On The Origins, Use, And Meaning Of “Ass In The Jackpot”
The emergence last month of a 2016 video featuring mic’d-up Terry Collins arguing with umpire Tom Hallion not only gave the world, if only briefly , a unique insight into how umps deal with enraged managers, but also its most prominent demonstration of a phrase that was, until that point, known by only a small, niche audience. This is the story of “ass in the jackpot.”
Let’s get one thing straight from the top: The basal phrase, as most commonly used, is simply, “in the jackpot.” Hallion’s colorful indirect objectification was a flourish, though thorough research revealed the full phrase, as uttered by Hallion, turned up in the TV movie based on the series Homicide that aired in 2000. Here, Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton character spills it out:
Tim Bayliss: DID I TAKE A BULLET FOR YOU? I take a bullet for you, and you take a bullet for me – now THAT is square business, Frank!
Frank Pembleton: This is not taking a bullet for you, this is you wanting me to toss your ass in the jackpot! You’re confessing to a murder, Tim, do you understand that?
Tim Bayliss: So you want someone else should take me in? Someone else should bust me.
Searching for other uses of the exact phrase turn up this 2014 blog post from sociologist Peter Moskos as well as in Moskos’s books Cop In The Hood (2008) and In Defense Of Flogging (2011). As it turns out, I own both of those books, and converse with Moskos from time to time; the John Jay College professor’s doctoral dissertation research was conducted over nearly two years of serving as an honest-to-god Baltimore city cop in the Eastern District.
Homicide, of course, is based on David Simon’s 1991 nonfiction masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets . Simon wrote that while working as a Baltimore Sun police reporter, and it led to a number of other projects including his excellent The Corner and, of course, HBO’s The Wire.
The phrase turns up in 2002, in the third episode of the first season of The Wire—also set in Baltimore:
Burrel: Lieutenant. A moment, please. What happened out there? Did you know they were in the high-rises without backup?
Daniels: If I tell you yes I screwed up. If I tell you no I’m putting my men in the jackpot. Do you still want me to answer? I screwed up, sir.
Moskos says he’s only ever heard “in the jackpot” as Baltimore cop patois , and many-to-most references do appear to be from the Mid-Atlantic. But I uncovered another use of it in a 2002 issue of Cincinnati magazine . There, its definition is conveniently provided:
The man is John Sess, and he is here to complete part of his 80 hours of re-training mandated by the department, which was forced to hire him back by an arbitrator. Sess was originally fired for “putting himself in the jackpot,” as the recruits say—he did something stupid that exposed himself to disciplinary action.
“In the jackpot” also turns up in Chicago native Scott Hoffman’s 2016 Windy City mob novel Inside :
“Never put yourself in the jackpot, Bobby,” said Jimmy. “Once you put yourself in the jackpot, you’ve isolated yourself from everyone,” he said. “No one is gonna help you. They run from you because, frankly, you ain’t gonna be around much longer. You’ve become a debit and not a credit to the Outfit. You gotta look in the mirror, because the guy you see is the guy who put you in the jackpot; no one else but you,” Jimmy said.
“So, once you’re in the jackpot, that’s it. It’s done. You’re through?” I said.
“Well, you could get out of the jackpot. I mean, it’s happened, but then you got the trust issue,” Jimmy said.
From there, we have a few more scattered appearances in police procedural novels and academic papers. Mercury Morris, who hails from Pittsburgh, used it in 1988 when discussing the biblical Adam to the Fort Lauderdale News:
In the gospel according to Mercury Morris, “The fruit didn’t get him in the jackpot. He did. And he got his instructions from God.”
Current New York Rangers president Glen Sather, who spent most of his life in Alberta, used the phrase back in 1984, when as Oilers coach he noted following a loss to the Devils that “We got ourselves in the jackpot from the beginning. We were playing catch-up and we never caught up.”
