How Did ‘Intangibles’ End Up in Sports-Speak? A concept starts out in Latin and ends up in the mouth of the Red Sox manager

I Can’t Say What It Is, but He’s Got It


Oct. 18, 2013 9:01 p.m. ET

When Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell made the decision to keep light-hitting left fielder Jonny Gomes in the lineup against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series this week, he acknowledged that his choice had nothing do with the numbers. “The one thing that we can’t fully measure is the intangibles that Jonny Gomes brings,” Mr. Farrell said.

Last week, another Red Sox outfielder was hailed in a similar way. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose team lost to the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs, had this to say of Shane Victorino : “He just drips with intangibles.”

In The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Paul Dickson defines “intangible” as “an unknown, indefinite or elusive aspect of baseball that is not initially perceived.” How did this mystical-sounding term end up becoming so fixed in manager-speak (and not just to describe Red Sox players)?

As an adjective meaning “unable to be touched or measured,” “intangible” entered English in the 17th century from Latin by way of French. It soon made the transition to a noun, just as “imponderable” came to mean “something that is difficult to assess.” As early as 1713, the Church of England clergyman Francis Squire wrote, “as there is a wide difference betwixt sense and reason; so, betwixt their objects, visibles and invisibles, tangibles and intangibles.”

In the business world, “intangibles” can refer to intangible assets: those hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless valuable qualities such as customer goodwill or brand recognition. In the mid-20th century, as baseball brass increasingly began thinking of their players as assets to manage, “intangibles” made an easy transition from finance to sports.

The first player who was routinely praised for his “intangibles” was the scrappy second baseman Eddie Stanky, nicknamed “The Brat.” In the words of Leo Durocher, who managed Stanky with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field… All the little S.O.B. can do is win.”

When Stanky joined the Giants in 1950, he was keenly aware that his value to the team was hard to measure. After the season was over, the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association named Stanky the outstanding player of the year. “I want to thank you for appreciating my intangibles on the field,” he said in accepting the award.

“Intangibles” have persisted in baseball despite the advent of complex statistical analyses that seek to capture all facets of a player’s on-field talents. For stat-heads, talk of “intangibles” is a fuzzy-minded refusal to grasp empirical data. But until baseball is taken over by robots, there will always be a need to label natural gifts that elude quantification.

—Mr. Zimmer, a lexicographer, is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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