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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where the catbird sits

The phrase "in the catbird seat" caught my eye in today's Bernie Schoenberg column:

“Where would we be without the new power plant?” he asked, noting that the half-billion-dollar plant was built under the direction of Davlin and Renfrow. Davis said CWLP’s new generating capacity will put Springfield “in the catbird seat” when manufacturing picks up nationally because Springfield will have plenty of power to sell. (Davis ‘not a player,’ but his actions say otherwise.)

The article is about Springfield politics and politicians, about which you can't have a discussion these days without some mention of our power plant. I knew I had heard the catbird seat before, and recently, and wondered if I could figure out its origins. But, first I had to check the SJ-R archives to see if that's where I heard it.

A quick flick of the SJ-R search function turned up five uses of the word "catbird." One was today's article; one was in a letter to the editor about China a few years ago; two were articles that mentioned the catbird bird; and one was an article about politics after the November elections:

“The Democrats will be in the catbird seat,” said Christopher Mooney, professor of political studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield. “There’s nothing more important politically in a decade than redistricting. It’s the most political activity that a state does. It has huge implications for policy.” (Despite big wins, Illinois GOP fell short Tuesday.)

Yeah, that's exactly where I heard it. How disappointing for something as cool as the catbird seat to be relegated only to the disdainful topic of politics. Surely there must be more. Yes, I know I could have gone to Wikipedia to learn its origins in about half a minute, but damn it, we prefer to do things the hard way, or no way at all. (Or, at least pretend to do things the hard way.)

So, I set out for the New York Times archives (hello, literary people, don't let me down). I popped in a Google search for "catbird seat" and restricted it to the NYT website. More than 1,100 uses of the phrase turned up. I was hoping to find a really old use of the phrase, say from the 1890s; then I could judge whether whoever was in the catbird seat back then still deserved to be in the catbird seat today. But no such luck on that front. Plus, 1,100 articles is too many to go through.

Glancing down the list of results, most of the articles appeared to be from the last 20 or so years, with just a couple from the 1980s. Like this op-ed piece from 1987:

In Washington, the man who makes the first accusation is usually in the catbird seat, so that, in normal circumstances, the play would go as follows: 1. Hatch accuses White House of harboring gutless wonders. 2. President denies charge; not one gutless wonder in the house, Reagan says. 3. Hatch sees White House cover-up, calls for investigation by Committee on Gutless Wonder Activities. (OBSERVER; The Meeseful Wonder.)

More politics. Sigh. And then there was this question from an undated quiz known as Noodle Nudger #13 -- Word and Phrase Origins:

2. What sports announcer introduced the baseball lingo "rhubarb" and "in the catbird seat"?

Mel Allen
Vin Scully
Ernie Harwell
Marty Brennaman
Red Barber

Baseball? Well, it's not poetry, but now we're getting somewhere. And then a blurb for James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times:

Documentary about author and cartoonist James Thurber (1894-1961). Long associated with "The New Yorker" magazine, for which he worked many years, Thurber is the creator of the short stories "The Catbird Seat" and "The Night the Bed Fell." He is best known for the classic "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Thurber and his close friend E.B. White helped set the tone for "The New Yorker" during the 1930s and '40s under its famous editor Harold Ross.

Ah. Don't know when the documentary was aired, but a side trip over to Amazon finds the 1933 book My Life and Hard Times still in print. Unfortunately, the 32 page The Catbird Seat is out of print.

Are you getting bored? If not, you should be. Do you think I should have known all this already? Well, maybe I should have. I'll decide tomorrow when I ask some people if they've read these Thurber books, or if they know the meaning of the catbird seat.

One more loose end to tie up. Remember that quiz question? Baseball. Which brings us to this 30 year old article:

Red Barber on Broadway
Red Barber was the best baseball broadcaster of his time, to many the best of any time. And tonight his soft Southern voice will be heard again in the opening of "The First," a Broadway musical about Jackie Robinson's rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the major league's first black player.
"The bases," Red Barber will say in recreating one game at Ebbets Field, "are F.O.B." Anyone who remembers "the ol' redhead" knows he meant the bases were "full of Brooklyns." He put "rhubarb" into baseball vocabulary. He had teams and players "tearin' up the peapatch" and "sittin' in the catbird seat," which is exactly where he sits now at age 73, living in Tallahassee, Fla., with his wife, Lylah, writing a Sunday sports column for the Tallahassee Democrat and doing a Friday spot on National Public Radio.

Now we know. James Thurber may have wrote the book, but Red Barber put the catbird seat into our daily lives with baseball (or so I'm declaring), and the politicians and political writers stole it.

As for those catbirds? They must be a mean bunch, because I remember my mom cussing them every time one would come through and scare off the robins and cardinals. Mean and nothing to fear.

Posted by Marie at February 17, 2011 10:08 PM


Excellent, Marie. Still, do catbirds have special seats or perches that give them some advantage over other birds and was it so well known that Barber thought he could say that and his listeners would know what he means? I now consider you the foremost authority on this matter. :)

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at February 18, 2011 11:20 AM

I knew what it meant, though not how it came about. I'll reserve further comment until I hear Cardcat's take on it.

Posted by: Dave E. Author Profile Page at February 18, 2011 5:39 PM

Thanks, Rob. LOL, Dave. I'm sure that Cardcat will have something to say about it someday.

Posted by: Marie Author Profile Page at February 18, 2011 7:48 PM

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