“There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”

Oscar Wilde? Augustine Birrell? Lewis Morris? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular anecdote about Oscar Wilde that is very funny, but it is also implausible in my opinion. The story claims that Wilde was speaking with a terrible poet who had recently published a book of verse. The rhymer complained that no one was reviewing his work. He felt it was being deliberately ignored.

“There is a conspiracy of silence against my book, Oscar. What should I do?”

“Join it,” replied Oscar.

This is a cleverly cutting remark, but I do not believe that Wilde would have been that cruel. In my readings he always seemed to be a gracious conversationalist, and he would not issue this type of direct insult to someone. Could you research this anecdote and quotation?

Quote Investigator: This is an intriguing question but it is not an easy one to probe. QI has located strong evidence that some people who knew Wilde and knew about this incident expressed an opinion similar to yours. Friends of Wilde tell a version in which he did not directly insult the target of this comical barb.

Yet, the earliest published reports of this episode located by QI depict Wilde delivering the quip during a face-to-face encounter with the poet. For example, the following version of the story appeared in a review called “The Critic” on October 13, 1894, and this account was widely disseminated in other reviews and journals during the next few years [TCCS]:

The Bookman tells an amusing story of Mr. Oscar Wilde and a certain poet, who shall be nameless. The bard complained to the aesthete that a book of his had been practically ignored by certain critics. “There is a conspiracy of silence against my book,” he said. “What should you do about it, if you were I?” “Join it,” was the answer.

A very different account was presented by a biographer of Wilde named Robert Harborough Sherard in “The Real Oscar Wilde” in 1916. In this version, the poet, identified as Lewis Morris, asks for advice from the statesman Augustine Birrell. At a later time Birrell communicates the query to Wilde who responds acerbically [ROCS]:

Apropos of conspiracies of silence, there is a frequently told anecdote that the poet, Lewis Morris, having complained to Oscar that there was a conspiracy of silence against him was promptly advised to join it. I never believed that Oscar Wilde would have said such a thing to a brother poet, because I never knew him wilfully to hurt anybody’s feelings, and for another thing, this particular poet was an eminently well-meaning if tedious personage, insufficiently popular to excite anybody’s hostility. That I was right in doubting the accuracy of this story was proved to me by the following statement made by Mr Augustine Birrell, the present Secretary for Ireland, in the course of a conversation he had with Mr Herbert Vivian, who was writing a series of interviews, or Studies in Personality for The Pall Mall Magazine.

Birrell had been talking about a conversation he had had with Winston Churchill and remarked that, in answer to something that Winston had said, “I scarcely knew what to say to him, but I was profoundly impressed by his manner and earnestness.” Hereupon Vivian said: “I should not think that you often found yourself at a loss for an answer.”

To this Birrell answered, with a smile: “That reminds me of a certain poet who came to me once upon a time and complained that his works were neglected. He said there was a conspiracy of silence. Of course I felt very sorry for him, but I was really puzzled what to say. I mentioned this to a well-known wit, who exclaimed quite angrily: ‘You did not know what to say! Do you really mean to tell me that you did not know what to say?’ ‘No, upon my word I did not.’ ‘Of course, you should have said: “A conspiracy of silence! My dear fellow, join it at once.”’”

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”

Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long

Ogden Nash? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Jeopardy is my favorite game show, and I recently watched in amazement as an IBM computer named Watson beat the two best human players in the history of the trivia tournament. I was reminded of the classic one-line observation made by the brilliantly humorous poet Ogden Nash:

Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.

This epigram is listed in the Wikipedia entry for Ogden Nash, and I found it in some quotation references, but no one seems to know where it appeared initially. I searched the archive of The New Yorker because that magazine published many of his poems, but I could not find the phrase. Could you determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The primary obstacle to tracing this saying is the inaccuracy of its wording. The phrasing specified in your question, which is common online and appears in many books, differs from the original text used by Ogden Nash when he published the line as part of the poem “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours” in the 1950s. This is a common problem in quotation research that complicates database searches. Even when the phrasing is very similar and the semantics are nearly equivalent the rigorous word-for-word and letter-for-letter matching may fail.

Your idea to search the New Yorker database was an excellent one. The poem appeared in the April 4, 1959 issue of that magazine, but you may have missed it because your search query was based on the incorrect wording. The fourteen-line composition begins as follows [NYCK]:

My dictionary defines progress as an advance toward perfection.

There has been lots of progress during my lifetime, but I’m afraid it’s been heading in the wrong direction.

