The Nickname Game: The Willie Mays connectionby Bruce Markusen
April 15, 2011
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying James Hirsch’s detailed biography of Willie Mays over the last few weeks. Given the depth of the tome and my slow reading speed, I should be finished sometime in the late summer. While I‘ve been reading, I’ve been giving some thought to all-Mays nickname team, based on his many teammates during his long run with the New York and San Francisco Giants.
Mays himself was known as “The Say Hey Kid,” though he rarely ever voiced those words in unison. A number of his Giants teammates had more accurate and fitting nicknames. Here are just a few of the most worthy selections.
Dick Dietz: (“Mule”). His Giants teammates and coaches regularly called him “Mule,” but the name had little to do with Dietz’ strength or slowness afoot. The late writer Wells Twombly provided an explanation in the October 1970 edition of Baseball Digest. “It has something to do, no doubt, with his large, luxurious ears and generous nose,” wrote Twombly. Lacking in vanity, Dietz embraced the nickname—and his ears—fully. In fact, he decided to have it stenciled across his underwear.
A fun-loving teammate, Mule managed to carve out a niche as a subtly productive player. He has become a Sabermetric poster boy, in much the same way that Gene Tenace and Mickey Tettleton have won favor. Like Tenace and Tettleton, Dietz did not hit for a high average and often struggled with his throwing, but he hit home runs and drew walks, two rare commodities for catchers of his era. And for one season, Dietz was just about the best catcher in the National League: In 1970, Dietz batted an even .300 while compiling 22 home runs, 104 walks, 109 RBI, and 84 runs scored.
Willie McCovey: (“Stretch”). At 6-foot-4, McCovey was a very tall first baseman, particularly for his era. He also had exceptionally long arms, with the reach of a heavyweight boxer. When McCovey stretched to catch balls at first, he reduced the length of his infielders’ throws by six or seven feet. He also became adept at stretching both to his left and his right, allowing him to corral throws that might have been errant with another first baseman. Given his skill in reaching such throws, the nickname of “Stretch” became an obvious and fitting moniker.
Stretch struck a daunting pose at first base, but he was downright monstrous in the batter’s box. Arguably the most intimidating left-handed hitter of the 1960s, McCovey terrified most right-handed pitchers of the era. “Big Mac,” as he was alternately known, led the National in slugging and OPS on three occasions.
Tito Fuentes: (“Parakeet”). Outgoing to the extreme, Fuentes was also one of the most talkative players of his era. While on the basepaths, he chatted so much with opposing players that he earned the nickname “Parakeet.” Known as one of the great “hot dogs” of the 1970s, Fuentes played with such a flamboyant style that he became a fan favorite in the Bay Area. When he reached base, fans chanted “Go Go” in anticipation of Fuentes stealing a base.
One of Fuentes’ most colorful moments took place during the 1971 season. On the same day that the Giants clinched the National League West, Fuentes’ son was born. He decided to name the boy “Clinch.”
Well, I guess that’s better than calling him Parakeet.
Eddie Stanky: (“The Brat”). I’m cheating a bit here since Stanky was primarily a second baseman, but he played enough shortstop to qualify for the Mays nickname team. A player of limited natural talent, Stanky was an overachieving sparkplug who often annoyed opponents to the point of exasperation. Loud and cocky, Stanky engaged in nasty bench-jockeying, started fights with other teams, and intentionally hit foul balls into the opposing team’s dugout. Given such a pugnacious approach, New York sportswriter began calling him “That Brat from Kensington,” a reference to the section of Philadelphia from which he hailed. The writers later shortened the name to “The Brat,” and the name stuck for the rest of his playing days.
After a couple of fights with National League rivals, Stanky earned another nickname: “Muggsy.” That moniker was an homage to former Giants manager John McGraw, who was also known by that nickname.
Alan Gallagher: (“Dirty Al”). Like Stanky, Gallagher was a player with limited skills. A cult favorite among diehard Giants fans, Gallagher played a hard-nosed, scrappy style in the field and on the basepaths, often diving and falling in the dirt. According to whichever source you believe, the nickname was pinned on him in high school because of his obsession with playing sports and his continual habit of dirtying his uniform. Another source claims that Gallagher’s nickname originated during his college career, when he superstitiously refused to change his uniform during a long hitting streak that lasted for two months. Gallagher also refused to wash his sanitary socks or his jockstrap. Lovely.
As Gallagher’s major league career progressed, additional nicknames came his way. Teammates called him “Pigpen,” “Filthy McNasty,” and “Sludge,” all because his uniform became so soiled with dirt and grass during the course of a typical game. Later on, as a manager, Gallagher once kicked so much dirt and dust onto an umpire that his shoe flew off.
