The nickname game: all nicknames all the time

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.

Catcher:
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.


First base:

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.

Second base:
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.


Shortstop:

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.

Third base:
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.

Outfield:
“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.


Outfield:

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.”

Outfield:
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.


Designated hitter:

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.


Starting pitcher:

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.


Starting pitcher:

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.

Starting pitcher:
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.”

Relief pitcher:
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 & Resources
Baseball Nicknames, by James K. Skipper
A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, by Bruce Markusen

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Comments

  1. Brian Duvall said...

    I was always a fan of Kong (Dave Kingman). Not only did it epitomize his size and power, but also his sometimes apeish behavior.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    I think Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd deserves some consideration.

    And some nicknames become so etched in our minds that they replace the real name almost entirely, yet they really are very descriptive. Such a one is Lawrence “Yogi” Berra. Do you think anyone ever called him Larry?

    One of my favorites is Lon “The Arkansas Hummingbird” Warneke. I am not sure why. Perhaps because it sounds melodious to me.

    You fudged a little on Ferguson. According to BB-Reference, he played 750 games at either 3B and 2B but only 59 at SS. Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto is pretty descriptive.

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    It is easy to become obsessive about this sort of thing-and great fun too. Since you mention an all-time great in Gehrig, we can add others whose nicknames suggest something intrinsic about the player and whose use adds color.

    Two examples are Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams and Joe “The Yankee Clipper” DiMaggio. Could anything more perfectly describe the grace and elegance of DiMaggio or the wiry perfect hitter that Williams was?

  4. Jim said...

    I was given a book of baseball nicknames. My favorite was a guy who played parts of two seasons in 1899 and 1900: Pearce “What’s the Use” Chiles.

  5. mike said...

    while with the St. Louis Cards, Joe Torre’s nickname was “chicken.”  Hence, “. . . and behind the plate is “Chicken” catcher Torre.”

  6. Julian said...

    Thanks to someone over at baseballthinkfactory, I’ve been calling Youkilis Hobobeard McCranium. Much better (and more accurate) than The Greek God of Walks.

  7. mando3b said...

    That is SO cool you include “Death to Flying Things”, my all-time favorite, and criminally overlooked. But I like all the nicknames mentioned in your article and the comments! Here’s another good one: Patsy “White Wings” Tebeau. (Another 19th-cen. guy; anybody out there remember his position?)

  8. John Proulx said...

    According to bb-ref, there was a second player with the “Death to Flying Things” nickname: John Chapman, who was a contemporary of Ferguson. I wonder how that came about.

  9. Travis M. Nelson said...

    Hugh Mulcahy racked up 76 losses for the Phillies from 1937-1940, twice leading the NL with 20+ losses, twice leading the NL in runs allowed and HPB, once each in walks, hits allowed and wild pitches. 

    His nickname was “Losing Pitcher” and nobody ever had a more poignant one.

  10. Tim Kelly said...

    CF – Deer
    2B – Ryno
    LF – Sarge
    1B – Bull
    RF – Zonk
    3B – Penguin
    C – Jody
    SS – Bowa
    P – Big Red

  11. Ferris said...

    Mr. Chip off the Ol’ Block. Chipper Jones. Even though I guess he’s still Larry in NY.

    Also, Abraham “Corky” Miller is a fun one.

  12. Walter Bogart M.D. said...

    Wasn’t Marv Throneberry’s nickname “Stonefingers”?

    And Lou Gehrig’s real nickname (i.e., among the players) was (I believe) “Biscuit Pants.”

    Both deserving of consideration, I would think.

  13. Jim C said...

    P-Big Train, The General, Bullet, Sudden
    C-Yogi
    1B-Mule, Turkey
    OF-Say Hey, The Hammer, Cool Papa, the Georgia Peach, Happy.

  14. Mike K. said...

    Before the World Series, I thought Jimmy Rollins’s name for Ryan Howard, “UPS”, was as good as a nickname could get. Now… eh.

    And “Death to Flying Things” has been passed on to Franklin Gutierrez.