There’s one more cop-related reference, dating back to 1978, in South Jersey’s Courier-Post:
The confusion over Tom Hallion’s usage is not even the first time the public has debated the source or meaning of the phrase. On November 29, 1981, the New York Times discussed Connecticut governor William O’Neill’s use of the word jackpot:
At the high point of his 20-minute speech, the Governor listed all of the tax increases and spending cuts that he had recommended but the legislature had voted down. “If you had followed my recommendations, we would not be in the jackpot we’re in,” he said.
It was not a slip of the tongue; the Governor had said exactly what was in his prepared text. Mr. O’Neill, however, sometimes lets words get the better of him.
The Governor’s use of the word jackpot, however, was correct, according to Webster’s Third New International Edition. The third sense listed in the dictionary, one that it notes is chiefly used in the West, is “a tight spot: jam, scrape.”
The example quoted is from Ross Santee, “apt to get himself and his friends into a jackpot.” Santee, an Arizona writer and artist, produced a dozen cowboy novels; the Webster’s citation comes from Apache Land. According to Larrye deBear, the Governor’s press secretary, no one on the Governor’s staff thought twice about the meaning. Mr. O’Neill, he said, “read a lot of western novels as a kid,” but doesn’t remember if any were Santee’s.
Apache Land was published in 1947. And now we’re a ways away from Baltimore.
None of this, really, explains how Tom Hallion—a Buffalo, N.Y., native—came to adopt the phrase, though obviously the itinerant lifestyle of a career MLB umpire would put one in regular contact with this nation’s unique local dialects, and Hallion did work in 1981 with the Baltimore Orioles instructional league.
Or perhaps—and this is what I believe—Hallion picked the phrase up from his late father, who once served as the Saugerties, N.Y. police commissioner. If the phrase was once common in cop culture, but faded away over the years (and was poorly recorded, even in its time) while still staying alive in Baltimore (much like many of that city’s idiosyncratic speech patterns), then it all fits together. With two obvious holes: How did it ever come to be in the first place, and why Baltimore?
I might have an answer.
The October 27, 1926 edition of the Baltimore Sun discusses the uncovering of a series of vaults along that city’s Water Street during an excavation. Under the headline “ROMANCE SUGGESTED IN FINDING OF VAULTS,” their purpose is articulated: “Southern planters,” it euphemizes, who were in the paper’s words “a gay lot,” used the pens to house slaves, according to a Civil War general named John R. King who worked at the hotel under which the vaults were discovered.
The master of the slave, according to the story, had put him in the jackpot, a part of the poker game. If the master won, the slave remained his property. If he lost, the Negro became the property of the winner of the pot.
It is not hard to extrapolate from the idea of being housed in an underground vault, your future in the hands of a poker game, to the broader concept of being stuck in a bad situation; it would certainly explain why “jackpot,” usually a word with positive associations, here connotes trouble.
(A similar story appears in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, published in 1942; the predicaments of the two slaves being used as stakes in a poker hand proves the Baltimore report was not a one-off thing, or at least that the idea had permeated the wider culture.)
So there you have it. As best we can tell, when Tom Hallion told Terry Collins that “they” had his “ass in the jackpot,” he was drawing on a long, somewhat law enforcement–tinged history that traces itself back to the time that human beings were not only treated as property, but as currency. Sorry if this ruined it for you.
The emergence last month of a 2016 video featuring mic’d-up Terry Collins arguing with umpire Tom Hallion not only gave the world, if only briefly, a unique insight into how umps deal with enraged managers, but also its most prominent demonstration of a phrase that was, until that point, known by only a small, niche audience. This is the story of “ass in the jackpot.”
MLB is not pleased at the release of the Terry Collins-Tom Hallion argument video
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Earlier this week a video went viral depicting then-Mets manager Terry Collins getting into a heated argument with umpire Tom Hallion after Noah Syndergaard was ejected from a game for throwing behind a batter. We didn’t do a post about that video for its own sake because (a) it was from May 2016, so it wasn’t exactly current; and (b) it contained about 50 F-bombs in it and, while we’ll occasionally drop some PG-13 language here, we try to keep things relatively clean. Standing alone, it was just a funny video of a mic’d-up argument with some blue language. If I wanted to make content out of that I’d just post the Earl Weaver Manager’s Corner video twice a week. Which, well, maybe I should, but I like having a job.
