The Nickname Game: Chuck Tanner’s White Sox

The recent passing of baseball ambassador and general good guy Chuck Tanner has me thinking of those colorful White Sox teams he managed in the early 1970s. As open-minded as any skipper of his era, Tanner managed his share of flakes and oddballs in the Windy City. With those free-spirited personalities came some intriguing nicknames.

In the past, I’ve written extensively about some of those White Sox nicknames, including Lee “Bee Bee” Richard, Walt “No Neck” Williams, and Rich “Goose” Gossage. So rather than rehash old ground with those favorites, let’s look at five other memorable nicknames from Chuck Tanner’s south side neighborhood.

Dick “Crash” Allen: It’s only fitting that one of the era’s most colorful characters had a pertinent nickname, too. As with many of Tanner’s White Sox, Allen’s nickname predated his Chicago tenure. The nickname came out of Allen’s stormy days with the Phillies, where he repeatedly became involved in controversy.

Allen’s conflicts with teammates, management and the media—coupled with his occasionally indifferent defensive play in the field and, almost certainly, the color of his skin—made him an unpopular figure with Phillies fans. Fans at Connie Mack Stadium often booed him as he stood at his position at first base. Allen sometimes responded by pawing at the infield dirt with his spikes, drawing the word “BOO” in the Connie Mack infield. At times, he wrote even more vitriolic words and phrases in the dirt.

Allen’s “letters in the dirt,” as they are often described by Hall of Fame research librarian Tim Wiles, only resulted in harder feelings from the Philadelphia fan base. Some fans even threw objects at Allen, including batteries, fruit and a variety of items that could be classified as garbage. That prompted Allen to start wearing his batting helmet while playing defense. The new headgear not only gave Allen a distinctive look in the field, but also led to him becoming known as “Crash Helmet,” or “Crash,” for short. The name took on a secondary meaning because of the way Allen often crashed and burned during his career.

By 1968, Allen’s unhappiness in Philadelphia reached a boiling point. He began to intentionally violate minor team rules, as a way of trying to persuade management to trade him. In May of 1969, Allen didn’t arrive at the ballpark until after a game had started. The late arrival prompted a $1,000 fine from manager Bob Skinner—an astronomical amount for the time.

Allen compounded the problem later that season. He forgot that the start time of a doubleheader against the Mets had been moved up. As he drove to the ballpark, he listened to the start of the game on the car radio and learned that he had just received a 28-game suspension from Skinner. Allen’s latest bit of tardiness, along with his increased drinking, sealed his fate in Philadelphia. He threatened to retire if the Phillies did not trade him. The Phillies obliged during the winter, sending him to the Cardinals as part of the famed trade that involved All-Star outfielder Curt Flood.

Allen spent single seasons with the Cardinals and the Dodgers before finding a more comfortable home when the White Sox acquired him from the Dodgers for Tommy John. Other changes took place during his time of upheaval from one team to another; Allen announced that he no longer wanted to be referred to as “Richie”—a practice that sportswriters had adopted early in his professional career. He said he wanted to be called “Dick,” the name friends and family had always called him.

By the time Allen arrived in Chicago, he had become somewhat of a prima donna. As the team’s resident superstar, he expected special treatment from management. Tanner, the ultimate player’s manager, accommodated Allen whenever possible. Allen responded by putting together arguably his finest season in 1972, when he ran away with American League MVP honors.

As his performance peaked, Allen remained a colorful figure in Chicago. A famous Sports Illustrated cover photograph showed Allen juggling three baseballs in the White Sox’ dugout, all the while puffing away at a cigarette. Allen had learned the juggling stunt from his high school coach many years earlier, but on the surface, the photograph seemed to capture a baseball rebel like Allen.

Allen’s first year in Chicago went smoothly, culminating in his selection as MVP. Within only two years, though, Allen became so unhappy that he retired before the 1974 season even ended. Part of his many problems stemmed from a feud with new teammate Ron Santo, who was finishing out his long career in a final season with the White Sox.

Bill “Beltin’ Bill” or “Beltin’” Melton: The nickname of the hard-hitting third baseman was a relatively simple one, but it became an easy and fun way for White Sox fans to refer to him in the early ’70s. If you liked alliteration, you could have called him Beltin’ Bill, but if you preferred a rhyme, you could have gone with Beltin’ Melton.

Either nickname made sense because Melton had big time power. He put up some productive seasons in the late 1960s before breaking through with a career-making effort in 1971. Melton hit 33 home runs that summer (matching his total from the previous season), good enough to lead the American League in a power-deprived era while making him the first player in franchise history to set the league pace in home runs. His 1971 power output was even more impressive given the long dimensions at pitching-friendly Comiskey Park.

At 6 foot 2 and 200 pounds, Melton was built like a block of granite. His physique prevented him from becoming a smooth fielder, but it allowed him to hit with jaw-breaking power. Enormously strong, Melton often muscled balls over the wall, with his power running from left-center to right-center field.