Off the field, Gallagher could be just as unsightly. It’s not that he didn’t bathe or observe general hygiene; he just wore odd combinations of clothing, such as blue suits with green shirts. Even amidst the wild fashions of the 1970s, Gallagher’s strange mix and match of colors made him a memorable figure.
Monte Irvin: (“Mr. Murder, Inc.”). This was a nickname I had never heard of before doing the research for this piece. Though not well known, it’s a good one, carrying some Alfred Hitchcock overtones with it. According to the estimable late historian Jules Tygiel, the nickname came about early in 1950. Irvin began the season with the New York Giants’ affiliate at Trenton, where he hit .510 with 33 RBI over his first 18 games. The early surge earned him the name of Mr. Murder, Inc. and a prompt recall to the Polo Grounds. That’s where the former Negro Leagues star continued a career that would earn him a place in the Hall of Fame.
Felipe Alou: (“Panque”). “Panque” is the Spanish word for “pancake,” so I originally thought that Alou either loved to eat pancakes, or he consistently hit the ball so hard that he “pancaked” it, like an offensive lineman does to a linebacker. I was wrong on both counts. Alou’s mother gave him the nickname when he was young because he was born on the feast day of San Pancracio, otherwise known as St. Pancras, the patron saint of jobs and health. Panque is derived from Pancracio, hence the nickname that was given to little Felipe.
Big Felipe was a tremendously underrated player, capable of playing all three outfield positions and blessing his teams with a blend of power and speed. A free swinger, he twice led the National League in at-bats, and twice paced the league in hits.
James "Dusty" Rhodes: It’s common to refer to people with the last name of Rhodes as Dusty, a practice that dates back to the dust-filled roads of England in the 1700s. In this case, Giants scout Bruce Hays came up with the nickname after signing Rhodes to his original contract with the organization. At least three other major league players with the last name of Rhodes have also been given the name of Dusty; all were pitchers. The Giants’ Rhodes was a platoon outfielder and pinch-hitter who had a relatively brief seven-year career, but became best known for hitting two home runs during New York’s four-game sweep of the Indians in the 1954 World Series.
Sal Maglie: (“The Barber”). I’ve written about Maglie before, but his nickname story bears repeating. A sportswriter for the New York Daily News called him “Sal the Barber” because of his tendency to throw up and in on opposing hitters, essentially treating them to close shaves. The nickname was eventually shortened to The Barber, and it remained with him until the day he died in 1992.
Juan Marichal: (“The Dominican Dandy”). One of the most alliterative of baseball nicknames, “The Dominican Dandy” emerged as the product of creative headline writers and baseball columnists in the 1960s. The nickname certainly made sense, given Marichal’s Dominican heritage and his elaborately effective pitching motion, which featured an extraordinarily high leg kick. Marichal was dandy all right, posting seven consecutive seasons with ERAs below 2.80.
His teammates and managers did not generally call him The Dominican Dandy, which was more heavily favored by the media. Marichal’s teammates, particularly his Latino brethren, tended to call him “Manito,” a Spanish word that translates into “Little Hand.”
"Sudden Sam" McDowell: The hard-throwing lefthander played only part of one season with Mays, but his nickname is too good to pass up. He acquired the nickname during the early part of his career with the Indians, courtesy of Cleveland sportswriter Bob Dolgan. Working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a rookie beat writer in 1961, Dolgan wanted to make a good impression on his editor. While watching McDowell pitch in a spring training exhibition game, the nickname hit Dolgan. In the fifth paragraph of the story, he referred to McDowell as “Sudden Sam.” Other members of the Cleveland media picked up on the name, which eventually spread to other American League cities. The name seemed appropriate, given the sudden manner in which McDowell’s fastball approached opposing hitters out of an easygoing motion.
Unfortunately, McDowell’s tenure in San Francisco ended all too suddenly. The Giants acquired him in a trade that has long irritated THT's Steve Treder: He came to them after the 1971 season, in a blockbuster deal that sent Gaylord Perry and shortstop Frank Duffy to the Indians. McDowell lasted only frustrating season and a half with the Giants, largely because of a severe drinking problem, before being sold to the Yankees. After brief stints with the Yankees and Pirates, McDowell’s major league career ended at the age of 32.
Orlando Cepeda: (“The Baby Bull”).
Dave Kingman: (“Kong” and “Sky King”).
“Downtown” Ollie Brown.
Charles "Cap" Peterson.
Gary Matthews: (“Sarge).
"Toothpick Sam" Jones.
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.