    “Big Puma” Lance Berkman
    “Kingfish” Tim Salmon

  15. Michael Caragliano said...

    The Walt Williams nickname is right-on; look at his 1969 Topps card for proof. There’s a story I heard somewhere about Harry Caray calling a Sox game in the early ‘70’s, where Chuck Tanner made a late-game defensive switches that produced an outfield of Williams, Carlos May (who lost a thumb) and Pat Kelly (who couldn’t throw). Caray supposedly said, “So the Sox have an outfield of No Neck, No Thumb, and No Arm”.

  16. Bob Rittner said...

    To add to your pitchers’ list, Jim C., another good descriptive was “Smokey” as in Smokey Joe Wood and also Smokey Joe Williams.

    Too bad the nickname “The Commerce Comet” never really caught on for Mickey Mantle. On the other hand, how can you not love “The Wild Horse of the Osage” for Johnny “Pepper” Martin?

    A few other good ones include Enos “Country” Slaughter, Orlando “The Baby Bull” Cepeda” and one I always liked because it seemed so perfect for him and for his particular role in Mets’ history, Tom Terrific for Seaver.

    Also, Frankie Frisch, “The Fordham Flash” and Charlie Gehringer, “The Mechanical Man”.

    Didn’t this mouthful conjure up the perfect image for Rich Garces, “El Guapo”?

    And if DiMaggio was the Yankee Clipper, an earlier incarnation of CF grace was Tris Speaker, “The Grey Eagle”.

  17. Crazy Uncle said...

    I always admired the direct simplicity of Eddie Yost’s, the Walking Man.  First major league batter I ever saw in person.  And, yes, he drew a base on balls.

    Let’s not forget Randy (“The Big Unit”) Johnson, or Dick Radatz (The Monster.)

    And I should think any article about baseball nicknames needs one reference to Chris Berman—my favorite of his would have to be Bert “Be Home By Eleven” (Blyleven)

    My favorite “real” baseball nickname?  The Big Hurt.

  18. John Fox said...

    I always like the ones that flow from the players name, like Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff and John “The Count” Montefusco

  19. JET said...

    Harry “Suitcase” Simpson is my favorite.
    Simpson earned the nickname Suitcase by playing for 17 different Negro, Major and Minor League teams during his professional career.

  20. Travis M. Nelson said...

    Can’t forget Mike Hargrove, The Human Rain Delay.  You think Nomar Garciaparra takes a long time between pitches…

  21. The Ol Goaler said...

    “Stan The Man”… that’s all ya gotta say!  Musial allegedly received his nickname from the long-suffering Dodger fans in Brooklyn, who would moan, “Here comes The Man again!”  When a St. Louis sportswriter asked, “Don’t you mean ‘that man’?”, he was told, “NO! THE Man!”

    And there’s “The Wizard”… Ozzie Smith!

  22. BackTony said...

    Some other good ones…

    Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky
    Mark “The Bird” Fidrych
    Ozzie “The Wizard of Oz” Smith
    Rich “El Guapo” Garces might be the best of all

  23. Dave said...

    Ty Cobb “The Georgia Peach”…. still to this day no one likes Ty Cobb.  Look how far down in these comments it took for someone to finally mention him =(

    Possibly the most ironic nickname of all time, since there was nothing peachy about his disposition whatsoever.

  24. Bob Berlo said...

    Stanhouse has a better nickname: Stan the Man Unusual.
    The ESPN people call Cameron Cam-Boogie; I never heard him called The Black Cat either.
    The funniest nickname I ever heard of was for 1980s Padres catcher Doug Gwosdz: Eye Chart.

  25. Hank said...

    Was Jim Grant’s nickname “Mudcat” racial? I always assumed it had something to do with the fact that he had very dark skin, but never knew for sure.

    If Arlie “The Freshest Man On Earth” Latham were playing today, he’d be a natural for a Right Guard commercial.

  26. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thanks for the contribution of nicknames, everyone. I’ll be profiling some of these names in the coming weeks and months.

    Hank, with regard to Jim Grant, the nickname has no racial overtones. Early in his career, it might have been in the minor leagues, a teammate started calling him “Mudcat” because he mistakenly thought Grant was from Mississippi, the Mudcat state. Grant is actually from Florida. But the nickname took hold and Mudcat has embraced it ever since.

  27. pounded clown said...

