Baseball is America’s pass time. It’s such an influential sport that terms and idioms from baseball have become commonplace sayings used in conversations outside of the baseball context.
Many of these are metaphorical because the terms aren’t used literally but as a figure of speech in which the baseball term replaces the literal event in order to explain it more effectively or in shorthand that we all understand.
Others are not metaphorical, but remain useful euphemisms and analogies – again, to help explain something in known shorthand.
Below, we’ve collated out 35 favorite baseball idioms, sayings and metaphors that have made their way into everyday speech. Even people who have never watched or played baseball will know and understand many of these!
Baseball Metaphors, Sayings and Idioms
1. Ballpark Figure
When playing baseball, the ball will fall somewhere in the ballpark, but it’s hard to say exactly where. So, to seek out a ballpark figure is to get an estimate within the ballpark, but not to guarantee any specific location. Outside of baseball, we now use this term to describe an estimate or educated guess of a numerical figure. For example, a ballpark figure on the valuation of a house might be a guess to the nearest $100,000.
2. Big Hitter
To call someone a big hitter is to say they’re one of the best and greatest in their field. For example, a great musician might be a “big hitter” in the music scene. You can also call something a “big hit”, for example if a new album ranks #1, you’d call it a big hit. These terms come from the idea of someone hitting a baseball a long, long way.
3. Big League / Major League
To make it to the big league or major league in baseball is to make it to the top level of competition. Similarly, in real life you can talk about “making it to the big league” as a way of saying that you are now competing, playing or participating in the elite level of anything. It is often used in business when you get a job working for (or a contract working with) a top-level firm in the industry.
4. Bush League
In baseball, the bush league is the amateur league (also: beer league). It’s the league that regular people who aren’t too good at baseball play for social purposes. We use this term derogatorily in reference to someone who has done a poor job. For example, if you see a television advertisement that looks unprofessional, you might say that it’s a “bush league” advertisement.
5. Cover your Bases
To cover your bases in baseball is to make sure there are players in the fielding team watching and guarding all the bases in the baseball diamond so that the ball can be passed quickly to someone who is on the base, so the runners can be caught out. Outside of baseball, we use the term to refer to the need to be ready for all contingencies. For example, someone might take extra conservative measures to provide back up plans in case their first plan fails. Here, they are just doing it to “cover their bases” rather than because it’s absolutely necessary.
6. Throw a Curveball
In baseball, a curveball is an especially difficult ball to hit. The ball curves – often very late – and can catch the batter off guard. Outside of baseball, to throw a curveball is to catch someone off guard. It’s used in any context and even other sports where something happens that changes the plan or acts as a surprising obstacle to success.
7. A Double Header
A double header is a term used in baseball when two big games are played in the one day. Often, these games are played by the same players or teams. It’s also a term used in other sports such as football. In real life, we will consider a double header anything that is to big consequential activities in a row, such as going to two job interviews one after the other.
8. Down to the Last Out
In baseball, when you’re “down to the last out”, it means you’ve got no more chances – the next person who gets out will be the last, and your innings will end. Outside of baseball, it’s a similar idea: you’re down to your last chance. You might use this in gambling, for example, when you’re down to your last few dollars and only have one more shot at winning. Similarly, a judge might say this in a courtroom when dismissing a case but warning the culprit they have no more chances.
9. Going into the Extra Innings
In baseball, an extra innings is a tie-breaker innings if the regular gameplay has been completed without a result or with a tied result. The game continues until there is a clear winner. Outside of baseball, we will use this phrase for anything that goes overtime. You might say you’re going into the extra innings in negotiations when buying a house, or even if you’re just staying back late at work one evening.
10. Getting to First Base
In baseball, getting to first base means you’ve gotten off the mark – you’re on your way to scoring a run for your team. It’s not a run yet, but it’s the first step to getting there. Outside baseball, we can still use this term to refer to when we’ve gotten a venture off the ground. For example, if you’ve passed the first hurdle for buying a house (e.g. you’ve gotten pre-approved for a loan), you might say you’ve gotten to first base.
This metaphor is also used in reference to starting a relationship – first base might be getting your kiss, for example.
