The nickname game: all nicknames all the timeby Bruce Markusen
January 22, 2010
After years of hibernation due to excessive political correctness, nicknames are making a comeback in baseball. I’m not sure why that is happening; I’m just glad that it is. They’re fun, they add color to the game, and often tell us something intrinsic about the player.
Last season saw the rise in popularity of “Kung Fu Panda,” also known as Pablo Sandoval, in San Francisco. He joined teammate Tim Lincecum, the National League’s Cy Young Award winner, who doubles as “The Freak.” Then there are more established veterans like Travis Hafner (“Pronk”), David Ortiz (“Big Papi”), Ivan Rodriguez (“Pudge”) and Roy Halladay (“Doc”).
Among today’s major league set, here are some of the more descriptive and lyrical nicknames:
Ryan Braun (“The Hebrew Hammer”)
Adam Dunn (“The Big Donkey”)
Mike Cameron (“The Black Cat”)
Aaron Harang (“Zombie”)
Dan Haren (“Caveman”)
Felix Hernandez (“King Felix”)
Carlos Lee (“El Caballo”)
Hideki Matsui (“Godzilla”)
Jose Valverde (“Papa Grande”)
Shane Victorino (“The Flyin’ Hawaiian”)
Jayson Werth (“Werewolf”)
Kevin Youkilis (“The Greek God of Walks”)
Given the revival of creative and amusing nicknames, I thought it would be an appropriate time to highlight some of the best monikers in baseball history. I’ve excluded those names that carry a derogatory ethnic component, such as the all-too-frequent “Chico” for Latino ballplayers and the repetitious “Chief” for players of Native American descent. With that in mind, here is my unofficial “all-nickname” team, consisting of players now retired from our great game.
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe: Nicknames often reflect a player’s on-field capabilities. As with many players in the old Negro Leagues, Radcliffe needed to be versatile to accommodate the needs of a shortened roster. Although primarily a catcher, and a good one at that, Radcliffe also chipped in as a pitcher from time to time. In 1932, he participated in a Pittsburgh Crawfords doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, catching a shutout by Satchel Paige in the first game, then pitching a shutout of his own in the second game. As a result, famed sportswriter Damon Runyon dubbed the Negro Leagues standout “Double Duty,” and the nickname stuck for the rest of Radcliffe’s 103 years.
Lou Gehrig “The Iron Horse:” This nickname, which carries a certain regality, became an homage to Gehrig as he set the seemingly unbreakable record for games played. The phrase was not original, however; it was the nickname that Native Americans gave to the steam locomotives of the 1880s. The power, strength, and durability of the locomotive trains greatly impressed Native Americans, and the media transferred the same nickname to Gehrig, whose own levels of brute force and endurance made him one of the game’s elite. More than seven decades after Gehrig made his famed farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, the nickname still fits Lou perfectly.
Johnny "The Crab" Evers: The Hall of Fame infielder was given the name by sportswriter Charley Dreyden, who noticed the crablike way Evers held the ball before releasing it. But the name eventually took on a different connotation because of Evers’ combative disposition, a characteristic noticed by Cubs teammates, opponents and National League officials. Because of his long-running feud with shortstop Joe Tinker, most people now associate the temperamental Evers with the less-than-flattering label.
Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson: This one is a true favorite in my private pantheon of all-time nicknames. A 19th century shortstop, Ferguson was considered a sure-anded fielder. Because of the nickname, many have assumed that Ferguson was particularly skilled at catching pop-ups and fly balls, but there is no evidence of this supposition. As James K. Skipper pointed out in his entertaining book, Baseball Nicknames, it’s just as reasonable to assume that Ferguson was adept at handling a fly swatter! Either way, this ranks as one of the most creative and descriptive nicknames of any baseball century.
Ron "The Penguin" Cey: For those who ever watched Cey play, this nickname came about for obvious reasons. With his short, stocky legs, Cey looked like he was waddling instead of running, both in the field and on the basepaths. Cey first heard the name in college. It became far more popular after he became the Dodgers‘ third baseman, thanks largely to the promotional efforts of manager Tommy Lasorda, who couldn‘t resist referring to Cey as "The Penguin." In some ways, the memorable nickname has overshadowed Cey’s playing career; he was one of the National League’s best third basemen of the 1970s, perhaps second only to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson: This one requires a longer explanation. According to Jackson biographer Donald Gropman, the nickname was the invention of Scoop Latimer, a reporter for a newspaper in Greenville, S.C. During the 1908 Carolina Association minor league season, Jackson got blisters on his feet while breaking in a new pair of baseball shoes. The next day, he reverted to his old pair, but found that his feet still hurt. So rather than sit out that day’s game, Jackson played that afternoon for Greenville wearing only his stockings. Latimer printed the nickname “Shoeless Joe” in the next edition of his paper, resulting in the birth of one of baseball’s great legends. With or without shoes, Jackson remains a controversial subject—and on the outside looking in when it comes to election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jimmy "The Toy Cannon" Wynn: At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Wynn hardly looked like a prototypical power hitter. Fans of the Astros soon came to understand that appearances could be deceiving. Wynn hit with such remarkable power, even in a hitter’s bone yard like the old Astrodome, that a contingent of Astros fans began referring to him as “The Toy Cannon.” Whenever I hear the nickname, an image comes to mind of Wynn pulling a toy cannon by a string, as he slowly walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. It’s a strange image to say the least, but it says something about the powerful connotations that come with such a visual nickname. (Perhaps it says something about the odd workings of my mind, too.)
