The Nickname Game: starting pitchers

Position players don’t have all the fun when it comes to nicknames. Over the years, pitcher have developed and earned their share of appellations. So let’s give the starting pitchers their due, beginning with a turn-of-the-century great and finishing with a colorful character of more recent vintage.

Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown: As a young boy, Brown lost most of his index finger while operating machinery on his family farm. While allowing the injury to heal, Brown fell and broke several of his fingers. The broken fingers did not set properly, resulting in further deformity to his right-hand, especially to his mangled middle finger.

After his arrival in the major leagues, headline writers dubbed him “Three Finger” or “Three Fingered” Brown. In reality, Brown had four fingers, but the name stuck. Turning the accident into an advantage, Brown applied an unusual grip to his curveball, throwing it with a sharper and more radical break. He also featured a deceptive change-up.

The Hall of Fame right hander earned a few other nicknames, those of the more politically correct variety. Writers and teammates often called him “Miner,” a testament to his work as a coal miner prior to his professional playing days. And friends just called him “Mort,” a simple play on his first name.

As an added bonus, Brown had an unusual middle name, Centennial. His parents opted for that because his birth occurred in 1876, coinciding with America’s centennial anniversary.

Sal “The Barber” Maglie: The hard-throwing right hander developed a reputation for throwing up and in against opposing hitters, prompting a local sportswriter to give him his title. Jim McCulley, who covered the New York Giants for the New York Daily News, referred to Maglie as “Sal the Barber” because “he shaved the plate and came so close to the batters.” The nickname was eventually shortened to “The Barber.” Either way, Maglie did not run from his alter ego. “When I’m pitching,“ Maglie frequently told reporters, “I own the plate.”

Although Maglie liked pitching up and in, he did not hit batters with the expected frequency of such an aggressive style. Over 10 major league seasons, Maglie plunked only 44 opposing batters. His season high was only 10, coming with the Giants in 1950, when he led the National League in ERA.

Still, the mere threat of being hit with a Maglie pitch embellished his reputation as The Barber. He underscored his persona with his unusual physical appearance; Maglie’s swarthy complexion and perpetually unshaven appearance made him look intimidating and uncaring. According to some observers, Maglie looked like an undertaker on the mound.

Jim “Mudcat” Grant: There are two versions to this nickname story. One came from Grant himself. Back in 1954, Grant earned the “Mudcat” tag while playing his first season of minor league ball for Fargo of the Northern League. According to Grant, a teammate named LeRoy Irbe mistakenly thought that the rookie right hander hailed from Mississippi, known as the “Mudcat State,” and slapped him with the label. Grant is actually from the state of Florida, but the name stuck nonetheless.

According to another story, a teammate regarded Grant as so homely that he described him as being “as ugly as a mudcat.” Grant, who is not unsightly in appearance, opted not to correct his teammate or defend his looks, and accepted the name with his usual geniality.

Whatever the reason behind it, the nickname became so popular that it eventually replaced Grant’s first name in everyday usage. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who refers to the laid-back Grant as Jim; it’s always Mudcat or “Cat,” for short. “Mudcat Grant” just sounds too lyrical, too smooth, to pass up.

Bill “Spaceman” Lee: Many nicknames come from friendly sources and carry playful overtones. Such was not the case with Lee, whose nickname came courtesy of a 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 accepted his “Spaceman” persona.

With his liberal viewpoints, Lee rarely fit into baseball’s conservative establishment. He once called his manager, Don Zimmer, the “designated gerbil.” He then drew the ire of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn by bragging that he spread marijuana on his pancakes. In the later stages of his career, Lee famously bolted the Expos in protest over the release of smooth-fielding second baseman Rodney Scott.

Lee’s actions cemented his reputation as Spaceman, a label he fully embraced. He agreed to pose for a famous photograph in which he went through his pitching motion while wearing a full NASA spacesuit. To top it the picture, Lee wore a multi-colored Red Sox beanie with a propeller attached to it.

Lee hasn’t pitched in a big league game since 1981, but he made news earlier this year when he started a game for the Brockton Rox, an independent minor league team. Lee amazed many by allowing only two runs over five and a third innings, a performance that earned him a victory.

John “Blue Moon” Odom: A guy named Joe Mars gave Odom his memorable nickname. (Sometimes this stuff just writes itself. Joe Mars?)