    Johnny “the Crab” Evers…must have gone down well with the ladies

    Charlie Manuel calls Ryan Howard “the Big Piece”
    Charlie Manuel has the following nicknames
    1]“Cornbread Charlie”, 2]when playing in Japan he was dubed the “Aka-Oni” (The Red Devil), and 3]when as the Indians hitting coach was called “grinder”

  28. Bob Rittner said...

    Dick Tidrow was “Dirt”.

    I think one of the better contemporary ones is Zorilla for Ben Zobrist, although apparently there actually is an animal, the zorilla, which is a type of weasel and is sometimes called the striped polecat because some people erroneously think it is a type of skunk. That is not the intention of Ben’s nickname though.

    Don’t forget “poosh ‘em up Tony” for Tony Lazzeri. Or the “Reading Rifle” (also “Skoonj”) for Carl Furillo. Speaking of which, I am quite sure that I became a Yankee fan at age 5 or so, because I was so entranced by Vic Raschi’s nickname “The Springfield Rifle”. It sounded to me like a cowboy baseball player, combining two of my favorite kinds of heroes at the time.

  29. m-bro said...

    Not sure who originated this one, but early in Joe Mauer’s career, he was heralded as “Baby Jesus”.
    Although many people (probably Joe included) consider this nickname offensive, it certainly reflected the fans’ hopes and expectations for the future MVP.

  30. Tomcat said...

    How about The Toddfather for Todd Helton. The Peoples Cherce for Dixie Walker or The Big Cat for Johnny Mize(also Andres Galaraga) or the most incongruous Mad Dog for Greg Maddux.

  31. Kahuna Tuna said...

    One of my favorite 19th-century “purple prose” nicknames is “The Knight of the Limitless Linen” (Charley Jones).  Two guys from the late-‘60s Senators — “Capital Punishment” (Frank Howard) and “Toys in the Attic” (Frank Bertaina).  Bertaina got his nickname from Moe Drabowsky, whose own belfry had no lack of bats.  Why hasn’t anyone mentioned “Charlie Hustle”?

    Whitey Ford’s alternate nickname was “Slick.”  With just a little bit of artistic license, you could argue that the Yankees’ other front-line starting pitcher named Ford could been given the same nickname.

  32. BrettFan1 said...

    Perhaps the best nickname for a reliever ever:
    Joakim “The Mexecutioner” Soria.  He reportedly likes the nickname and does not consider it derogatory.  Here are some other good ones for the Royals:
    Joe “Joker” Randa (due to his Joker-like smile)
    Steve “Bam-Bam” Balboni
    Alex “The Smirk” Gordon (less flattering smile reference)
    Mike “Mac the Ninth” MacDougal

  33. Rib said...

    I thought “A-Rod” was not a bad nickname (double entendres, particularly risque ones, get bonus points in my book), except that it led to the execrable practice of shortening every latino-sounding name in similar fashion.

  34. Travis M. Nelson said...

    Hensley Meulens, not Hemlsey. 

    Jim Palmer’s nickname was just “Cakes” not “Pancakes”. 

    Youk gets his moniker from Billy Beane in Moneyball, wherein he was frequently referred to as “Euclis, the Greek God of Walks”, despite the fact that his name isn’t actually Greek. 

    I heard Joe Mauer referred to as “Man Muscles”, which is kinda cool.

  35. bucdaddy said...

    From Wikipedia:

    Charles Henry “Charlie” Pabor (September 24, 1846 – April 23, 1913) was an American Major League Baseball left fielder and manager throughout the existence of the National Association, 1871–1875. He is sometimes referred to as Charley, or as “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.”
    —-
    Charlie wins. Game over.

  36. BlftBucco (Bob) said...

    One of my favorites is Tom “The Blade” Hall.

    I can imagine thinking as a young hitter facing a pitcher named “The Blade” that you were going to get sliced up at the plate.

  37. Jim Gagne said...

    I have to throw a few in here:

    Al “Sparky” “The Count” Lyle
    Mickey “Mick the Quick” Rivers
    Daniel “Rusty” “L’Orange Grande” Staub
    Aurelio “Senor Smoke” Lopez
    John “Champ” Summers
    Darrell “Howdy Doody” Evans
    Russell “Rusty” Kuntz . . . .

  38. Jim said...

    A few of my favs (but I’m biased) are Lloyd ‘Little Poison’ and Paul ‘Big Poison’ Waner, and ‘The Flying Dutchman’ Wagner.

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