Later in his career, Wynn wore part of the nickname on the back of his Braves jersey. As part of Ted Turner’s promotional efforts, the back of Wynn’s shirt read “C A N N O N.”
Walt "No Neck" Williams: As one of my personal favorites, this one just had to crack the starting lineup of the all-nickname team. For those who have seen photographs of Williams, a journeyman outfielder with the White Sox, Indians and Yankees, the nickname perfectly described his head-and-shoulders region. From a distance, he appeared to have no neck, his head seemingly sitting on his collarbone. The descriptive name was the brainchild of journeyman catcher John Bateman, one of Williams' teammates during his first major league stop with the Houston Colt 45s. Along with a fitting nickname, Williams brought some color to his various major league stops He ate hamburgers voraciously, ala “Wimpy” in the old “Popeye” cartoons, and liked to cover his body in Vaseline both before and after games. He felt that it would be good for his skin, even if it did nothing to elongate his neck.
Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart: Although he retired well before the DH rule came into play in 1973, Stuart played first badly enough that the American League could have introduced the rule just for him. When it came to poor defensive play at first base, Stuart had it all: bad hands, stiff reactions and poor range. So it was quite appropriate that one of his Red Sox teammates fitted him with the nickname of “Dr. Strangeglove” during the 1964 season. It came from a Hollywood connection, the Peter Sellers’ black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," which had been released in theaters over the winter. The unknown teammate’s play on words became a hit with the media and fans. The timing could not have been more appropriate, considering that Stuart had made 29 errors the previous season, a remarkable achievement for the relatively undemanding position of first base.
Sal "The Barber" Maglie: An aggressive right hander who toiled for all three New York teams in the 1950s, Maglie developed a reputation for throwing up and in against opposing hitters, occasionally plunking them with his hard fastball. So it was only natural that Maglie would be called “The Barber,” who would provide hitters with baseball’s version of a “close shave.” Maglie’s appearance, with his perpetual five o'clock shadow, enhanced the nickname. On both counts, The Barber became an apt description for the onetime Dodger, Giant and Yankee.
Bill "Spaceman" Lee: This one came courtesy of Lee’s Red Sox teammate, utility infielder John Kennedy, who didn’t care much for the left hander’s offbeat personality. Even though the nickname was meant to be derogatory, Lee embraced his Spaceman persona. With his liberal viewpoints, Lee rarely fit into baseball’s conservative establishment. He once called Don Zimmer the “designated gerbil,” bragged about spreading marijuana on his pancakes, and famously bolted the Expos in protest over the release of second baseman Rodney Scott. The Spaceman tag led to a famous photograph of Lee in his pitching motion while wearing a full NASA spacesuit. Priceless.
John "Blue Moon" Odom: Contrary to what some might believe, A's owner Charlie Finley didn't give Odom the “Blue Moon” nickname, as he had Jim “"Catfish" Hunter. Odom actually picked up the moniker long before he signed his first professional contract with Kansas City. “Back in fifth grade in football practice,” Odom explained, “a guy named Joe Mars started calling me ‘Moonhead.’ I really didn’t like that. (He said) ‘I’m calling you that because your face is round. We can’t call you ‘Yellow Moon’ (because of) your complexion. So we’re gonna call you ‘Blue Moon.’ ”
In addition to the roundness of his face, some observers felt the nickname fit because Odom often appeared to be in a somber mood. After a series of personal struggles that came with his post-playing days, Odom has turned his life around, becoming an active member of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. Odom also has grown to appreciate his nickname, which has given him a strong identity in retirement. “I used to hate that name,” Odom said a few years back, “but now I love it. I’m known all over the world as Blue Moon now.”
Mitch "The Wild Thing" Williams: Like Stuart, Williams owes his nickname to popular culture, specifically to the first "Major League" movie, which became a box office hit in 1989. The movie’s release coincided with Williams’ breakout season as a headline closer. Though effective at times as the relief ace for the Cubs and Phillies, Williams too often resembled Charlie Sheen’s character in the film, who was capable of hitting the on-deck batter with an errant pitch. Williams wasn’t that wild, but he was close, often running full counts and issuing more than his share of bases on balls. With his off-balance delivery, which featured a fall to the ground after almost every pitch, it’s no wonder that Williams had little idea where the ball would end up. Still, he had a fairly successful career, helping the Phillies to the 1993 National League pennant, and has emerged as one of the more provocative analysts on the MLB Network.
So, with apologies to Ralph "Roadrunner" Garr, George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk, Christy "Big Six" Mathewson and Don "Full Pack" Stanhouse, there you have the first all-nickname team from a staff member at The Hardball Times. Given the volume and richness of baseball nicknames over the years, one could round up hundreds of other worthwhile candidates. And that’s exactly what we’ll attempt to do over the coming months.
References and Resources
Baseball Nicknames, by James K. Skipper
A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley's Oakland A's, by Bruce Markusen
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.
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