The poem ends with the following two lines:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long;

I think progress began to retrogress when Wilbur and Orville started tinkering around in Dayton and at Kitty Hawk, because I believe that two Wrights made a wrong.

This saying is a favorite of the prominent political pundit George Will who first used a version of it in his doctoral thesis. Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long

No One Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Consent

Eleanor Roosevelt? Reader’s Digest? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a remarkably insightful statement about self-esteem that is usually credited to Eleanor Roosevelt, the diplomat and former First Lady:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

This is one of my favorite quotations, but I have not been able to determine when it was first said. One quotation dictionary claimed that the saying was in the autobiography “This is My Story” by Roosevelt, but I was unable to find it.

Did Eleanor Roosevelt really say this? Could you tell me where I can locate this quotation?

Quote Investigator: This popular aphorism is the most well-known guidance ascribed to Roosevelt. Quotation experts such as Rosalie Maggio and Ralph Keyes have explored the origin of this saying. Surprisingly, a thorough examination of the books the First Lady authored and her other archived writings has failed to discover any instances of the quote [QVFI].

Yet, the saying has been attributed to Roosevelt for more than seventy years. The earliest example located by QI appeared in the pages of the widely-distributed periodical Reader’s Digest in September of 1940 [RDFI]:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Thus, from the beginning the phrase was credited to Roosevelt. However, no supporting reference was given in the magazine, and the quote stood alone at the bottom of a page with unrelated article text above it.

Recently, QI located some intriguing evidence, and he now believes that the creation of this maxim can be traced back to comments made by Eleanor Roosevelt about an awkward event in 1935. The Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration was invited to give a speech at the University of California, Berkeley on the Charter Day of the school. The customary host of the event was unhappy because she felt that the chosen speaker should not have been a political figure. She refused to serve as the host and several newspaper commentators viewed her action as a rebuff and an insult.

Eleanor Roosevelt was asked at a White House press conference whether the Secretary had been snubbed, and her response was widely disseminated in newspapers. Here is an excerpt from an Associated Press article [ERNC]:

“A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

She made clear she didn’t think the labor secretary fell within the category of the “snubable.”

Note that this statement by Roosevelt in 1935 contained the key elements of the quotation that was assigned to her by 1940. One person may try to make a second person feel inferior, but this second person can resist and simply refuse to feel inferior. In this example, the labor secretary refused to consent to feel inferior.

The precise wording given for Roosevelt’s statement varied. Here is another example that was printed in a syndicated newspaper column called “So They Say!” the following week. The columnist stated that the following was the definition of a “snub” given by Roosevelt [OWFI]:

I think it is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. First, though, you have to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Sometime between 1935 and 1940 Eleanor Roosevelt’s commentary was reformulated into the elegant aphorism that was published in the Reader’s Digest. Roosevelt may have done this herself. Alternatively, someone else decided to render her remarks compactly and stylishly [RDFI]:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

The next month, in October of 1940 the saying appeared as the first line of an editorial in a newspaper from Iowa. The words were placed between quotation marks, but no attribution was given [LPFI]:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

That is a good thing to remember. If you feel uncertain of yourself, it is a good pointer to remember. If you feel uncertain of yourself, it is easy to make you feel inferior by making a slighting remark. But if you feel confident you can laugh it off.

At the end of October the maxim appeared freestanding in an Alaskan newspaper where it was credited to Roosevelt [FDFI]:

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

In June of 1941 the aphorism appeared on a newspaper page dedicated to the topics of “Home, Church, Religion, Character” within a column titled “Sermonograms”. The words were credited to Eleanor Roosevelt [HNFI].

In February of 1944 the saying appeared in the widely-read syndicated column of Walter Winchell where it was again credited to Roosevelt [WWF1]. In February 1945 the maxim was repeated in Winchell’s influential column. On this second occasion Winchell employed a word from his specialized vocabulary, “Frixample”, in the introduction [WWF2]:

Mrs. F.D.R. can turn out punchlines with the best of ’em. Frixample: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

The Yale Book of Quotations, an essential reference, contains a compelling precursor to the quote under investigation listed as a cross-index term. More than one-hundred years before the cites above, in 1838, the American clergyman William Ellery Channing said the following [YWEC] [SWEC]:

No power in society, no hardship in your condition can depress you, keep you down, in knowledge, power, virtue, influence, but by your own consent.

In conclusion, QI believes that Eleanor Roosevelt can be credited with expressing the core idea of this saying by 1935. Within five years the graceful modern version of the maxim was constructed. QI does not know if Roosevelt or someone else was responsible for this. But QI does believe Roosevelt’s words were the most likely inspiration.

