Some time ago we lived next door to this sweet widow. One day during the early summer she came to our door with a grocery bag. She said, “Would you folks like some rhubarb?”
She had rhubarb in her garden and was generous in sharing it. Instead of politely telling her of course – we’d love some rhubarb, I said, “No thanks, we just had one.” I thought she would know what a rhubarb was. She got this puzzled look on her face and I realized I had some explaining to do.
This issue came up recently when we were eating rhubarb pie at a weekend get-together.
We have two adult daughters we call Goldilocks and Cinderella (so that they don’t get their actual names in the paper as demanded) and we were talking about the meaning of “a rhubarb.”
It turns out that, like the widow, neither of them had any idea of what “a rhubarb” is. I felt I had failed as a parent.
If you check the meaning of rhubarb in the American Heritage Dictionary you will find a definition of common garden rhubarb as having long green or reddish acid leaf stocks that are edible when sweetened and cooked. Also, you will find a slang term definition: “a heated discussion, a quarrel or fight.”
When (I thought) I was kidding the widow, I was hoping she would get the joke, and realize I was talking about a husband-wife argument. When I had to explain the slang meaning of a rhubarb, the attempted joke wasn’t funny. No more rhubarb jokes.
The best-known example of a rhubarb was an argument in baseball. There was a time when baseball rules allowed a player or manager to express (reasonable) disagreement with the ump. These arguments were called rhubarbs. The “good” ones were quite colorful – they included hollering, temper tantrums, managers or players sometimes kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes and occasionally a player or manager would disconnect a base and throw it into centerfield or take it down into the dressing room and not return it.
There was a limit to how much an ump had to take before he could evict a manager or players from a game. Some words were not allowed. Touching or pushing the umpire were not allowed either. Once evicted, they couldn’t sit on the bench and had to hit the showers.
Bobby Cox was a baseball manager who managed the Atlanta Braves from 1978 – 1981. The Toronto Blue Jays from 1982 – 1985, and the Braves again from 1990 – 2010. He was named manager of the year four times and was the fourth winningest manager in major league baseball history.
Cox did not have a fiery temper, but he managed to set a baseball record by being ejected from 161 games in his career. He was asked what he did when ejected. He said “I’m like. What do I do? Go have a couple cold beers and get in a cold tub or something and relax. And then I probably have to write a $500 check (a fine to his ball club). Or you can do what I do and write one for $10,000 and tell them when it runs out let me know.”
Rhubarbs are not allowed now in major league baseball. They slow down the game too much. If a “discussion” is started now, it is shut down in a few seconds. Any attempt to keep arguing can now result in an immediate ejection.
If you want to get the flavor of some of the heated arguments in baseball history, Google baseball ejections and be prepared for exciting entertainment and fever pitch. But it was all in the spirit of sport. When the game was over, they all got together for a beer and a laugh.
Although baseball arguments led to delay, showboating and some phony anger, they served the purpose of allowing less time and emotion for arguing, screaming, belligerence and bullying about politics, race and religion. Those were the days.