The video, however, has become a bit more newsworthy in the past 24 hours because, we learned yesterday, Major League Baseball is trying to make it disappear:
Rob Manfred said that the Terry Collins/umpire viral video has been scrubbed from the internet because a collectively bargained agreement with the umpires that said those interactions involving microphoned umpires wouldn’t be made public. MLB is trying to figure out how it leaked
That’s a pretty legitimate reason, actually. The purpose of such recordings is for Major League Baseball to evaluate umpires’ handling of confrontations, not for public release. Yes, the video was fun — I imagine you can still find it bouncing around the web with a cursory search if you haven’t seen it — but, really, if your bosses and you had an agreement about such things, you’d expect it to be honored.
We’ll leave the unauthorized release for MLB and its security apparatus. For now, given that the thing is back in the news, I have two takeaways from the video, which I’ll explain in a way that makes sense even if you haven’t seen it.
First, the confrontation itself. It was super heated, and for a pretty good reason actually. Syndergaard was tossed because he threw behind Chase Utley. You’ll recall that Utley, the previous postseason, broke Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg with a hard/dirty slide. The Mets were mad about this for a long time. Probably still are. This was their first shot at retaliation. I’m not condoning the retaliation, but this is what that was.
The thing about it, though: Collins did not really back down a bit from admitting it. When Syndergaard got tossed, Collins made a very brief and not-convincing attempt to argue that there was no warning to his pitcher or whatever, but Hallion noted that “we all know the situation here” or words to that effect. Collins came off his denial and, quite passionately, argued that it was crap for Syndergaard to be tossed because Utley had not been punished by the league and his guys should get their shot. Hallion acknowledged that he knew where Collins was coming from, but that he couldn’t allow that kind of retaliation to stand.
It was really an enlightening exchange. Partially because of the insight into how a guy in Collins’ position views such things and again, quite passionately, advocates for his players and their own particular sense of justice. It was also enlightening because of just how well Hallion handled the situation. He didn’t get confrontational himself and he allowed Collins to vent, but he likewise did not back down from his position. You could imagine this going one of two ways, each of them bad, with either Hallion himself getting all huffy at Collins or, perhaps, him being dismissive and taking an unimpressed “are you done yet?” approach that, while not itself aggressive, likely would’ve still pissed Collins off. Hallion, who was umping first base that night, likewise ran interference when Collins initiated things with the home plate umpire, protecting his crewmate. I have no idea how MLB actually evaluates umps for these sorts of situations, but in my book that was some A+ handling on Hallion’s part.
The second part is a bit more fun.
In a phrase that is quickly going viral itself, Hallion tried to explain to Collins that, while he got where he was coming from, his crew had to toss Syndergaard because if they didn’t they themselves would be in trouble. The specific phrase — and here’s some of that PG-13 language — was, “our ass is in the jackpot if we don’t do something here.”
The meaning of the phrase is pretty obvious, but the particular phrasing — ass in the jackpot — is absolute magic. It’s not one you hear very often if at all, but it just works, perfectly, in that way pithy little phrases like that work. Baseball is great for that, by the way. Little phrases guys use freely amongst themselves but which the outside world doesn’t really use that often or, in some cases, even know that well. The broadest example is the term “horse s**t.” Most people use the bovine, not the equine, variety in that case, but in baseball it’s always “horse s**t.” There are a lot of others, most not as obscure as “ass in the jackpot.” Not that “ass in the jackpot” is going to be obscure for long. I’m assuming 25% of all fantasy teams have been renamed to something like that by now already.
Anyway: good luck to Rob Manfred in his search for the leakers. I’m a little sad that this video can’t be featured far and wide at legitimate outlets because it’s so good, but as a pro-union guy I get that he has to police this for the good of labor relations. It’s a hard case, but I understand.
One thing that’s totally clear, however: the ass of whoever leaked it is gonna be in the jackpot if they get caught.
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