Unfortunately, Beltin’ Bill could not sustain his power surge in 1972. He ruptured a disc in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Melton saved his son from serious injury, but his own ensuing back trouble hurt his home run stroke and forced him to miss more than 100 games that summer. His back problems remained chronic for the rest of his career, preventing him from ever again topping 21 home runs.

Before his back problems, Melton was an extraordinarily popular player in Chicago. He also gained enough recognition nationally to make the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1973. But when the back problems badly affected his play in 1974, he became the target of fans and media. Melton especially drew the ire of White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who often railed against Beltin’ Bill for his fielding problems.

Beltin’ Bill might have wanted to belt Caray, but he resisted the urge.

Jay “Moon Man” Johnstone: If ever a nickname was bestowed for more obvious reasons than with Johnstone’s, I haven’t found it. Both in and out of uniform, Johnstone often acted as if he were in lunar orbit.

When Johnstone joined the California Angels as a rookie in 1966, manager Bill Rigney put his locker in an intriguing position: between a pair of veteran flakes, left-hander Bo Belinsky and right-hander Dean Chance. Rigney then gave Johnstone the roommate assignment that would make his hotel stays most memorable: the often indescribable Jimmy Piersall.

With Piersall becoming his guru, and Belinsky and Chance providing their own unique influence, Johnstone became a prankster, quipster and clown. Within a short time, he became known as “Moon Man” to his Angels teammates. Johnstone also earned another nickname when some began referring to him as “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

Johnstone fit in well in the California clubhouse, but his frequent defensive mishaps in the outfield annoyed Angels management. In November of 1970, the Angels traded Johnstone to the White Sox, where he continued to show flashes of brilliance but also provided too many fits of frustration. A .188 batting average in 1972 didn’t help, either. Though Tanner liked Johnstone, the White Sox released him in the spring of ‘73, leaving him unemployed until Charlie Finley and the Oakland A’s came calling.

Some of Johnston’s best moments of clowning occurred in the minor leagues. After being released by the A’s, Johnstone signed on with the Phillies, who assigned him to Toledo of the International League. While with Toledo, Johnston had a run-in with Jim Bunning, at the time the manager of the Mud Hens. During the 1974 season, Bunning ripped into two of his slumping hitters, Dane Iorg and Jerry Martin, by comparing their diminishing batting averages to the sinking of the Titanic. Though a light-hearted humorist first and foremost, Johnstone had his serious side; he couldn’t believe that his manager would publicly belittle his own players that way.

The next day, Johnstone showed up at the ballpark wearing a full-body wet suit with the words “USS Titanic” scribbled across the front of his chest. As Johnstone made his way around the ballpark, he carried an oar with him, pretending to paddle it across the playing field. Not amused by the outfit or the “paddling,” the old-school Bunning, never known for a strong sense of humor, fined Johnstone.

Johnstone escaped the clutches of Bunning and clawed his way back to the Phillies. He became a valuable part time player in Philadelphia, but he also tested the patience of manager Danny Ozark and his coaches. He sometimes missed signs, didn’t always run hard to first base on routine ground balls and pop-ups, and developed a strange habit of throwing the bat at the ball when badly fooled on a pitch.

Johnstone also began to solidify his reputation as a full-fledged flake. He diligently shined his shoes before the first pitch of every game, even though they would become filthy once he stepped onto the infield dirt. He wore unusual headgear before and after games, including a multicolored umbrella hat that was reminiscent of the Brockabrella, and an oddly shaped helmet that featured the words “Star Patrol.”

He also shot off firecrackers from his locker. In perhaps his most famous firecracking incident, Johnstone involved his former White Sox teammate, Dick Allen. Johnstone waited until NBC “Game of the Week” broadcaster Joe Garagiola started to ask questions of Allen and then set off a loud firecracker during the live interview.

Ed “The Creeper” Stroud: Stroud played only one season for Tanner, in 1971, but his nickname is too good to pass up. Stroud’s minor league teammates in Indianapolis, at the time an affiliate of the White Sox, noticed that he walked with his shoulders hunched, as if he were trying to sneak up on someone. Stroud also wore a distinctive green hat with a narrow brim that accentuated his unusual way of walking. Hence, The Creeper was born. It sounds like he would have made a good extra on a 1970s horror film set.

Stroud also was sometimes called “The Streak,” in tribute to his blazing speed. Stroud stole 29 bases for the Washington Senators in 1970, establishing a career high in the major leagues. But he was far more prolific in the minor leagues, where he won three stolen base crowns. In his first professional season, Stroud stole 74 bases, and followed with a 72-theft campaign. In 1966, Stroud stole 57 bases for the Indianapolis Indians of the Pacific Coast League.

He spent some time as the Senators’ starting center fielder. Some black players on the team, including Stroud and Hank Allen (the brother of Dick Allen), did not like the racial atmosphere surrounding the team. That situation changed precipitously in 1969, when Ted Williams replaced Jim Lemon as manager.

