The Nickname Game: The barons of the bullpenby Bruce Markusen
January 14, 2011
Relief pitchers, by their nature, tend to be quirky, if not downright odd. So it should come as no surprise that some of the best nicknames have belonged to relievers, both old-time firemen and modern day closers. So let’s take a nickname tour through the bullpens, including stops to see The Sphinx, a monster, a goose, and a few other animals of various sorts.
Don "The Sphinx" Mossi: Chapter and verse have been written about Mossi’s, shall we say, unusual appearance, so it should be no surprise that his nickname stemmed from such origins. I haven’t been able to discern exactly who came up with the name of The Sphinx, but I think it’s safe to say that Mossi’s large ears reminded someone of the large, flapping headdress worn by the mythological Egyptian creature. For those who didn’t readily process the image in their minds, the more direct, far blunter nickname of “Ears” probably did the trick.
As he grew older and lost velocity, Mossi made the successful transition to the rotation, while also making the necessary adjustments from fastball to finesse pitcher. Mossi kept hitters off balance with a tortuously slow but highly effective curveball. He also maintained his world class control, walking no more than 49 batters in any one season for the Tigers from 1959 to 1963.
The Sphinx was no Adonis, but he could definitely pitch.
Dick "The Monster" Radatz: A mammoth on the mound, Radatz was 6-foot-5, weighed anywhere from 230 to 280 pounds during his major league journeys, and was quite appropriately nicknamed “The Monster.” Although intimidating in appearance, he became a lovable figure throughout Massachusetts and a vital part of Red Sox lore.
If ever a nickname suited a player, the label of The Monster fit Radatz perfectly. When he was a freshman at Michigan State University, football coach Clarence “Biggie” Munn approached the hulking Radatz. “You’re Radatz, aren’t you?” asked Munn. “How come you didn’t come out for football.” Radatz had a ready reply for the question. “No thanks, Mr. Munn,” Radatz said. “I don’t like raw meat.”
Radatz could look like a monster, too, more specifically like an out-of-control monster. When he closed out games successfully, he thrust his fists triumphantly above his head, a gesture that would fit in well with the celebratory antics of the contemporary athlete, but something that was rarely done in the 1960s. The momentary celebration irritated some opposing hitters, who already felt enough frustration trying to hit his blockbuster fastball. The Boston fans, however, enjoyed Radatz and his gesture of exultation.
Red Sox Nation simply loved The Monster.
Franks "Tug" McGraw: Fittingly, a colorful character like McGraw featured an unusual nickname that revealed something about his days as an infant. There are two versions of how McGraw acquired the nickname “Tug,” with one being particularly humorous. According to James Skipper’s book, Baseball Nicknames, McGraw earned the name because of his habits as a baby. Simply put, he tugged so hard at his mother’s breast while being nursed that his parents thought it only natural to give him the nickname, “Tugger.” According to another theory, McGraw tugged at everything as a child, from fabrics to toys to furniture. In either case, the Tugger label was eventually shortened to Tug.
McGraw’s nickname was memorable; so was one of his habits on the pitcher’s mound. While toiling for the Mets’ farm team in Jacksonville in 1968, McGraw, on the mound, repeatedly slapped his glove against his thigh. The habit started as a way of greeting his wife, Phyllis, who was watching from the stands, but it soon became a product of ritual and superstition. McGraw began to bang his glove against his leg in every game he pitched, regardless of whether his wife was in the ballpark. He maintained the habit through his Mets and Phillies days, right up until his retirement in 1984.
Pedro "Dracula" Borbon: As a lover of vampire films, how could I not choose a player with such an otherworldly nickname? For the colorful Borbon, the Dracula persona evolved out of a biting incident that provided a moment of comedy during an intense playoff series. With the Mets and Reds ensnared in a feisty best-of-five NLCS in 1973, bad feelings came to a head in Game Three. A bench-clearing brawl started when Pete Rose upended Buddy Harrelson at second base, initiating a tussle between the Reds star and the Mets’ undersized shortstop. Borbon, like the rest of the Reds’ relievers, came in from the bullpen and joined the melee.