Update History: This post was rewritten on April 30, 2012 and the updated version was placed here on May 7, 2012.

[QVFI] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 97-98, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[RDFI] 1940 September, The Reader’s Digest, [Free standing quotation], Page 84, Volume 37, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)

[ERNC] 1935 March 26, News And Courier, Heart Balm Suit Ban Given Support By Mrs. Roosevelt, Page 7, Charleston, South Carolina. (Google News Archive)

[OWFI] 1935 April 2, Owosso Argus-Press, So They Say!, Page 4, Column 4, Owosso, Michigan. (Google News Archive)

[LPFI] 1940 October 10, Lake Park News, The Little Newsance: Editorial by Ardell Proctor, Page 7, Column 1, Lake Park, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

[FDFI] 1940 October 30, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, [Free standing quotation], Page 2, Column 1, Fairbanks, Alaska. (NewspaperArchive)

[HNFI] 1941 June 6, Huntingdon Daily News, Sermonograms, Page 11, Column 2, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

[WWF1] 1944 February 29, Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell: In New York: Notes of an Innocent Bystander, Page 4, Column 7, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)

[WWF2] 1945 February 25, St. Petersburg Times, Walter Winchell, Page 24, Column 7, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News archive)

[YWEC] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: William Ellery Channing, Page 143, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[SWEC] 1838 [Address delivered in Boston in September 1838], Self-Culture: An Address Introductory to the Franklin Lectures, Page 80, Dutton and Wentworth, Printers, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link

Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough

George S. Kaufman? Eddie Fisher? Clifton Fadiman? Dick Cavett?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many, many years ago I saw an old clip on TV of George S. Kaufman and he was replying to a question submitted by a listener/viewer/audience member. For the sake of example let’s say it was a woman complaining about her husband’s smoking habit. I don’t recall his exact words, but they went something like this:

In California, I believe on Mount Palomar, there is a powerful telescope that can see to the edges of our solar system. They are constructing a new one which will let us see far beyond our own system into other universes. [More details and punch line omitted.]

My question is: Do you know which program this was, what year and what the actual quote was?

Quote Investigator: The readily available and searchable records for early television programs are poor. But there is a report of a joke delivered by Kaufman during an episode of the television program “This is Show Business” shown on the CBS network that conforms to your outline. The earliest account QI has located appeared in a memoir by the talk-show host and television personality Dick Cavett.

George S. Kaufman was a panelist on “This is Show Business” at least twice during its initial run, and the Internet Movie Database indicates that the series was first televised between 1949 and 1954 [IMSB]. Guest stars visited the show and sang, danced, or performed in some way. In addition, they were supposed to present a personal problem for the panelists to discuss. The singing sensation Eddie Fisher stated that the difficulty he faced stemmed from girls that refused to go out with him because of his youth. The following elaborate response from Kaufman is in Cavett’s 1983 book [ECGK]:

Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope.

The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.

Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

Cavett indicated that he was using his memory to reconstruct the wording used by Kaufman decades earlier. Unsurprisingly, human memory is imperfect. In 2010 Cavett retold the anecdote in a New York Times online article, and the quotation attributed to Kaufman is quite similar; however, the wording differs in several places.

Unless a transcript is discovered QI thinks that the exact phrasing is probably lost. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is Named Sam

Samuel Goldwyn? Roger Miller? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I noticed that the Wikiquote website lists one of my favorite funny sayings attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, the famous film producer [WSG]. In the version of the story I heard, a friend told Goldwyn that he wanted to honor the studio head by naming his son after him, but Sam responded without enthusiasm:

No, don’t do that. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Sam!

Wikiquote says that Goldwyn’s reply is unsourced, hence it is only listed on the discussion webpage. Can you find evidence that Goldwyn said it? Or can you determine who did say it?

Quote Investigator: There are many variants of this joke, but it is not clear whether Goldwyn ever uttered the gag line. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes notes that “inventing mangled comments to put in the mouth of the Polish-born movie mogul was a popular pastime during Goldwyn’s lifetime” [GQV].

The earliest instance of this anecdote that QI has located appeared in the Hollywood grapevine column of Jimmie Fidler in June of 1940 [JFG]:

A friend of Samuel Goldwyn asked the producer what he should name his new baby. Goldwyn pondered a moment, then suggested “Montmorency” as a possible and “high-sounding” monicker. “But Sam,” argued his friend, “don’t you think it would be better to call him something simple, like Bill or Joe?” “For heaven’s sake, no!” cried Goldwyn. “Why, every Tom, Dick and Harry in the country is named Bill or Joe!”

