Recently, I was playing outfield during a baseball game when a batter hit a long, lazy fly-ball in my direction. As I was about to catch the ball for the final out of the inning, I heard one of my teammates comment that the play was a “can of corn”. This is a baseball saying I am familiar with, but it also got me thinking, what does “can of corn” mean in baseball and where does it come from?
A “can of corn” in baseball is when a batter hits an easy fly ball to an outfielder. A “can of corn” fly ball is so easy to catch, that it is a guaranteed out. Generally, an outfielder will not have to move far or exert much effort to make the catch.
The term is easy enough to understand, but it still seems like a fairly odd saying for a baseball game. So I dug a little into the history of how this saying came to exist in baseball.
“Can of Corn” is an Easy Pop-Fly to the Outfield
When people think of a can of corn, they typically think about the food. But in baseball, a can of corn is another way of saying that a hit is an easy pop-fly. And more specifically, a can of corn is how players refer to an easy pop-fly to the outfield.
There is a slight distinction between an easy fly-ball that is hit to an infielder and an easy fly-ball that is hit to an outfielder. When an infielder gets an easy pop-fly, players typically say that the ball is a lazy fly-ball, a bloop, or just simply call it an easy catch. If the batter hits a very high fly-ball to an infielder, players will sometimes call it a “Major League” pop-fly, which means the ball took a long time to come down.
On the other hand, when an outfielder gets hit a “can of corn”, the outfielder doesn’t generally have that far to run to get in position to catch the ball. The batter hit the ball directly to the outfielder and they hit it in such a way that there is very little movement to the baseball and not that much velocity behind it. This is a routine catch for an outfielder and is typically a guaranteed out.
The History of a Can of Corn in Baseball
According to Dictonary.com, the phrase “can of corn” was first recorded somewhere between 1930 and 1935. Baseball was founded in 1869, so this means the phrase “can of corn” was not a phrase in baseball for at least the first 61-66 years of baseball’s existence (but most likely it wasn’t used until much later).
Many people do not associate the word “corn” with baseball, but the phrase “can of corn” has been a saying in baseball for decades. Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how the phrase came to exist in baseball, there are a few theories around how the phrase came into existence.
“Can of Corn” Refers to Grocers Getting Cans of Corn From Shelves
Probably the most popular theory for why the phrase “can of corn” exists in baseball is that the phrase originated from grocers getting cans of corn from high up on store shelves.
The phrase “can of corn” originated from grocers actually getting cans of corn from high shelves. In the early 1900s, cans of corn were such a popular vegetable that grocers would have these cans stocked on higher shelves. In order to reach these cans of corn, grocers used a stick with a hook on the end of it to fetch the cans from high up on the shelves and catch them, either in their hand or in their apron.
Catching a can of corn was such a routine task for grocers that it was considered an easy catch. This phrase later went on to describe a task that is easily accomplished, such as catching an easy fly-ball in the outfield.
The Outfield Was Known as a Cornfield
Another reason people believe the phrase “can of corn” made it into the baseball language is that the outfield had the nickname of the cornfield.
In the very early days of baseball, the outfield of some baseball fields was played on a farm. In fact, some of the outfields were lined with a cornfield instead of a fence. So the outfield received the nickname “cornfield”.
Probably the best example of this type of baseball field can be seen in the movie Field of Dreams. In this movie, a baseball field is located on a farm and the outfield uses a cornfield for a fence. For a great visual example, check out the quick clip below from the Field of Dreams.
One can take a guess that because the outfield had the nickname “cornfield”, it wasn’t that far of a stretch to say that outfielders, who are in the cornfield, are catching cans of corn.
Pittsburgh Pirates Announcer Bob Prince Popularized the Saying
Another theory as to how the phrase “can of corn” made it into baseball’s language is that Bob Prince popularized the saying while he was an announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bob Prince was an announcer for the Pirates from 1948-1975, but there was one play in particular where people believe he helped popularize the term “can of corn”.
The date was September 13, 1970, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. There were 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, Willie Smith was batting for the Cubs, and the Cubs were down 2-1. Willie Smith hits a long, fly-ball to the centerfielder, Matty Alou. Most people assumed this would be the final out of the game, but it turns out that was not the case.
Unfortunately for Matty Alou, this fly-ball was dropped and Willie Smith was able to make it to second base on the error. As Matty Alou dropped the fly-ball, announcer Bob Prince exclaimed that Alou “dropped the can of corn” (source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“Can of corn” was already used as baseball lingo for an easy fly-ball to the outfield prior to this play, but people believe that Bob Prince helped to spread the use of this phrase during his career as an announcer. In addition to the play above, Bob Prince is also credited as saying that plays were “as easy as taking corn out of a can” (source: The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition))
Who Coined the Phrase Can of Corn?
Like a lot of phrases in the English language, it is difficult to pin down who originally came up with the phrase “can of corn”.
It is unknown who coined the phrase “can of corn”. This phrase was thought to have entered into the English language between 1930 and 1935 when grocers would use a stick to get cans of corn down from high shelves, but there is not one person who is credited with coining the phrase “can of corn”.
What Baseball Announcers Say “Can of Corn”?
Over the years there have been numerous baseball announcers that use the phrase “can of corn”. Let’s briefly cover a few of the notable announcers who have said the phrase “can of corn” during their broadcasts.
Bob Prince, also nicknamed “The Gunner”, was an announcer for the Pirates from 1948-1975 and is most notable for saying that Matty Alou “dropped the can of corn” on an easy fly-ball to win a game. This play would have been the final play during a regular-season game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. This play is described in more detail in the paragraphs above.
Buck Martinez was a professional baseball player, manager, and is now an announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays.
There are also a lot of people who remember Buck Martinez as the announcer from Triple Play 2000 who always mentioned a pop-fly being a “can of corn”. I was able to find the video clip below where Buck Martinez describes what a can of corn is in baseball. The video below should start at 13:40 and you can hear Buck Martinez explain a can of corn from 13:45-13:58.
Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson played 9 seasons in the Major Leagues and is known for his 33-year run as a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox.
In one memorable play on April 6, 2016, Hawk Harrelson initially called a hit a “can of corn”, but the hit ended up being a home run instead of an easy catch. This play occurred at the bottom of the 2nd inning against the Oakland Athletics. To see a quick clip of this moment, check out this video from MLB.com.