During the skirmish, Borbon lost his cap. Seeing a cap on the ground, Borbon picked it up, assuming that it was his, but soon noticed it had a Mets logo. Upset—the cap actually belonged to Mets outfielder Cleon Jones—Borbon took a healthy bite out of the stray hat. It’s not certain how Jones, an unpredictable character in his own right, reacted to having his hat emblazoned with teeth marks.
Later in Borbon’s career, a more serious incident cemented his reputation for vampiric tendencies. In May of 1979, Borbon was at a Cincinnati disco (yes, a disco!) when he became involved in a late-night fight. As the fracas devolved into nastiness, Borbon bit one of the disco’s bouncers in the chest. Borbon’s indiscretion resulted in an assault charge. When Cincinnati Enquirer writer Mark Purdy followed up by interviewing the bouncer, the victim could only guess at Borbon’s motivation. “He’s just a habitual biter, I guess.” Just like the other Dracula.
Near the end of his playing days, Borbon ventured from vampires to voodoos. After the Reds traded him to the Giants against his wishes, he claimed to put his old franchise under a voodoo curse.
Rich "Goose" Gossage: It was during his early days with the White Sox that Gossage picked up his famed nickname. Contrary to what I had assumed for many years, Gossage’s nickname was not a play on his last name. The nickname came from his White Sox roommate, fellow pitcher Tom Bradley, who is best remembered for wearing sunglasses on the mound. Shortly after Gossage joined the Sox, Bradley took note of Gossage’s unusual delivery and mechanics. Bradley told Gossage that he looked like a goose when he threw the ball.
The Chicago media latched on to Bradley’s observation, quickly tagging Gossage “Goose.” The name caught on with a flourish. By the late 1970s, more people were referring to Gossage as Goose than Rich. It certainly didn’t hurt that the name Goose Gossage had a lyrical flow to it.
He’s one of two Gooses enshrined in the Hall of Fame, joining outfielder Leon "Goose" Goslin.
Brad "The Animal" Lesley: Lesley pitched only three seasons in the major leagues, but he succeeded in making a far more lasting impression in both the United States and the Japanese Leagues. Nicknamed “The Animal” for his on-field gyrations, Lesley landed in the national spotlight shortly after making his big league debut with the Cincinnati Reds. Snarling and stomping on the mound, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Lesley pumped his first into his glove after striking out opposing batters. He also gained a reputation for having an unusual diet, which included live frogs.
“I eat spiders, too,” Lesley proudly told The New York Times in 1982. “I love to eat critters.” Yes, The Animal liked to eat animals.
Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams: As part of a growing trend, Williams owes his nickname to popular culture, specifically the first Major League film, which became a surprise box office hit in 1989. The movie’s release coincided with Williams’ breakout season, when he put up a 2.76 ERA in a league-leading 76 games. Though effective at times as a closer, first for the Cubs and later for the Phillies, Williams sometimes resembled Charlie Sheen’s character in the film, the lovable Ricky Vaughn, who was capable of hitting the on-deck batter with an errant pitch.
Williams wasn’t quite THAT wild, but he still managed to become a modern day version of the late Ryne Duren. Often running full counts and sometimes handing out walks like parking tickets—he often came close to giving up a walk per inning in a given season—Williams pitched with a distinctive, off-balance delivery, in which he usually fell to the ground after delivering the pitch.
Given his maximum effort approach, it’s no wonder that Williams had little idea where his fastball would end up. Still, he had a fairly successful career, better than he often credits himself with while working as an analyst on the MLB Network.
Honorable mention: Rich "El Guapo" Garces, Tom "The Blade" Hall, Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, Aurelio "Senor Smoke" Lopez, Sparky "The Count" Lyle and Don "Stan The Man Unusual" Stanhouse.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.