Two months later, in August of 1940 the columnist Leonard Lyons told another version of the tale that used the baby name William instead of Bill or Joe. Lyons also claimed that Goldwyn’s friend who inquired about names was the film director Ernst Lubitsch. Other variants of the story appeared in Hedda Hopper’s newspaper column, Boys’ Life magazine, Erskine Johnson’s column and elsewhere. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is Named Sam

The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

Albert Einstein? Leo Mattersdorf? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been struggling trying to figure out how much I owe to the Internal Revenue Service this year. The quote I would like you to explore does not sound very extraordinary. What makes it funny and outrageous is the identity of the person who supposedly said it:

The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.

Did Albert Einstein really say this? I have seen this statement in many places, and the quote is even listed on the official IRS.gov website with an attribution to Einstein [EIS]. However, I am skeptical because no one seems to have a good reference, and the humor is too perfect.

Quote Investigator: This is a timely and entertaining query, and QI may have found the origin of this quotation. In 1963 a letter written by Leo Mattersdorf appeared in Time magazine with the following assertion: “From the time Professor Einstein came to this country until his death, I prepared his income tax returns and advised him on his tax problems.” Mattersdorf told the following anecdote about Einstein [TLM]:

One year while I was at his Princeton home preparing his return, Mrs. Einstein, who was then still living, asked me to stay for lunch. During the course of the meal, the professor turned to me and with his inimitable chuckle said: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.” I replied: “There is one thing more difficult, and that is your theory of relativity.” “Oh, no,” he replied, ”that is easy.” To which Mrs. Einstein commented, “Yes, for you.”


Einstein died in 1955, so this story appeared after his death. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that Mattersdorf was a friend of Einstein’s, and he performed tax accounting work for him. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?

Vladimir Lenin? Winston Churchill? George Riddell? H. L. Mencken? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was thumbing through The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations to try and find a good saying about freedom of the press and I was stunned to see this hostile sentence [OPQ]:

As to freedom of the press, why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

These words were attributed to Winston Churchill based on a 1984 biography by Piers Brendon [WPB]. But these same words were attributed to Vladimir Lenin in another collection of quotations I read recently and that is why I was astounded. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book. Now I am starting to doubt my memory. Could you research this quote?

Quote Investigator: Thanks for a fascinating puzzle. Indeed, most of this sentence does appear as part of a longer passage that is attributed to Vladimir Lenin in a famous compilation published in 1942 called “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken”. The name Nikolai Lenin is used instead of Vladimir Lenin in Mencken’s reference work [NQL]:

Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

NIKOLAI LENIN: Speech in Moscow, 1920

QI has traced this expression back to a diary entry that was written in 1920 by George Riddell who was a powerful newspaperman and close friend of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George. Riddell later became the 1st Baron Riddell. The text in Mencken’s reference is very similar to the text in Riddell’s diary, but it is not identical.

Riddell mentioned both Churchill and Lenin in a crucial passage of his diary. But QI believes that Riddell was describing a speech by Lenin and not the words of Churchill. Hence, QI thinks that the ascription to Churchill is almost certainly incorrect.

Continue reading Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?

Capitalism: The Nastiest of Men for the Nastiest of Motives Will Somehow Work for the Benefit of All

John Maynard Keynes? E. A. G. Robinson? Fictional? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many times I have seen the following quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes:

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

I cannot find a source. Also, I do not believe that Lord Keynes would ever say “most wickedest”. (I have seen the quote without the two “most”s.) It’s a pretty well-turned phrase though, so somebody must have said it. I thought maybe Shaw had something like this but have come up blank there, too. Someone from the Muckraker Era? Lincoln Steffens? Upton Sinclair? Anyway, Doctor, would you look into this?

Quote Investigator: Note, QI researches sayings that embody a variety of different viewpoints. This interesting quote has engaged the curiosity of many people. There is another similar maxim attributed to Keynes:

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.

This variant using the word “nastiest” appeared before the instance using the word “wickedest”, and QI believes that the “wickedest” version was created by modifying the earlier statement. This blog post will primarily trace the first variant that uses the word “nastiest”.

The earliest known attribution of the saying to Keynes was found by the outstanding researcher Ken Hirsch who shared his knowledge via Wikiquote [WJK]. The words appeared in 1951 in the book “Christianity and Human Relations in Industry” within a discussion of free markets and “the doctrine of the hidden hand” [CHR]:

… as J. M. Keynes used to put it, ‘the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds’.