11. That’s a Ground Ball
A ground ball is a ball that’s hit by the batter straight to the ground. It might roll to an empty space and you can make it to first base. Or, it might lead to an out. But either way – it’s not a home run. It’s not a superb shot. So, we consider a ground ball to be a little below average. This term can be used metaphorically in everyday life when we talk about something that didn’t turn out as well as we expected: “the date was a ground ball”, “the product launch was a ground ball”, or “the day trip was a bit of a ground ball”.
12. Playing Hardball
This term compares softball and baseball. In softball, the ball is larger and – of course – softer. So we’ll often call baseball “hardball” if we want to say it’s the tougher form of the game. You might hear someone say “playing hardball” to refer to someone being aggressive and giving it their all. A common phrase is “hardball tactics”, meaning someone is really using strategies designed to win and destroy an opponent.
13. A Heavy Hitter
A heavy hitter is a person who’s got a reputation for being able to hit a home run. They might be the best batter on the team. They’re really able to hit the ball a long, long way. You’ll often use this term outside of baseball, too, when you come across someone who is a big name in an industry or just really good at what they do. They’re usually someone who is very successful.
14. To Hit it out of the Park
In baseball, hitting something out of the park is literal – it’s what happens when you hit a ball so far that it’s gone over the grandstand. But in life, we’ll often use this term to refer to a big win. If you hit something out of the park, you executed something perfectly and outperformed even what you expected. See also: to hit a home run.
15. It’s Hit or Miss
In baseball, you’ve got two options: you can hit the ball or you can miss the ball. In real life, we use this term to talk about something that could either be a success or failure, but you’re not sure until you have a go. For example, if you’re going into a business and you ask someone if the business idea is good, the person may reply “it’s really a hit or a miss”. This means they think it could work, but it could also fail. They’re not sure.
16. Home Run
A home run in baseball is when a baseball player hits the ball far enough that they can run all four bases without having to stop. But in real life we’ll often use this metaphor to refer to anything that was a big success the first try. See also: to hit it out of the park.
17. Inside Baseball
There are a lot of esoteric terms in baseball. “Inside baseball” terms are terms that only baseball players and fans really understand. So when someone says that you’re talking “inside baseball”, it means you’re talking about things that the everyday person doesn’t know or care about. It’s regularly used in politics when there is a scandal or topic that politicians are bickering about, but regular citizens don’t really care about.
18. Knock the Cover off the Ball
Back when baseballs were not quite as good as they are today, the leather could literally come off the outside of the ball if it was an old enough ball and it was hit hard enough. So, to say someone knocked the cover off the ball is to say they did a really good job – so good that they knocked the cover off the ball! If you go to a musical recital and the person played the piece perfectly, you might say “wow, you really knocked the cover off the ball with that one!”
19. Out of Left Field
In baseball, the fielders are all looking at the batter to see if the ball is going to come their way. But if something comes at you from a different location on the field – such as “left field”, it surprises you and is unorthodox. This might happen, for example, if a person in the crowd throws something onto the field. So, the term “out of left field” refers to something that is surprising, unexpected or even a little crazy.
20. Murderers’ Row
Murderers’ Row was the nickname ascribed to the 1927 New York Yankees team. This was an incredibly good team with a lineup of batters who could all “knock the cover off the ball”. They were so good at absolutely destroying the competition that they were metaphorically referred to as murderers. This term has made it into everyday life and now we say any lineup of very skilled people is “Murderers’ Row”. For example, if you run a business and you’ve managed to gather an excellent team of 5 employees you could say “my lineup of employees is Murderers’ Row.”
21. Bottom of the Ninth Inning
The ninth inning is the last inning of baseball. Top of the ninth is when the first team bats. Bottom of the ninth is when the second team bats. So, bottom of the ninth is usually the very last innings of the whole game. We use this term outside of baseball to refer to the very end of something. If it’s “late in the game” in a negotiation, the end of the day at school, or anything like this, you can say that you’re at the bottom of the ninth. You’re almost to the end!
22. A Little Off Base
To say something is a little off base is to say that it’s not quite where you want it to be. It needs to be refined. For example, someone’s opinion in a debate might be “a little off base” if it’s a little incorrect and needs to be refined. In baseball, being off base happens when someone is creeping away from the base to steal a run. This person is taking a risk and being unsafe – they’re not where they really should be to be safe. It could also refer to the fielding team. When a fielder throws a ball to the fielder on the base and they miss a little, their throw is a little off base.
