Photo: Frank Franklin II (Associated Press)

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:

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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