The Nickname Game: The shortstopsby Bruce Markusen
May 07, 2010
For some reason, the shortstop position has been one of the most fertile for inventive nicknames. Perhaps it has to do with the high level of athleticism required of the position. Or maybe it is merely happenstance. Whatever the reason, let’s enjoy some of the best shortstopping nicknames the game has known.
Larvell "Sugar Bear" Blanks: When playing the nickname game, it is wise to avoid assumptions. I had always figured that Blanks, a 1970s era shortstop with the Braves, Indians and Rangers, acquired his nickname from “Sugar Bear,” the cartoon character that became synonymous with Sugar Crisp cereal during that decade. (Is it just me or did the Sugar Bear character act like he was high on some kind of mind-altering narcotic during those commercials?)
I learned that Blanks’ nickname had nothing to do with the cartoon character. James Skipper’s comprehensive book, Baseball Nicknames, has the true story. Blanks told Skipper that the origins for the nickname date back to the summer of 1970, when he was playing for the Braves’ affiliate in the Arizona Instructional League. That same year, The Archies released their hit song, “Sugar, Sugar,” which became a Top 40 single on the radio airwaves. Two of Blanks’ Arizona teammates, Dusty Baker and Darrell "Howdy Doody" Evans, took note of the young shortstop’s aggressive hitting style and began serenading him as “Sugar Bear.” The name stuck, remaining with Blanks after the Braves traded him to the White Sox in a deal that also featured Ralph "The Roadrunner" Garr and Dan "Ozzie" Osborn.
Blanks never established himself as a regular shortstop, settling for journeyman status. But Blanks did make a few headlines when he feuded with Indians manager Frank Robinson, who was in his first managerial stint. Furious, Sugar Bear ripped off his Indians uniform, threw it into a barrel of trash, and set it on fire. I’m sure Robinson was thrilled by the stunt.
Walter "Rabbit" Maranville: Nicknames usually come from the mouths of teammates or sportswriters, but in this case a young female fan deserves the credit for creating a lasting nickname. Noticing the shortstop’s small stature and his incredible leaping ability, the seven-year-old girl started calling him “Rabbit.” The nickname soon caught on by word of mouth. Given his 5-foot-5 frame and oversized ears, the athletic Maranville certainly had his share of rabbit-like qualities.
Rabbit also had a number of qualities that we might associate with a “cuckoo.” Clownish to the point of being fanatical and sometimes fueled by alcohol, Maranville enjoyed a variety of practical jokes and capers, from swallowing goldfish to walking on hotel ledges. On the field, he liked to use pantomime in mimicking opposing pitchers and hitters who were particularly slow and tedious in their approach. On one occasion, he decided the time was appropriate to bring a tennis racket to the plate. Another time, he shadow-boxed against an imaginary opponent. His appearance only underscored his behavior. With the face of a goblin and a propensity for wearing his cap sideways, Maranville became a favored target of photographers.
Even in manning his position at shortstop, Maranville displayed a distinctive style that became the talk of Boston. He caught pop-ups with a “vest-pocket catch,” the forerunner to Willie Mays’ famed “basket catch.” Yet, Maranville’s fielding was more than just stylish. He is generally regarded as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game’s history.
Lee "Bee Bee" Richard: Much like Blanks', Richard’s nickname resulted in a false assumption by this writer. For years, I had believed that Richard was called “Bee Bee” because of his blazing foot speed and base stealing ability. Wrong again. Richard’s nickname dated back to high school, where he starred as a right-handed pitcher. Richard threw so hard that some observers compared his fastball to a BB pellet released from a shotgun.
An alumnus of the White Sox and Cardinals, Richard might have made a better career choice by remaining a pitcher. As a shortstop with the White Sox, he made far too many errors (26 miscues in 87 games for the ‘71 Sox), motivating a brief but unsuccessful experiment as a center fielder. Offensively, Bee Bee ran the bases with recklessness and batted only .209. Richard struggled so badly at the plate that he briefly experimented with switch-hitting, but that venture did not last. Richard’s baserunning provided even more frustrating moments for the front office. According to White Sox legend, Richard often beat the catcher’s throw to second base on stolen base attempts, only to be tagged out for sliding past the bag.
Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto: As much as any shortstop nickname, this moniker became synonymous with the beloved Rizzuto. His small physical stature, particularly his short legs, contributed. While he still was in the minor leagues, veteran infielder Billy Hitchcock took note of Rizzuto’s fielding and running style and said to his young teammate, “Man, you’re not running, you’re scooting.” Hitchcock’s characterization caught on almost immediately, with teammates happily calling Rizzuto "Scooter." For his part, Rizzuto embraced the nickname. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Rizzuto once told USA Today. “It could have been some other name they could have called me.”
“Scooting” seemed to work for Rizzuto. Gobbling up grounders, he became one of the best fielding shortstops of the 1940s and early '50s, in addition to filling a role as the Yankees’ leadoff man. The Scooter eventually earned election to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner: Given to him during his early days in Pittsburgh, the nickname Wagner stuck for the rest of his career. It’s only appropriate that the greatest shortstop in history was fitted with a colorful nickname. Heck, there are those, including a fellow named Ty Cobb and an executive named Branch Rickey, who have considered Wagner the greatest player of all time.
Not to be confused with the wandering ghost ship of folklore, Wagner acquired the name of “The Flying Dutchman” because of the combination of his German heritage and superior foot speed. With his unusually long arms and legs, Wagner sometimes appeared as if he were about to lift off the ground and take flight. Wagner’s speed helped him both on the bases and in the field; he led the National League in stolen bases five times and sported terrific range throughout the middle infield.
When not running, Wagner looked anything but fast, not with his barrel chest and severely bowed legs. But those long arms gave him the appearance of an octopus as he shuffled along the left side of the infield. Wagner also had a strong throwing arm, allowing him to complete a large share of the plays in which he reached a ground ball. According to Wagner lore, he occasionally threw out runners from the most difficult of positions: while lying on his back.
Honorable mention: Mark "The Blade" Belanger, Tim "Crazy Horse" Foli, Freddie "The Flea" Patek and Ozzie "The Wizard" Smith.”
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.