In One’s Wheelhouse: From Boats, to Baseball, to …

BaseballI rarely remember where I’ve picked up a new expression. When did I first hear “yadda yadda yadda” so that I could subsequently add it to my repertoire? I have no idea. But with the phrase “in my wheelhouse,” I can pinpoint the person and the context: a colleague in the English department with whom I began working closely three years ago.

This colleague—we’ll call him Jeremy because that is his name—would regularly describe a course or a task or some such thing as “in [or not in] his wheelhouse.” As became quickly clear from context, something was “in his wheelhouse” if he was very comfortable with it or it aligned with one of his strengths. I liked the idea of having a wheelhouse instead of a set of skills, and before long I was trying out the phrase in my own speech.

It was no surprise to me, therefore, when the editor of Lingua Franca e-mailed with the observation that the phrase “in ___’s wheelhouse” appeared to be on the rise in American English. It made sense—and it made me feel trendy.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word wheelhouse, referring to the pilothouse on a boat that contains the wheel, back to 1835. And for over 100 years, from what I have found, all written references to people “in the wheelhouse” describe the person’s physical location in the wheelhouse of a boat. The OED does not yet have a definition for the metaphorical extension of the word, from the place on the boat where one is in control to other sweet spots (assuming this is the metaphorical extension).

Baseball holds the key to the transition from boats to areas of personal strength. Mike Whiteford includes an entry for wheelhouse in his book How to Talk Baseball (1983), defining it this way:

n: the area of the strike zone in which the hitter delights in seeing the ball pitched—usually waist-high and across the center of the plate. A pitcher fretting a home run may say, “I got it up in his wheelhouse.”


Image courtesy of Baseball Almanac

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Steve Carlton did just that after his record-setting 19-strikeout game against the New York Mets in 1969, which the Cardinals lost due to two home-runs by Ron Swoboda. In the article “Super Swat Spoils Record Whiff Effort” in the Free Lance-Star (September 16, 1969), Carlton is quoted as saying that the first homer was on a fast ball “right in his wheelhouse.”

The earliest baseball reference I have found so far is from 1964, in the novel Relief Pitcher by Dick Friendlich:

“You threw that right in his wheelhouse,” he said accusingly. “You trying to get somebody killed?”

Robertson pawed at the rubber with his toeplate.

“Sorry, Skipper,” he muttered. “It got away from me.”

The lack of scare quotes or any other kind of indication that the phrase “in his wheelhouse” might be unusual or unknown strongly suggests that the phrase was in fairly wide circulation, at least in baseball circles, by 1964. The Web site claims the phrase goes back to at least the 1950s but provides no specific evidence. I invite any and all the master word sleuths reading this post to take on the challenge of pre-dating this reference.

Might George Kell, long-time sportscaster for the Detroit Tigers, be part of the story? He was on the air doing play by play from the 1960s through the 1990s. J. Conrad Guest, in a posthumous tribute to the Hall of Famer on the Bleacher Report, mentions wheelhouse as one of Kell’s distinctive expressions:

He shared a wealth of baseball knowledge and lore with his viewers, and I recall his many colloquialisms with fondness—they were never forced or over the top—a high pitch up around the batter’s eyes was “up in his wheelhouse;” a hard hit home run was “tommy-hawked” into the stands; a line drive to third base was “speared by Aurelio Rodríguez” on a “whale of a play!”

As you’ll notice, Guest defines the location of the wheelhouse differently from the book How to Talk Baseball and the other baseball references I have found, all of which have the wheelhouse in the strike zone. 

The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary online now includes the idiom in (one’s) wheelhouse and defines it this way:

1. In the area of one’s greatest striking power: a fastball that was right in the batter’s wheelhouse.

2. In line with one’s interests or abilities: a movie script that is right in that actor’s wheelhouse.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the range of interests and abilities that now can be covered by the wheelhouse under definition (2). In 2011, economic issues, for example, are described as in Mitt Romney’s wheelhouse (The Washington Post), and in a CNN interview, actress Julianne Moore describes cleaning as in her wheelhouse. Apparently 215 yards off the tee is in the wheelhouse of the average golfer (Golf Magazine, 2004), and then there is this reference to acting on The Tavis Smiley Show from 2004: “Some actors kind of figure out what’s in their wheelhouse, as they say in baseball, like what they do best, and they look for that.”

The explanatory reference to baseball suggests the turn of the 21st century may be the sweet spot for wheelhouse’s metaphorical extension out of baseball, after its metaphorical extension from boats to baseball. So here’s my pitch: What other details can readers find to fill in the story of the wheelhouse trend?  Swing away!

Update: This in from Ben Zimmer (thanks, Ben!), language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and executive producer of Visual Thesaurus: For more on the baseball usage, see Paul Dickson’s The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, which has examples back to 1959 (via Peter Tamony): See also Nancy Friedman’s post and links therein to other pieces by Evan Morris (Word Detective) and Michael Covarrubias (Wishydig):

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