Opinion: Giving it the old college try

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Commentary by Ward Degler

A couple hackneyed phrases popped up in conversation a few days ago. Someone referred to trying and failing at something as giving it “the old college try.” Someone else cast aside a worn-out idea of mine as “old hat.”

Anyone who knows me should know you don’t say things like that without sending me diving into the dusty archives in search of meaningful explanations.

This time, Google led me down several dark halls before advising me that in 1917 the New York Giants manager watched horrified as a rookie outfielder missed a crucial catch that resulted in the other team getting a home run. When he had composed himself, he was quoted as saying, “Well, he gave it the old college try.”

Someone else suggested it meant giving it your best shot. Obviously, that wasn’t what the outfielder gave that day in 1917.

I explored several other dusty hallways in search of “old hat.” In 1911, Cornish writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote in a religious essay that men were more sophisticated now and considered the Devil’s pitchfork image “old hat.”

Three hundred years earlier in 1697, Thomas d’Urfey’s play, “The Intrigues at Versailles,” stated solidly that something or other was as “old hat as a jar of stale marmalade.” No other information is given except to point out that d’Urfey was a close friend of King Charles. It is possible the king had strong feelings about marmalade.

In defense of the jelly industry, however, I’ll say that marmalade is a favorite spread in our kitchen and no jar in memory has ever stuck around long enough to go stale.

I kept digging in hopes of learning what college the Giants manager might be referring to. No luck. In fact, I didn’t even find out what team got the homer off the sloppy outfielder that day. I did learn that the Giants’ manager that year was John McGraw. And it was interesting to discover that 53,107 other people had visited the Google site and asked the same question.

I guess we all gave it the old college try.


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