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What is Bush League?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "bush league" has a literal meaning as well as an idiomatic meaning. It originated as a term for minor league baseball, which is often played in rural towns that are sometimes referred to as "the sticks" or "the bush." The term "bush league" has come to refer to anything that is considered amateurish in nature or of lesser quality, rather than being of the highest professional quality.

Minor League Baseball

Early in the development of baseball as America's national pastime, particularly in the early 20th century, the sport was played by minor league teams in many small towns across the United States. The leagues in which these teams played were often referred to as bush leagues. Unlike much wealthier major league teams, minor league teams often operated on very low budgets, especially those that were not affiliates of major league organizations. Although these were professional teams and players were paid for playing, the perception was that they were somewhat amateurish.

Another aspect of minor league baseball in those days was desperation on the part of the teams and the players. Bush league teams were often desperate for fans' attention, and their players were desperate for attention from major league teams. This desperation often resulted in extreme actions or even gimmicks that likely would not take place in the major leagues. For example, bush league teams might hold unusual promotions or stage publicity stunts to draw fans to their ballparks. Players might try to bend the rules to gain an advantage and make themselves seem to be better in comparison with other players.

Idiomatic Meaning

"Bush league" is often used as a derogatory term in everyday speech, usually as an adjective. In some cases, this term implies that something is substandard or inferior. A business that lacks professionalism, for example, might be referred to as a "bush-league operation." At other times, it is used to describe an action that is considered unprofessional, gimmicky or perhaps even unscrupulous. An action that benefits one person at the expense of another might be called a "bush-league move."

A shorter version of this idiom is simply "bush." For example, someone might refer to a particular action by saying, "That's bush." The meaning is the same — the action is being called unprofessional, amateurish or unsophisticated.

Use in Baseball

Although the term "bush league" is often used as an idiom in many contexts outside the sports world, its most common usage might be in baseball. It is often used when one of the so-called unwritten rules of the game is violated. These are rules of etiquette that typically are followed by teams during baseball games at all levels. Trying to surprise the opponent with a "hidden ball trick" or bunting to try to break up a no-hitter in the final inning, as two examples, might be called bush-league plays whether they take place in a youth league or in the major leagues.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Sports n' Hobbies, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon996866 — On Oct 19, 2016

Don't forget that NASCAR had their own version of the minor leagues they called the "Busch Series" for many years before it was renamed to xfinity. There will generally be some confusion from millennials who are from NASCAR families as to whether or not you are meaning "bush" or "busch" because both are used interchangeably. Young folk like me never heard the meme before NASCAR, so the association is strong with us.

By anon951312 — On May 14, 2014

@helene55: I think you are thinking "bush league" is just another term for minor league. It is actually derogatory. You would never see a minor league team call themselves bush league in its advertisements. Unless they are being tongue in cheek or something.

Bush league is more on par with words like cheesy or noob.

By anon947331 — On Apr 25, 2014

Anything you teach a kid to do (even if it scores runs or gets batters out) that you wouldn't be able to do in high school, college or pro ball, not because the rules don't allow it but because it won't work at these levels of play is bush league.

By anon275859 — On Jun 20, 2012

People who call coaches or players "bush" or "bush league" are usually mad because their team is losing really bad to the other team.

I once saw a parent from an opposing team call the opposition coach bush league because he would not make his players stop stealing bases and scoring.

A coach should never hold his players back. It is the responsibility of the other team to man up and stop the scoring! There's no crying in baseball!

By anon168804 — On Apr 18, 2011

Well, anon164235, you have described bush league play. The parent was 100 percent right. Machine pitch league is there to teach fundamentals of the game. It is not there to stroke the coach's ego. So, if that is the way you coach young kids to play, then welcome to the bush leagues!

By anon164235 — On Mar 30, 2011

I manage a 7-9 year old Little League machine pitch team, and a parent called me "bush league" during the game. I generally knew it wasn't a compliment, but I wanted to know exactly what it meant.

He was ticked off because I have the kids bunting on their third strike to get on base and stealing bases every chance they get. What made his comment so shocking is that he is a parent on my team! By the way, we won the game 13-2, which makes our record 4-0.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 30, 2011

If I didn't now know it was a term for minor league, I would think that the best way to define bush league was a groupe of people who live in the woods for fun or something, maybe having their own tournaments or feats of skill. For example, I imagine Robin Hood and his merry men were a one of the first great bush leagues.

By helene55 — On Jan 28, 2011

I have never heard the term bush league to describe minor league sports either. While I am not very involved in sports, I guess it is one more sign that the term is going out of style. I can see why, though. "Minor league" makes sense easily as to what it is about; "bush league" sounds very confusing to me.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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