23. Right off the Bat
To say something is “right off the bat” is to say that it happens right away. In baseball, it might refer to the fact that you can see whether or not a shot is good the moment it comes off the bat. A nice sweet sound and a good trajectory means the ball is going a long way. So if you say someone was correct “right off the bat”, it means from the very beginning they did a good job. You could also say something was bad “right off the bat” if it didn’t work out from the very beginning.
24. “Say it ain’t So, Joe”
This old term comes from the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which the Black Sox team conspired to lose the Baseball World Series and bet against themselves. A young fan came up to one implicated player, Shoeless Joe Jackson, he said to him “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” Today, we use this phrase when something happens that we don’t want to happen and we’re looking for confirmation of bad news from someone who knows the facts for sure
A screwball is a ball that behaves in odd and unexpected ways. It’s an uncommon ball in baseball because it can damage the pitcher’s arm. It’s often considered the opposite to a curve ball because it moves in a different direction to a curve ball. Outside of baseball, the term “screwball” is used to refer to people who are a bit quirky and even crazy. It’s a reference to the unconventionality of the pitch, and equally, the unconventionality of the person who is being called a screwball.
26. Playing Small Ball
Small ball is a type of game play in baseball which involves getting runs by hitting and running singles rather than home runs. It involves a focus on slow and incremental gains rather than big hits. Outside of baseball, we can say someone is playing small ball when they’re not trying to ‘hit it out of the park’, but trying to get a small incremental win. In a relationship, you might play small ball when you want to convince your partner to buy a pet – you realize getting a dog is too much of an ask, so you suggest getting a fish tank instead.
27. Step up to the Plate
To step up to the baseball plate is to go out to bat. Outside of baseball, stepping up to the plate means taking your turn to have a go at something. For example, if you are in a business meeting and the boss asks for someone to volunteer to do something, you can say “Sure, I’ll step up to the plate and give it a go.”
30. Go out Swinging
A baseball player who strikes out but does so with big swings is said to “go out swinging”. They got out, but they had a good go at it and were aiming to achieve a home run. To go out swinging is to lose, but to give something a really good attempt. So we often use this term in everyday life to refer to someone who had a good go and failed. You might hear this term in movies where someone knows they are going to lose, but they’d rather lose in spectacular fashion so they give it all they’ve got, despite the knowledge they’re losing.
31. Swing and a Miss
A swing and a miss is literal in baseball: you swing the ball and you miss it. But we use this term metaphorically to refer to someone how had a go at something but failed. If you’re in a spelling bee and it’s your turn to spell a word, you might have a go but spell the word wrong. We’ll say you had a good swing and a miss at that one.
32. Swing for the Fences
Swinging for the fences means aiming to hit a home run. Your intention is not to bunt the ball to the ground. Rather, it’s to really knock that ball out of the park. So outside of baseball we can say someone is swinging for the fences when they’re having a good hard go at something.
33. To Touch Bases
This term has ambiguous origins. Touching bases in baseball is something you do to remain safe. If you’re not touching the base, you can be caught out. But if your foot is on the base, you’re safe. As a fielder, you touch the base with the ball in your hand before the runner reaches it to get them out. So touching base is all about keeping safe. But the term serves a slightly different meaning in everyday language. We’ll “touch base” when we want to meet up with someone and make sure you’re both on the same page. It perhaps refers to the fact that the base is the ‘meeting spot’ for both the fielder and the runner and a spot where they may have a conversation.
The wheelhouse is the area where the ball can be hit by the batter. It’s between the waist and the shoulders. It may be called the wheelhouse because the swinging action of the batter is like a wheel spinning. In everyday language, we use the term to refer to something that we are good at and comfortable with. We’ll say “it’s in my wheelhouse” to say that the thing we’re referring to is something we’re comfortable with “taking a swing at”.
35. A Whole New Ball Game
In baseball, a change in conditions or sudden swing in the scorecard completely changes how a game is played. A team may switch from being on the attack to the defense, and it suddenly feels like “a whole new ball game”. Similarly, outside of baseball, to say something is “a whole new ball game” is to say that something has changed to the extent that all your presumptions and plans need to change as well.
As America’s pass time, baseball has well and truly made it into our lexicon. People from English speaking nations around the world now know these sayings and use them in their everyday lives, even if they don’t even watch or play baseball! Some of the best baseball idioms and baseball metaphors don’t even seem like they’re related to baseball because they’re so integrated into our way of speaking now.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.