The subphrase “the best results in the best of all possible worlds” alludes to Voltaire’s satirical character Dr. Pangloss and his philosophy in “Candide”. Indeed, the entire statement credited to Keynes has a satirical edge. However, Keynes died in 1946 and this statement has not been found in his writings.

QI has located a similar remark that appeared a decade earlier in 1941 in a book written by a close colleague of Keynes named E. A. G. Robinson (Edward Austin Gossage Robinson) titled “Monopoly” [ERM]:

The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.

Robinson did not attribute this description of the capitalist system to Keynes; instead, he used the locution “it has been said”. Hence there is no clear attribution beyond Robinson himself.

Robinson worked with Keynes, and it is possible that he heard the phrase from Keynes. Alternatively, Keynes may have read the phrase in Robinson’s book and repeated it to someone else. But there is no direct evidence for either of these conjectures. It is commonplace for quotations to be reassigned to individuals of greater prominence. Thus, it is possible that Robinson’s quote was slightly altered and then simply reattributed to Keynes who was a famous economist in 1951 as he is today.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Capitalism: The Nastiest of Men for the Nastiest of Motives Will Somehow Work for the Benefit of All

Gift Book: A Book Which You Wouldn’t Take on Any Other Terms

Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Fictional? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I gave a close friend a book as a gift, and on the accompanying card I included a quotation that Dorothy Parker once used in a book review:

This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.

After reading about so many false attributions on this website I decided to check this quote. Initially, I was happy to discover that several texts agreed that Dorothy Parker employed the quip while reviewing a work by Lucius Beebe called “Shoot If You Must”. But mystification followed because the book does not exist. There are two books titled “Shoot If You Must”: one written by Richard Powell and another written by C. D’W. Gibson. Lucius Beebe never wrote a book with that title.

A precise citation for Dorothy Parker’s book review was not given in any of the places I looked. There is an online database for The New Yorker magazine, and I searched it because that is where Parker published many of her book reviews; however, I could not find the saying. Is this another fake Dorothy Parker witticism?

Quote Investigator: Your quest for accuracy is admirable and QI sympathizes because he encountered similar difficulties while exploring the history of this saying. Lucius Beebe did write a book that was reviewed by Dorothy Parker. But the title used wordplay, and it was called: “Snoot If You Must” and not “Shoot If You Must”. In the December 11, 1943 issue of the “Saturday Review of Literature” Parker ended her review with this comment [SRB]:

I see that Mr. Beebe’s “Snoot If You Must” (it is surely some dark, dark masochism that makes me say that title again) is widely advertised for the Christmas trade. It must be what I believe is known as a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Gift Book: A Book Which You Wouldn’t Take on Any Other Terms

I Never Smoked Astroturf

Tug McGraw? Joe Namath? Charles Edward Greene? Bill Lee? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I laughed out loud when I read the answer given by Major League Baseball star Tug McGraw when he was asked whether he preferred grass or Astroturf:

I dunno. I never smoked any Astroturf.

This quote appeared in a newspaper article last year listing the most bizarre quotes in sport [BQI]. But when I searched online I found that some websites claim Joe Namath, the great football quarterback, said it. Did Namath or McGraw really say this? Maybe it was made up and added to McGraw’s other wacky sayings?

Quote Investigator: There is strong evidence that McGraw did utter a version of this quip when he played for the Mets. An article in The Times of San Mateo, California on April 30, 1974 contains an interview with McGraw in which he repeats the saying and indicates that he spoke the words on television the previous day [TMA]:

Back in the Mets’ locker room, McGraw laughed and said that he might get in trouble for something he said as a guest on a San Francisco TV talk show the day before. “A young boy called up and asked me if I preferred grass or astroturf,” chuckled Tug. “And I told him that I had never smoked astroturf. I guess that I shouldn’t have said that.”

“But I think that is part of why baseball isn’t as popular today as it used to be before World War II. People don’t look at players as human beings like they used to.”

The phrasing used by McGraw for this initial version of the quip is not very clear and concise. Unsurprisingly, it was altered in subsequent reportage. QI has not seen video footage of the TV talk show, so he does not know what McGraw said on camera.

The saying has also been ascribed to other sports figures such as football quarterback: Joe Namath (Broadway Joe Namath), football defensive tackle: Charles Edward Greene (Mean Joe Greene), and baseball pitcher: Bill Lee (Bill Spaceman Lee). But these attributions appeared in later years and may be imitative and/or apocryphal.

Here are additional select citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Never Smoked Astroturf