The nickname game: behind the plate

The art of catching is associated with one of my favorite phrases in baseball: the “tools of ignorance.” Indeed, it takes a certain degree of ignorance to play the position, which taxes the body more than any other role on the diamond. There’s also some irony here, in that catchers are often some of the game’s most intelligent players, considering their ability to call a game and the unique perspective they have in watching entire plays unfold before their eyes.

The tools of ignorance have also given us some of the game’s most iconic nicknames, ones that tell us about a player’s ability, his physique, or even his personality. Here are six of my favorites, along with the origins to their memorable monikers:

Lawrence “Yogi” Berra: When is the last time anyone called the Hall of Fame catcher “Lawrence,” or “Larry?“ In this case, the nickname has supplanted the birth name. It dates back to Berra’s childhood friend, Bobby Hofman, who later would become a major league player himself. Hofman said that Berra’s mannerisms strongly resembled that of a yogi—a Hindu holy man who doubled as a snake charmer—that he had seen in a movie. “That yogi walks like Lawdie Berra,“ Hofman said famously. The nickname caught on, making Berra better known as Yogi throughout his major league career and into retirement. Since Berra was never known for having an athletic build, the nickname seemed like a perfect fit.

The nickname later caused a small controversy. Hanna-Barbera Productions, one of the leading animators of the 20th century, developed a cartoon character that was given the name of “Yogi Bear.” Cynics believed that the company had done so intentionally as a play on the name Yogi Berra, but Hanna-Barbera officials have always denied that connection. Eventually, some fans began to greet Berra as “Yogi Bear,” a designation the catcher never appreciated.

Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney: More recent generations of fans associate the nickname with former manager and infielder Phil Garner, but Courtney will always be the original “Scrap Iron.” The nickname evolved from an incident involving sportswriter Milton Richman, who kidded several of the St. Louis Browns players, including Courtney, about their lack of foot speed. Fed up, Courtney challenged Richman to a race at a train station. In addition to losing the race to Richman, Courtney injured himself when he ran into a baggage car. In spite of sustaining several bruises (and some embarrassment), Courtney refused to sit out the next game—in fact, he played all nine innings—thereby earning the name for his toughness.

Courtney’s feistiness and general willingness to mix it up with other players brought him a few additional nicknames. Some players labeled him “Red Neck,” a reference to his southern heritage and his hair-trigger temper. Others called him “Toy Bulldog” in honor of his willingness to fight all combatants. His long list of opponents included the pugnacious Billy Martin, who beat him up soundly in a 1952 brawl between the Browns and the Yankees.

How tough was Courtney? He was willing to catch despite wearing glasses, which some considered a dangerous proposition for a catcher wearing an iron mask. In fact, Courtney became the first major league catcher to sport eyeglasses, setting the stage for future receivers like Darrell Porter and Brian Downing.

Carlton “Pudge” Fisk: The nickname of “Pudge” did not fit the Hall of Fame catcher during his long major league career. At 6-foot-3 and roughly 200 pounds, Fisk owned a relatively lean physique for a catcher. He was also fast enough to tie for the American League lead in triples in 1972. The origins of this nickname actually go back to his youth, when Fisk struggled with his weight. As an eighth grader, Fisk was 5-foot-4 and weighed a hefty 155 pounds. One might think that other children in Fisk’s school came up with the rather cruel nickname, but it actually originated with Fisk’s family, coming from either his aunt or grandmother. Even as Fisk grew taller and more athletic, the nickname stuck with him throughout the minor leagues and eventually with the Red Sox and White Sox. Fisk didn’t seem to mind; the name “Pudge” is engraved on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.

Fisk’s nickname carries such strong resonance that it influenced a nickname for a catcher of the following generation. As a young catcher with the Rangers, Ivan Rodriguez became “Pudge” Rodriguez to his teammates, a tribute to Fisk’s legacy and the belief that Rodriguez would succeed him as a Hall of Fame caliber catcher.

Ernie “The Schnozz” Lombardi: As much as any of the nicknames here, this is one that would have had trouble fitting in our politically correct times, where players’ feelings are given due consideration . But in Lombardi’s heyday of the 1930s and ’40s, teammates and opponents had little hesitance in referring to the Hall of Famer as “The Schnozz.” Lombardi did have a large and crooked nose, even if it was often hidden behind his catcher’s mask.

