments:

  1. Bart:

    I know MLB is in the postseason already, but would there be any chance to have baseball covered more in detail in a future blog post (maybe when the World Series are played)?

    Jargon as “bases,” “innings,” “fair ball,” “fastball,” and “foul ball” is hard to comprehend for those not familiar with the sports :-). I know this can all be found online, but I love these blog posts as they often provide excellent summaries with everything you need to know to be able to have a small conversation about the subject.

  2. gary:

    As a matter of fact, we have something special for the World Series. Look for it soon!