The term “inside baseball” refers to any subject matter which is considered too highly specialized to be appreciated by the general public. In politics, inside baseball usually refers to the technical details and the finer points of political strategy, as opposed to big ideas and emotional appeals.
Inside baseball began, of course, as a term describing a particular way of playing baseball. In the 1890s, inside baseball meant relying on bunts, small hits, and stolen bases to win games, instead of trying for home runs and other dramatic plays. Today, that kind of approach is usually called “small ball.” Edward Hugh Hanlon, a turn of the century baseball player and manager, was considered the father of inside baseball.
Over time, the term took on a broader meaning. It came to be used often in political coverage, where it referred to the kinds of issues that only political junkies really care about. The details about how Congressional hearings are run, for example, could be classed as inside baseball. So could the specific rules at a campaign event. Any aspect of politics which is “wonky,” or “nerdy” can also be described as inside baseball.
The term is often used in a negative sense, to criticize an elitist or overly narrow focus. William Safire noted that by 1978, the Washington Post was poking fun at Senator Ted Kennedy for making “inside baseball” jokes in the middle of “boring hearings” in the Senate. Merriam Webster argues that the term is a few decades older than that and, in fact, dates back to at least 1952. In that year, an article in Boston Traveler wrote, “The evidence indicates the Eisenhower staff is going to have to learn their ‘inside baseball’ the hard way.”
William Safire also noted that politicians on the campaign trail often grumble about reporters who, in their view, focus too closely on the details: “In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.” Similarly, journalists sometimes agonize over whether it’s worth reporting on the nitty-gritty of how Washington operates.
At the same time, some journalists argue that reporting on inside baseball is crucial, since it gives the public a window into how the government actually operates. Inside politics can mean the details of how fundraising and lobbying are carried out. It can also include reporting on the nitty-gritty of how bills get passed into law: pork barrel spending, earmarks, logrolling, and other backroom maneuvers can all be described as inside baseball.
In its more positive sense, inside baseball political reporting can mean covering third party politics in detail. It can also mean illuminating an area of politics which would normally be overlooked because it may not be of interest to the general public.
William Safire: “From its sports context comes its political or professional denotation: minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados. In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.”