I’m not sure how offended Lombardi may have been by the nickname, but it hardly seemed to affect his hitting. A perennial .300 batter, Lombardi swatted ferocious line drives to all parts of the field. His high batting averages became even more impressive given his incredible lack of speed. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, the ponderous Lombardi lumbered around the bases. He just as easily could have been given a nickname for his slow foot speed, but the attention paid to his nose made him The Schnozz once and for all.

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe: One of the appealing traits I find with the old Negro Leagues is the versatility of the players. In carrying rosters much smaller than their 25-man counterparts in the major leagues, Negro Leagues teams needed players who could handle several positions, even those with radically different requirements. And they did so without complaint.

A classic example of versatility could be found in Radcliffe, who was not just a utility player but a standout performer. Although primarily a catcher, and a good one at that, Radcliffe also chipped in as a pitcher from time to time. He earned six All-Star selections as either a pitcher or catcher during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Radcliffe’s versatility first achieved national attention in 1932. As a member of the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords, Radcliffe took part in a memorable double-header at Yankee Stadium. In the first game, Radcliffe caught a shutout thrown by Satchel Paige. In the second game, the Crawfords needed a starting pitcher and called upon Radcliffe, who turned in a 4-0 shutout of his own. In reporting the doubleheader, famed sportswriter Damon Runyon dubbed Radcliffe “Double Duty.” The name caught on quickly, remaining synonymous with Radcliffe for the rest of his life.

Louis “Big Bertha” Santop: At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Santop was one of the Negro Leagues‘ best catchers, becoming a Hall of Famer in 2006. His nickname originated during World War I, when the Germans unveiled an enormous siege gun by the name of “Big Bertha.” Shortly thereafter, the name became attached to Santop, whose power matched his size.

I’m not sure whether Santop appreciated the nickname—after all, how many guys would like to be called Bertha?—but he did enjoy taunting opposing pitchers. Santop often shouted at the pitcher, predicting that he would hit a long home run against him. In Ruthian fashion, Santop occasionally delivered on his promise by launching a tape measure blast. One of Santop’s longest home runs occurred during the dead ball era. Playing in a 1912 game in Elizabeth, N.J. Santop hit a ball that traveled approximately 500 feet, clearing a 485-foot wall with a few yards to spare.

In addition to the half-dozen players listed here, at least two other catchers deserve honorable mention. One is Johnny Bench, who became known in baseball’s inner circle as “Hands.” The nickname never caught on widely, but it was accurate in describing Bench, whose unusually large hands helped him adopt a one-handed catching style. In a famous photograph now housed at the Hall of Fame, Bench used his right hand to hold seven baseballs at one time.

The other player is Ed Kirkpatrick, who split his career between catching and playing the outfield. Teammates called Kirkpatrick “Spanky” because of his facial resemblance to Spanky McFarland, one of the featured players in the “Little Rascals” television series. Kirkpatrick played the part well, with his shirt often becoming untucked during games, in much the same way that Spanky wore his clothes while cavorting with Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and the rest of Our Gang.

References & Resources
Baseball Nicknames, by James Skipper

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Mickey Cochrane was Black Mike, I think because of his glower and his dour personality. That always has seemed to me a very forthright descriptive befitting a catcher.

    You might note that like Yogi, the name Gabby Harnett has replaced his real name. And I think the nickname was an ironic comment on the fact he was so laconic.

    Don’t you like the lilt of Roger Bresnahan’s nickname, the Duke of Tralee?

  2. JB (the original) said...

    Cochrane is a Scotch/Irish name and the “black” is sort of a historical reference to where/when their family line began in Ireland (some families carried the ‘fair’ (red) haired line, others the dark (black)), so you’d have Red John and Black John, etc.  Just a way of distinction the way you’d use Big or Little.

  3. blftbucco said...

    I’d at list give a honorable mention to “Harry the Horse”.

    Just say the name and quite a few baseball fans would know you are talking of Harry Danning.

  4. R.C. Berlo said...

    One of the best nicknames ever was applied to an obscure catcher of the early 1980s: Doug Gwosdz, whose nickname was Eyechart.

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    Some good nicknames, guys. I like Harry the Horse in particular.

    Recalling Doug Gwosdz is always fun. I believe he pronounced it GOOSH, not that you could tell from all those consonants running together. If only “Eyechart” had played a little longer.

  6. Mike K. said...

    If “The Wall” doesn’t catch on for Joe Mauer, I’ll never forgive myself. It’s the perfect nickname.

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