“‘Well, the hitter would connect, and the coacher would yell ‘go for two,’ ‘go for three,” ‘go for four,’ and I like to never got those birds out. After that, they always asked for my ‘gopher ball.’” C.E. McBride, quoting Lena Blackburne, who was quoting an unnamed pitcher. Kansas City Star, March 9, 1930, p73
Previous earliest use (Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd edition, 2009):
1ST USE. 1930. “What’s a gopher ball?…Every time I pitched it I heard the fellows on the other team yelling, ‘Go for two! Go for three!’” (St. Louis Browns pitcher Dock Coffman, quoted in The Washington Post, March 22; Barry Popik).
NOTES: The March 22nd Washington Post article citing Dick (not “Dock”) Coffman, was by columnist Brian Bell of the Associated Press. The same article appeared earlier, in several other papers, on March 12th. Those articles were preceded, by three days, by the Kansas City Star article written by that paper’s sports editor, Clarence E. McBride. McBride’s story relayed the tale from Lena Blackburne who was supposedly quoting an unnamed pitcher on the St. Lous Browns who was was talking about his experience as a rookie the year before. (It’s possible the pitcher Blackburne was quoting was Coffman, who was with the Browns in 1929 and 1930, though Coffman’s rookie year was 1927, with Washington.)
There were several other articles that same month, all with the same basic origin story but attributing the phrase to different players. New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers (March 18th) attributed it to Giants’ pitcher Jack Scott. Sec Taylor, sports editor of the Des Moines Register (March 23rd) attributed it to Herbert Wagaman, a pitcher for the minor league Des Moines Demons.
It seems most likely that the real origin of the story was in a column called “The Nut Cracker” with the headline “O’Goofty Shows Yankee Slabsters How to Pitch Gopher Ball.” It was supposedly by “Joe O’Goofty, Pitcher for the Yankees.” O’Goofty was the fictional creation of Joe Williams, sports editor of the New York Telegram. He’d been incorporating quotes from a character he called “One Punch O’Goofty” in his “Nut Cracker” columns since at least 1924 when he was with the Cleveland Press.
The gopher ball column has Yankee pitcher Tom Zachary giving the name to O’Goofty’s pitch.
– “Where did you get that wonderful Gopher ball?” Zachary asked me [writes “O’Goofty”]
– “Why do you call it a Gopher ball?” I asked him, as I never named the pitch myself.
– “Because when you throw a ball like that to a batter, the coach always yells ‘Gopher two,’ ‘Gopher three’ or ‘Make it a homer,’ ” he says.”
The column was widely syndicated. The earliest example I have found was on March 12th, the same day the Bell column first appeared and three days after the McBride column. It’s possible that Williams got the story from McBride who got it from Blackburne who got it from Coffman. But I’m guessing that Williams — who was fond of wordplay and often attributed it to “O’Goofty” — used it first. The Telegram is not available online; I’ll have to check the microfilm to see if the column appeared there earlier.
In any case, the term “gopher ball” seemed to become more widespread a few months later after articles attributing it to Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez started appearing. (See, for example, “Gopher Ball Defeats Yanks,” New York Daily News, June 5, 1930, p131.)