The nickname game: Clank, Dr. Strangeglove and Stone Fingers

A recent article in this space about the best nicknames of all time spurred a number of excellent suggestions from our studio audience. Over the course of the year, I’d like to tackle as many of those nicknames as possible, specifically how and why they originated. In this week’s sampling, let’s look at some brutally blunt nicknames bestowed on less-than-graceful defensive players.

Curt Blefary: Thankfully, Blefary played in the era before ESPN, preventing Chris Berman from saddling him with the nickname of Curt “Bats in the” Blefary. That nickname would have told us little about the former major league handyman. Instead, we are left with a treasure trove of more descriptive nicknames for the former Oriole, Astro, Yankee, Athletic and Padre.

Along the path of his journeyman career, Blefary was best known by the nickname of “Clank,” given to him by former Orioles teammate Frank Robinson. “Clank” represented the imaginary sound that the ball made when it banged against Blefary’s glove.

You see, Blefary was not exactly a defensive stalwart, no matter where he played. Originally an outfielder with the Orioles in the mid-1960s, Blefary played left field, flanked by two gifted defensive outfielders in Paul Blair (who played center) and Robinson himself (who played right). Although Blefary had decent speed and an above-average throwing arm, he did not track balls well, nor did he have sure hands once he reached his intended destination. Clank, went another ball, trickling away from Blefary’s glove.

Blefary’s defensive foibles in the outfield, along with an inconsistent bat, led the Orioles to try him at other positions, like first base and catcher. With the Astros, Blefary became a fulltime first baseman; with the Yankees, a fulltime right fielder. Toward the later stages of his career, Blefary took on a role as a backup catcher with the A’s and Padres. At one point, Blefary carried eight different gloves and mitts with him, giving him coverage at every position but shortstop. But whatever the position, including third base and second base, the sound of ball against iron resonated everywhere. Ironically, his career ended one year before the American League adopted the designated hitter rule.

A colorful character off the field, Blefary acquired other nicknames for non-defensive reasons. He was called “Cuckoo” because of his offbeat personality and his tendency to speak first and think later. Some of his teammates called him “Buff,” which was short for “Buffalo,” an apparent reference to his large size and general clumsiness.

Dick Stuart: Though I’ve written about the ex-Pirate, Red Sox, Phillie, Met, Dodger and Angel extensively in this space, Dick Stuart reigns as the champion in this category and must be mentioned at least in passing. He was given the wonderfully appropriate nickname of “Dr. Strangeglove” by an unknown Red Sox teammate, who wanted to recognize his legendarily bad defensive play at first base. Stuart’s accomplishments included a 29-error season in 1963 and a 24-error campaign in 1964, totals that might have been hard to achieve for a barehanded first baseman playing 19th century ball.

The new nickname, adapted from the name of a new Peter Sellers film, Dr. Strangelove, became a headline writer’s dream. After the release of the 1964 James Bond thriller Goldfinger, a few writers began referring to Stuart as “Stonefingers,” but that label never caught on like the more inventive Dr. Strangeglove.

Toby Harrah: Like the colorful Blefary, the hardworking Harrah was a favorite of this writer. And like Blefary, he developed a reputation for poor fielding habits early in his career, though not to the same extent as Clank. Harrah came up through the old Washington Senators system, making his debut for Ted Williams in the Capitol City before making the move with the rest of the franchise to Texas. Harrah was a rare breed among shortstops at the time; he had power, speed, and the patience of a saint at the plate.

The other half of Harrah’s game, however, did not make a similarly strong impression. Unlike slick fielding contemporaries Mark Belanger, Eddie Brinkman and Bert Campaneris, Harrah did not glide toward batted balls. He moved stiffly, almost mechanically. He had a tendency to make wild throws to first base. He also lacked sure hands, which would contribute to a 29-error season in 1974. So it was inevitable that one of his early teammates started calling him “Stone Fingers,” a la Stuart. Yes, teammates can be cruel.

(Stone Fingers was Harrah’s secondary nickname. In actuality, “Toby” is a nickname, too. Harrah’s real name is Colbert Dale Harrah.)

In contrast to Blefary and Stuart, Harrah did settle down defensively, to the point where the nickname faded away. But Harrah, with as much effort and hustle as he brought to the position, never became an accomplished fielding shortstop. In 1977, the Rangers moved him to third base fulltime before sending him to the Indians in a one-for-one deal for the slick-fielding Buddy Bell. Harrah reached his peak with a career season in 1982, then endured an unsuccessful stint with the Yankees before ending his career back in Texas. Still evolving as a player, the 36-year-old Harrah emerged as the Rangers’ everyday second baseman in 1985, despite having played a total of only 29 games at the position in prior years. Perhaps the Rangers should have played him at second base all along.

George Grantham: Chicago writers gave him the uncomplimentary nickname of “Boots,“ which had nothing to do with his footwear but everything to do with his impossibly low standards of fielding. A player of 1920s and ’30s vintage, Grantham played second base, or at least tried to play second base. In 1923, as a rookie for the Cubs, he made 55 errors. That is not a typo. The next year, he committed 48 miscues. In spite of such horrors in the field, Grantham managed to last 13 seasons in the major leagues, based largely on his .302 batting average and .392 slugging percentage. Mercifully, the Pirates switched him to first base in 1925.

Historically, Boots has been a popular nickname for players who specialize in fielding futility. An honorable mention should go to Cletus “Boots” Poffenberger, a right-handed pitcher who was not particularly comfortable handling comebackers and various other groundballs during his three seasons in the 1930s.

