Center fielders are expected to cover lots of ground. I’ll attempt to do the same with this collection of center field nicknames. The list includes an immortal from the early 20th century, a Negro Leagues legend, two all-time greats from the golden age, and a pair of favorites from the expansion era.
Ty “The Georgia Peach” Cobb: A great player should have an indelible nickname. As with many nicknames in Cobb’s era, the credit for coining the alternative name must go to a member of the media. After watching Cobb play a Sally League game for minor league Augusta, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed the future Hall of Famer as The Georgia Peach. Other writers caught on, frequently referring to Cobb that way, or at least in the abbreviated manner of “Peach.” Players, however, rarely referred to Cobb by the nickname, perhaps because it was too long in its original form.
The name fit in at least two respects: Cobb hailed from the state of Georgia (the town of Narrows), which was known for its high caliber peaches. On the other hand, it’s highly debatable whether Cobb was actually a “peach” of a guy, so perhaps the theory of opposites played a part in the nickname‘s staying power. Whatever the case, Cobb loved the nickname, which he bore proudly for the rest of his career.
James “Cool Papa” Bell: The Negro Leagues have become a favorite topic of mine in recent years, in part because of the high level of talent they featured, their dynamic emphasis on speed and showmanship, and their overwhelming influence on the African-American culture of the 1930s and ’40s. The black leagues also featured a preponderance of colorful and original nicknames, which put most of today’s nickname attempts to shame.
Bell’s nickname is one of the best of a rich Negro Leagues lot. Although Bell is remembered for his standout play in center field, his nickname originated from his early days as a pitcher. Shortly after joining the St. Louis Stars, Bell faced fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, one of the most feared Negro Leagues hitters. Bell calmly struck out Charleston, prompting his teammates to refer to him as “Cool.” Stars manager Bill Gatewood later modified the name, adding “Papa.” Cool Papa stuck in perpetuity, to the point that many fans had little clue as to his real first name. James Bell simply doesn’t have the same ring as Cool Papa.
Joe “The Yankee Clipper” DiMaggio: I’ve never been a big fan of Joe D., whose snobbish arrogance made life unpleasant for so many in the Yankees organization, particularly in the years after his retirement, but a good nickname is a good nickname. Legendary announcer Arch McDonald, who broadcast Yankees games briefly in the late 1930s, dubbed DiMaggio “The Yankee Clipper,” a reference to the new transatlantic airliner just unveiled by Pan American airlines. McDonald felt that DiMaggio’s speed and range in center field were comparable to the revolutionary new airship. The nickname also had a regal quality, making it a good fit for an imperial personality like DiMaggio.
Another nickname came DiMaggio’s way in 1941. In the midst of his famed 56-game hitting streak, Les Brown recorded the song “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” which gained major airplay throughout the summer. The nickname lacked the stately quality of The Yankee Clipper, but its catchy and quick alliteration became easier to repeat for both fans and headline writers.
Willie “The Say Hey Kid” Mays: For many years, the origin of Mays’ nickname remained vague. Some gave credit to famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, while others deferred to the lesser known Barney Kremenko, a writer for the New York Journal. In his extraordinary new best seller, Mays biographer James Hirsch has settled on Kremenko. Hirsch says Kremenko, who covered Mays’ New York Giants, created the name in response to the way that Mays frequently greeted others by saying, “Hey.”
The nickname was somewhat deceptive. As Hirsch points out, Mays rarely if ever used the words “say hey” in tandem. Apparently Kremenko and other writers didn’t care; they attached the nickname to Mays for the rest of his long career. For his part, Mays loved the nickname, never making any effort to dissuade the media from using it. Although the nickname lacked pinpoint accuracy, it did succeed in capturing the boyish whimsy of Mays, who would become extraordinarily popular in New York. The nickname was unusual, original, and unique—a hit all the way around.
Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn: When a superb nickname is attached to a favorite player, the combination is all the more appealing. That’s certainly the case for me with Wynn, a fantastically underrated hitter and outfielder who was a power-hitting, walk-drawing, runner-killing machine. Wynn didn’t look like an outfielder; at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he more closely resembled a middle infielder. He also looked nothing like a power hitter, but fans of the Astros and Dodgers 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.” The name caught on with the media, particularly with headline writers in Houston and at the offices of The Sporting News. Whenever I hear Wynn’s nickname, an image comes to mind: I see 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 influential connotations that come with such a creatively visual nickname.
Wynn’s nickname grew in stature after the Dodgers traded him to the Braves. Wynn joined Atlanta at the same time that Ted Turner became the franchise’s owner. Turner, as part of his rebellious way of thinking, encouraged his players to wear their nicknames on the backs of their jerseys. It would have been difficult to fit the words “THE TOY CANNON” in between the shoulders, so Wynn shortened it to “CANNON.” And thus, the nickname became immortalized in polyester.
Mickey “Mick the Quick” and “Gozzlehead” Rivers: A good case of rhyming always makes for a catchy nickname. One of the best examples came out of the 1970s, when writers and broadcasters began referring to Rivers as Mick the Quick. Rhymes aside, the nickname fit Rivers to perfection. From 1970 to 1975, Rivers was the fastest man in baseball, a title he would not relinquish until Kansas City’s Willie Wilson made his debut during the bicentennial year of ‘76.
Although Mick the Quick was Rivers’ best-known sobriquet, it was not the only one. During his days at Miami-Dade University, Rivers had a habit of addressing other students (and perhaps even teachers) as “Gozzlehead;” like Babe Ruth before him, Rivers had trouble remembering people’s given names. So why Gozzlehead? I have no idea; it was a word that sprung from the unique imagination that operated within his offbeat mind. Although no direct translation exists for the word, Gozzlehead usually referred to someone who was physically unattractive. In turn, other players began labeling Rivers, who was no physical beauty himself, as Gozzlehead, too.
Rivers also came up with alternative words such as “Warplehead” and “Mailboxhead,” but neither caught on with the same fervor. They just didn’t have the panache of Gozzlehead.