The nickname game: third sackersby Bruce Markusen
June 04, 2010
Third base is one of those positions that has its own nickname: “The Hot Corner.” So it’s fitting that third base provides us with a bumper crop of great nicknames, ranging from the 19th century to the free agent era. Let’s look at some of the best alter egos in the history of this distinctive position.
Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson: I had him listed as a shortstop in my original nicknames article, but he actually played more games at third base, so let’s put him at the corner where he truly belongs. A 19th century infielder whose career coincided with the start of the major leagues, Ferguson was considered a deft and reliable fielder who also possessed great range. 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. Curiously, a teammate of Ferguson, outfielder Jack Chapman, was also nicknamed "Death to Flying Things." It’s not certain who received the nickname first.
In addition to a reputation for defensive excellence, Ferguson also became known as one of the most honest and intelligent players of the 1800s. Yet, he also possessed a fiery temper, a violent nature and a streak of stubbornness that brought him into conflict with others in the game.
On a completely unrelated note, Ferguson is credited with being the first switch-hitter in major league history. Ferguson put his switch-hitting to good use: In 1878, he led the National League with a .375 on-base percentage.
Harold "Pie" Traynor: There used to be some dispute over the origins of the Hall of Famer’s nickname, but Traynor always insisted that the name emanated from his favorite childhood treat: pie. According to Traynor, who was the preeminent third baseman of the 1920s and '30s, the author of the nickname was Father John Nangle. As a boy, Traynor and his friends used to gather at Father Nangle’s corner store, which served a variety of foods. Whenever Father Nangle asked Traynor what he wanted to eat, the boy always responded that he wanted a piece of pie. Father Nangle dubbed him “Pie Face,” which was later shortened to “Pie” by Traynor’s friends.
For many years, Traynor was considered the greatest third baseman in the history of the National League, but that mantle was passed to Mike Schmidt in the 1980s. Nonetheless, Traynor is still remembered today, in part because Pie Traynor is a far more indelible name than Harold Traynor.
Ron "The Penguin" Cey: For obvious reasons, I never saw Ferguson and Traynor play. In contrast, I watched Cey play dozens of games for the Dodgers and Cubs in the 1970s and '80s, giving me plenty of opportunity to observe one of the strangest running styles in memory. With his short, stocky legs, Cey looked like he was waddling instead of running, both in the field and on the basepaths. While many nicknames are acquired in the major leagues, Cey first heard the reference to penguins as a standout player in college. The nickname became far more popular after he became the Dodgers’ third baseman, thanks largely to the promotional efforts of Tommy Lasorda. At first his coach and then his manager, Lasorda simply could not resist referring to Cey as "The Penguin."
In some ways, the memorable nickname has always overshadowed Cey’s playing career. He was one of the National League’s best third basemen of the 1970s, perhaps ranked behind only Philadelphia’s Schmidt and San Francisco’s Darrell Evans.
Brooks "The Human Vacuum Cleaner" Robinson: If ever a nickname made perfect sense, it was this one. Robinson gobbled up ground balls as if his hands were suction cups, playing the position like no one before or since, with the possible exception of Clete Boyer. (Let the debate on that one begin.)
While the nickname fit Robinson like a glove, it proved to be too long for some observers. During the 1970 World Series, when Robinson put on a one-man fielding extravaganza, the opposition Reds began calling him “Hoover,” a reference to the leading vacuum cleaner manufacturer of the early 1970s. Perhaps if Robinson played in today’s game, he would be referred to as “Dyson.”
Robinson also picked up another nickname along the way, one that had nothing to do with his fielding prowess and one that Robinson probably would have preferred not to have heard. Teammates began calling him “The Head” because of the rather bulky size of his noggin. Robinson’s receding hairline, along with that strange short-billed helmet that he adopted as a way of improving his viewpoint on each pitch, made his head look even larger.
Richie "The Gravedigger" Hebner: In the days when players used to work jobs in the offseason, an unusual line of work could provide a natural source for a nickname. Perhaps the best example could be found in Hebner, the onetime Pirates third baseman who later played for the Phillies, Mets, Tigers and Cubs. Hebner made no bones about his winter occupation: digging graves near his home in Massachusetts.
In a 1971 interview, Hebner revealed that he made $35 a grave while working for his father, the superintendent of a cemetery in West Roxbury. Later in his career, Hebner bragged to a reporter about his high level of skill in digging graves. “I’m good at this,” Hebner said dryly. “In 10 years, no one’s ever dug themselves out of one of my graves yet.” Ah yes, Hebner was not just a gravedigger, but a damned good one at that.
Graig "Puff" Nettles: Nettles’ moniker is not as well known as some of the others, but its creatively makes up for its relative obscurity. The longtime Yankees third baseman liked to make trouble in the clubhouse, either with a cutting remark or a vicious practical joke. Typically, Nettles executed the prank (or delivered the wisecrack) and then departed the scene quickly, earning the nickname “Puff” from his teammates for the way he suddenly disappeared ike a puff of smoke. In so doing, Nettles not only left behind a trail of trouble but also devised the perfect way to escape recrimination once the victim decided to place blame.
In an interview with writer Russell Trunk, Nettles explained the evolution of the nickname. “It was actually like I’d disappear like a ‘poof’ of smoke. So it went from ‘poof’ to ‘puff,’ but it wasn't necessarily practical jokes. It was just any time I wanted to get away from something I would just leave rather than telling everybody goodbye!”
Honorable Mention: Frank "Home Run" Baker, Larry "Chipper" Jones, Darrell "Howdy Doody" Evans, Johnny "Pepper" Martin, Joe "The Joker" Randa and Eddie "The Walking Man" Yost.
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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