Pat Creeden: A second baseman for the Red Sox in 1931, Creeden lasted for only five games. But his .846 fielding percentage, coupled with his minor league reputation, earned him the nickname “Whoops.”

Bill Fagan: A 19th century pitcher who was prone to making errors, Fagan was given the name of “Clinkers” during his two-year career. Not very flattering, but highly creative.

So what’s the lesson in all of this? If you’re a poor fielder struggling in this fundamental aspect of the game, you can take some solace in knowing that you might receive a fun and catchy nickname in return. It will involve some unusual cruelty, but it might make you more memorable, just like it has for Clank, Strangeglove, Stone Fingers and the rest.

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    I grew up in Washington, and saw Harrah when he first came up, and everything said about him is true. Frank Howard had problems with fly balls as well, though his nicknames all referenced his power. I was at a Senators game in the late 60’s when Howard was playing left field, and I was sitting close to the left field corner, and the game was sparsely attended, as was customary. The batter hit a fly ball to left, and I swear, as Howard moved toward the ball, he said, “I’ll try it.” I looked toward CF Del Unser, who was openly laughing at Howard’s call.

  2. John Ziccardi said...

    Here’s one I remember: second baseman Chuck Hiller from the 60’s Giants and Mets’ teams, who had the well deserved nickname “stone hands”. Lifetime fielding % of .967. Compare that to lifetime % of .982 for Chuck Knoblauch, whose errant throws to first put fear into the hearts of Yankee fans for 3-4 years.

  3. CharlieH said...

    Bruce,

    I think the James Bond “doctor” vis-a-vis Dick Stuart you’re thinking of was “Dr. No”—as in “no hands”—the title character of the very first James Bond flick.

  4. Alan said...

    Bob, you beat me to it: First guy I thought of was Skates. According to Bill James, the nickname absolutely was a reference to his bad defense. From his “New Historical Baseball Abstract”: “He was a comical outfielder who fell down chasing balls probably once a game on average, or more, for which reason he was nicknamed ‘Skates.’” (James’ description of Lonnie’s defense in his original “Historical Abstract” is fall-on-the-floor funny.)

  5. Bob Rittner said...

    Was Lonnie Smith’s nickname, “Skates” a reference to his effort trying to track balls in the outfield or was it not related to his fielding misadventures?

  6. Jim G. said...

    Far from it for me to question Bill James, but my recollection to the origin of Lonnie “Skates” Smith’s nickname was actually from baserunning. In the 1980 playoffs and World Series, Smith, as a rookie, would take off to steal 2nd only to slip on his first step and end up sprawling on the ground, then scrambling to get back to first. It looked like he was on ice wearing skates.
    I remember the tv announcers discussing that he wasn’t wearing proper spikes and Veteran Stadium’s Astroturf (v.1.0) was horrible. I seem to remember that there wasn’t much dirt even in the infield back then. So, by the time Smith took his lead, he had at least one foot on the turf.
    Anyone else remember this?

  7. Ken G said...

    Lonnie Smith earned his nickname “by slipping and sliding on the bases and in the field.”  To quote Smith, “I was pigeon-toed as a child, even worse than I am now; sometimes when I’m running, my feet turn in and my legs bump together.”  This and more about “Skates” is in the linked George Vecsey New York Times article from the 1982 World Series.
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1320&dat=19821020&id=YqQRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=x-kDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3736,1363934

    The following 1991 New York Times Claire Smith article has a lot more to say about Smith, his nickname, and his reputation.  It reminds us how he threw a ball backwards while slipping in the outfield during a 1980 playoff game against Houston, about the plans for him to meet with legendary track coach Jumbo Elliot, and contains details about his altercation with the team mascot Phillie Phanatic who Smith got mad at and tackled for mimicking his falls. 
    http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/19/sports/on-baseball-the-rise-or-fall-of-lonnie-smith-and-the-atlanta-braves.html?pagewanted=1
    Sadly, the initial paragraphs of the article are not about nickname but about his drug problems.  It was alleged elsewhere in the media that his trade away from the Phillies was more about his cocaine problem than his talents as a baseball player.

  8. Jim C said...

    Lonnie had a lot of company with drug issues in the 80’s. Tim Raines started sliding headfirst so he wouldn’t break the vial of coke he had in his pants pocket. Lonnie got to play a lot of postseason ball, and was on three Series champions, the ‘80 Phils, ‘82 Cards, and ‘85 Royals. I’d be more than happy with a career like that.

  9. Jeremy said...

    Clank!  That has to be my favorite.  Some great nicknames for players that I would not have heard of otherwise.  I once called Bobby Abreu, ‘Boobie Abooba’ for a while because of his large chest muscles.  It is a popular nickname, but only in my circles, ha ha.  Even though the El Comedulce – the Candy Eater name is a good one.

  10. Stuart said...

    I’ve been a Yankee fan since the Horace Clark/Gene Michael infield days.  When the Yanks got Curt Blefery from the Orioles you could see the stiff legged way he ran.  He looked like a robot running.  I believe that was the source for his nickname, not his glove… Either is good ;+)

  11. Joe LaPlante said...

    As a Red Sox fan, I have dealt with the likes of Fred “Fireball” Wenz, “Wayback” John Wasden, Steve “Psycho” Lyons, Don “E-6” Budden, Jack “Tomato Can” Lamabe and on and on…

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