The Nickname Game: the right fieldersby Bruce Markusen
September 03, 2010
Some of baseball’s best nicknames, not to mention two of its all-time greatest performers, can be found in right field. There’s no shortage of quality or quantity in this category, and therefore, there will likely be no shortage of debate. Let’s track down our Big Six in chronological order, running the gamut from a sultan to a cobra.
Babe "The Sultan Swat" Ruth: Where does one begin with a fountain of nickname wealth like Ruth? He was known widely as “The Bambino” or “The Great Bambino,“ and alternately as the “Colossus of Clout.” Then there were the lesser known nicknames like “Home Run King” and “Herman the Great,” the latter a reference to his middle name. But I’ve always been partial to the “Sultan of Swat,” which had a majestic quality in describing the greatest home run hitter of the 1920s. The nickname surfaced in 1927, born at the typewriters of sportswriters, as Ruth assaulted American League pitchers for an unprecedented 60 home runs.
It’s easy to forget that “Babe” was a nickname, too, replacing his given name of George. In 1914, Baltimore Orioles general manager Jack Dunn signed Ruth to his first pro contract, reeling him in at the age of 19. After taking a look at Ruth, some of his Oriole teammates began calling him “Jack’s newest babe.“ That was eventually shortened to Babe, or The Babe, depending on the level of respect. The nickname stuck immediately, making George an afterthought.
So take your pick, Babe, The Bambino or the Sultan of Swat. Even though, as Larry David once pointed out as “George Steinbrenner” on Seinfeld, he was never actually a sultan.
Dixie "The People's Cherce" Walker: Here’s a creative nickname with an added twist. An extraordinarily popular player with the Brooklyn Dodgers throughout much of the 1940s, Walker gained such a strong following at Ebbets Field that writers began to refer to him as “The People’s Choice.” But the nickname needed to reflect the Brooklyn accent of the day, so “choice” became “cherce.”
Walker achieved his level of popularity in Brooklyn despite starting his professional career in the rival organization of the dreaded Yankees. A shoulder injury led to the Yankees waiving him; he was claimed by the White Sox, who eventually traded him to the Tigers. Walker was soon waived again, only to be signed by the wise Dodgers front office. With his blond looks and likable personality, not to mention his strong left-handed bat, Walker became a favorite with the faithful at Ebbets Field. His performance in head-to-head match-ups with the hated Giants only added to his Brooklyn celebrity; in 1940, his first full season with the Dodgers, he batted a cool .436 against the Giants.
Like many players who played during the first half of the 20th century, Walker held multiple nicknames. “Dixie” itself was a nickname, resulting from his Georgia heritage and his father’s identical nickname, which replaced his given name of Fred.
Carl "The Reading Rifle" Furillo: Let’s make it a double dose of Dodgers, Brooklyn style, on our list of right fielders. The nickname of “The Reading Rifle” not only had a lyrical quality to it, but it also made perfect sense. Furillo was born in the small town of Stony Creek Mills, located only four miles from Reading, Pa. His throwing arm had a rifle-like quality, as he often gunned down runners from his outfield post at Ebbets Field. Some historians have termed Furillo’s throwing ability among the best of all-time, right alongside the legendary arms of Roberto Clemente, Ollie Brown and Dwight Evans.
While The Reading Rifle carried weight with fans and the media, another nickname proved more popular to teammates. His Dodgers brethren liked to call Furillo “Skoonj,” which was short for the Italian word “scungilli,” meaning snail. For all of his talents, Furillo was not particularly fast afoot, so the name seemed appropriate, if a little bit cruel.
Hank "The Hammer" Aaron: Starting with Ruth, home run hitters have always been ideal breeding ground for nicknames, so it should come as no surprise that the game’s one-time home run king came to be known by several nicknames. “The Hammer” was the most popular, followed by the related moniker of “Hammerin’ Hank” and the more obscure “Bad Henry.” Two of those nicknames arrived in 1954, his rookie year with the Milwaukee Braves. Opposing pitchers called Aaron Bad Henry because they quickly dreaded having to face him, while teammates, in a moment of alliterative awareness, began calling him Hammerin’ Hank. That nickname eventually became shortened to Hammer, particularly popular for headline writers and baseball scribes.
If we are to be grammatically correct, let’s note that “Hank” is also a nickname, the obvious shortening of his more formal given name, Henry. When Aaron first broke in with the Braves, he was known almost exclusively as Henry. The Braves’ public relations director, the delightfully memorable Donald Davidson, realized that Aaron was shy and reserved, so he began referring to him as Hank as a way of making him sound more approachable and accessible to the media. By midseason, Aaron answered to both names, which had become virtually interchangeable.
In his new and critically acclaimed biography of Aaron, Howard Bryant makes an intriguing distinction between Hank and Henry. Bryant calls Aaron, the baseball player, by the name of Hank; he refers to Aaron, the man, as Henry.
Walt "No Neck" Williams: The late John Bateman did not have a particularly memorable major league career, but he did contribute one of the most apt nicknames to the baseball lexicon. A burly journeyman catcher with the old Houston Colt 45s, Bateman took a look at the 5-foot-6 Williams, a teammate in Texas, and fitted him with “No Neck.”
For those who have seen photographs of Williams, a journeyman outfielder who later played for the White Sox, Indians and Yankees before continuing his career in the Japanese Leagues, the nickname needs little explanation. With his head seemingly sitting on his collarbone, which topped his roundish, fullback physique, Williams struck one of the most distinctive poses of his era.
As a player, Williams was nothing special—a singles hitter with above average speed and very little power—but off the field he brought some color to the clubhouse. According to Ron Blomberg, his former teammate with the Yankees, Williams ate hamburgers voraciously, sometimes 20 or more in a sitting. Williams also developed an unusual routine prior to and after games. He covered his body, virtually from head to toe, in Vaseline, apparently as a way of keeping his skin smooth and soft.
Dave "The Cobra" Parker: Some of the best baseball nicknames reflect a player’s appearance on the playing field, whether it be a distinctive batting stance or a unique running style. An example of the former quality can be found in Parker, who featured a coiled batting stance as he waited deliveries from opposing pitchers. Batting out of a pronounced crouch, Parker wrapped his bat behind his right ear before unraveling both his body and his bat as he moved forward into his swing. Like a cobra striking at its prey, Parker pounced on pitches, intimidating hurlers with the brute force of his left-handed swing.
The Cobra added to his level of intimidation in the middle of the 1978 season, when he briefly sported a hockey mask in response to suffering a fractured jaw and cheekbone at the hands of John Stearns. The mask, painted black on one half and gold on the other half, made Parker look especially frightening, foreshadowing the look of Jason in the soon-to-be-released Friday the 13th film. Parker wore the mask for only a few games because he found it difficult to see pitches, motivating him to switch to a football style face guard attached to his helmet.
Yes, The Cobra wearing a mask. One of the most terrifying sights in the last 35 years of baseball history.
Honorable mentions: "Downtown" Ollie Brown, "Wahoo" Sam Crawford, Reggie "Mr. October" Jackson, Frank "The Judge" Robinson, and Enos "Country" Slaughter.
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.