By 1971, The Creeper had reached the end of the major league line. He played mostly as a backup, unable to crack a White Sox starting outfield that featured Rick Reichardt, Jay Johnstone and Pat Kelly.

Moe “The Snake Man” Drabowsky: Drabowsky spent only a bit of time with the White Sox—a sliver during the 1972 season—but he made a distinct impression on the team, just as he did everywhere else during his journeyman career.

Drabowsky’s reputation as The Snake Man evolved from his habit of playing pranks, which often involved snakes. Not rubber ones, but live ones. After the 1968 season, Drabowsky departed the powerhouse Orioles when he was left unprotected in the expansion draft and taken by the Royals. Drabowsky exacted some “revenge” in 1969, when he arranged for a six-foot-long boa constrictor to be delivered to the clubhouse of the American League champion Orioles during the World Series. Coincidentally or not, the Orioles went on to lose the Series in five games to the upstart Mets.

Drabowsky often tormented Orioles teammates Paul Blair and Luis Aparicio, both of whom hated snakes. Drabowsky put live snakes in their gloves, giving them a surprise when they donned their mitts during pre-game workouts. Once, Drabowsky placed a live snake in a bread basket belonging to Brooks Robinson.

Pitching mostly as a relief pitcher during the second half of his career, Drabowsky took full advantage of his days in the bullpen. He regularly ordered Chinese food from the bullpen phone, once placing a direct call to Hong Kong for some takeout. The habit was reminiscent of a Seinfeld episode when Elaine Benes ordered Chinese food and had it delivered to a janitor’s closet.

Drabowsky had other habits, too. He enjoyed dressing up in a gorilla suit and throwing rocks at opposing relief pitchers, who must have just loved that. On at least one occasion with the Cardinals, Moe felt motivated to set off a cherry bomb in Chief Nok-A-Homa’s tepee at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Fortunately, the Chief wasn’t in the tepee when the firecracker ignited. Perhaps he consulted with Jay Johnstone on that one.

References & Resources
Ed Stroud’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame; The Sporting News

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Drabowski’s pranks don’t seem too funny to me. He sounds more like an asshole whom I wouldn’t want as a teammate.  I realize ballplayers, especially in that era, weren’t the most mature people, but Moe’s pranks seem to cross the line.

  2. SJBlonger said...

    Regarding Melton, in 1970 (looks like it must have been May 8 at Baltimore), a foul pop somehow avoided his glove and landed directly on his nose.  He missed several games and otherwise might have have more than 33 that year.

  3. Lindell A.C. said...

    How about all-time nickname line-ups….‘68 Tigers had Dick (Mad Dog) McCaulife, Don(Coyote)Wert, (Stormin Normin) Cash, Willie (the Wonder) Horton, (The Silver Fox) Jim Northrup, Dennis (the Menace) McClain, and the greatest nickname of all time, a nickname based on a nickname, William James (Gates-Gator)Brown…..Gates is based on his release from prison and passing through the gates and Gator is based on Gates…..
    -Lindell AC

  4. Lindell A.C. said...

    while on the subject of the ‘68 Tiger nicknames…I gotta say they are one of the most overlooked stories in the history of MLB….the last team to win a true American League pennant with no divisions….

    Ken Burns did a nine freakin CD set on the history of baseball. Four and a half of them covered baseball in New York City like nothing else was going on in the rest of the country. The only mention of the ‘68 World Series was Gibson’s 17 strikeouts in game one….then he skipped right over to the lame ‘69 Mets

    -Lindell AC

  5. diddlebocks said...

    …we’ve all had our assholes cinched just a bit tighter, over the last forty years or so.

    what used to pass for humorous…is now assholish behavior.

    what a change.  forty years before that…men used of get into fistfights.  regularly.  even mature major leaguers wud do it.

    hmmph.

    i wonder what might make an eybrow raise, forty years from now…

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Marc, I don’t recall Drabowsky being disliked as a teammate. I think that as long as you weren’t the one being pranked, his antics might have seemed amusing. He was also willing to take on management in his pranks, including opposing managers and even Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was on the receiving end of one of his hotfoots.

  7. Alex Bensky said...

    I have read that “Gates” was a nickname he acquired long before reform school. I think the other story is also apocryphal, that he went back to the school to talk to the kids about going straight. One of them said, “Mr. Brown, when you were a student here, what did you take?” and he replied, “Mostly hubcaps.”

  8. Nick Wilson from Jacksonville said...

    Moe Drabowshy also had a fine time in Baltimore. One time he called the visitor’s bullpen and disguised his voice much like the opponent’s manager. He ordered a relief pitcher to “get hot” even though it was in the second inning of a so-far no hit game by both teams.  He then called to have the guy sit down. And then, called again to get that same pitcher up to “get hot” again.

    He was fun in that way. Anyway, the opposing team saw what was happening, and got the relief pitcher to sit down. From then on, phones to/from the major league bullpens were to the respective dugout only.

    Drabowsky laughted al the ways. So did his teammates from Baltimroe in the bullpen that day.

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