Did Dennis Eckersley Coin the Term “Walk Off” the Same Year He Gave Up Kirk Gibson’s Legendary Walk-Off Home Run in the World Series?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Dennis Eckersley coined the term “walk off” earlier in the same season that he gave up one of the most famous “walk off” home runs in baseball history.

Tonight, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals will play Game 1 of the 2013 World Series. Twenty-five years ago, in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kirk Gibson won Game 1 of the World Series with one of the most famous “walk-off” home runs in Major League Baseball history…

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It was October 15, 1988 (adding an extra round or two to the playoffs has pushed the World Series back a week nowadays) when Dodger Gibson (the 1988 National League MVP, who had been hobbled by leg injuries and would only be able to bat once during the entire series) hit a bottom of the ninth inning, two out, two strike, deficit-erasing (the Dodgers were down 4-3 to the Oakland Athletics) home run that won Game 1 of the World Series for the Dodgers, making it the first time that a player had won a World Series game with a home run hit while his team was trailing.

The home run is a “walk off” because the player hits it and everyone just “walks off” the field, as the game is over.

It is a great term.

And do you know who coined it?

Dennis Eckersley, the Oakland Athletics’ relief pitcher who gave up the Gibson home run!

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And do you know WHEN he coined it?

It appears to be July…1988!!!

Amazingly enough, the term was never used until that point. Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Chris Chambliss, Carlton Fisk, none of their legendary postseason home runs were referred to as “walk-off” home runs at the time.

Dennis Eckersley was a starting pitcher for the first twelve seasons in the big leagues before being traded to the Oakland Athletics in 1987. He was a good starter, too, going 151 -128 with a 3.67 ERA (while finishing in the top ten in Cy Young voting twice for the Red Sox in the late 1970s). The A’s started him for two games before they moved him to the bullpen, where he became the fill-in for the team’s injured closer, Jay Howell. When Howell returned from injury, he and Eckersley platooned in the role.

In 1988, he became the full-time closer and then began a new era in his career, as one of the most dominating closers in baseball history from 1988-1992, winning an MVP and a Cy Young award along the way (and finishing in the top six of the Cy Young voting three other times).

Besides being a great pitcher, Eckersley was known for his colorful vocabulary, filled with new terms he would invent to describe baseball. Peter Gammons called it his “DialEck.”

A home run would be “taking the pitcher over the bridge.”

A pitcher who gave up a lot of home runs was a “bridgemaster.”

A very fast fastball “had a lot of hair on it.”

The first use of the term “walk-off” occurred on July 30, 1988, in the Gannett News Service: ”In Dennis Eckersley’s colorful vocabulary, a walkoff piece is a home run that wins the game and the pitcher walks off the mound.”

What’s fascinating about the original usage, of course, is that Eckersley meant for the word to have a negative connotation, not a positive one. It was not about the celebrating team walking off of the field after winning the game, but rather it was about the losing pitcher having to walk off the field knowing that he just blew the game.

Less than three months later, though, the word that Eckersley coined was forever associated with a different, euphoric connotation. Now teams walk-off in celebration (in addition, the term itself has been bastardized a bit from the original meaning which was strictly referring to game-winning home runs and is now used to describe ANY game-winning hit that ends a game).

Don’t feel too bad for Eckersley, though, his relief pitching DID get him a ticket to Cooperstown as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, after all! And Eckersley takes the whole situation very well. Just last week, on October 15th, he tweeted “Happy Anniversary” to Gibson.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Dan Shaughnessy for an article he wrote where he cited the initial use of the term! Thanks to the ”The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” for being Shaughnessy’s source!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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