Although Odom pitched for the Kansas City—then Oakland—A’s, his nickname came independent of colorful team owner Charlie Finley. Odom actually picked up the moniker during his grade school days. “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.’”

Some also 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.”

Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd Sometimes a nickname can indicate that a player is a little bit different. As a youngster, Boyd picked up the name “Oil Can” because of his fondness for beer, euphemistically known as “oil” in his home state of Mississippi. He also became known for some other characteristics: Idiosyncrasies, verbal outbursts, and wild tantrums marked Boyd’s days in baseball.

When Boyd first arrived on the major league scene, Red Sox fans took to him quickly, enjoying his live arm, his distinctive over-the-top delivery, and his penchant for the colorful phrase. Interviews with Boyd produced a litany of expressions that made “The Can” legendary throughout New England. He called his fastball “dead red,” described his curve ball as a “yellow hammer” (a phrase that he borrowed from Satchel Paige’s dictionary), and referred to other pitches as “in-shooters” and “out-shooters.” Not surprisingly, Boyd became a favorite of the Boston media corps.

Much like Bill Lee, Boyd returned to professional baseball long after his retirement from the major leagues. In 2005, the 45-year-old Boyd forged a comeback with Brockton, the same franchise that gave Lee his chance over the summer. The ageless Boyd pitched first in exhibition contests and then in regular season games for the minor league Brockton Rox.

Playing at nearly the same weight he carried during his halcyon days with the Red Sox, Boyd felt comfortable pitching at an advanced age in a state where he had once been popular. “I got a nickname and I know how to pitch,” Boyd told Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. “And it seems like fans in this part of the country don’t say no to ‘Can.’”

Honorable mention: Carl “The Meal Ticket” Hubbell, Walter “Big Train” Johnson, “Sudden” Sam McDowell, Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy, Charles “Ole Hoss” Radbourn and Wilbur “Bullet” Rogan.

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  1. BlftBucco said...

    Some of these are so well known by their nickname that you may have to think what their given names were:

    Dizzy Dean
    Lefty Grove
    Satchel Paige
    Dazzy Vance
    Cy Young

    These were a little more colorful:

    Mark “The Bird” Fydrich
    George “Doc” Medich
    Wilmer “Vinigar Bend” Mizell
    Don “The Sphynx” Mossi
    Mike “Big Bear” Garcia

    Vernon “Lefty” Gomez sort of fits into both categories. Usually known as “Lefty” he had the nickname of “Goofy”. A nickname for a nickname!

  2. Jim G. said...

    Jack Morris “The Cat” – George Kell always called him that on the Tiger broadcasts.

    Ron “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry

    Roger “The Rocket” Clemens (or are we supposed to leave him out from now on?)

    Steve “Captain America” Rogers

    Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers

    Tom “Terrific” Seaver

    “Black” Jack McDowell

    Dan “Peaches” Petry

    Dwight “Doc” Gooden

    Jim “Catfish” Hunter

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    Rapid Robert Feller (also the Heater from Van Meter)
    Bullet Bob Turley
    Big Game James Shields
    Lon “The Arkansas Hummingbird” Warneke
    Christy “Big 6” Mathewson
    Whitey Ford (also Slick and Chairman of the Board)
    Pud Galvin
    Iron Man McGinnity
    The Dominican Dandy, Juan Marichal
    King Felix Hernandez
    El Duque
    The Big Unit
    Schoolboy Rowe
    Ewell the Whip Blackwell
    Preacher Roe

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    I was very tempted to put Mark “The Bird” Fidrych on the list. He really was the spitting image of Big Bird.

    Schoolboy Rowe is another good one.

    As with all of these lists, I did not include active players, but only retired ones.

  5. Bob Rittner said...

    Eliminating the active pitchers from my list, here are the ones I like best:

    Schoolboy Rowe and Preacher Roe because the nickname has replaced their given names to the extent that even dedicated fans are unlikely to remember their real names.

    Iron Man McGinnity because it is such a perfect descriptive, although I think it refers to his off-season job in a foundry rather than his durability and ability to pitch both games of a double header. But it was a fortuitous choice of nickname whatever the intention.

    The Dominican Dandy because it sounds so good and reflects the elegance of that pitching motion. What fun to watch, just as I always loved watching El Duque on the mound.

    Whitey Ford because again, although to a lesser extent, Whitey has replaced his given name. But also, Chairman of the Board (coined by Elston Howard I think) represents his command on the mound. And even Slick, though less well known, reflects his NY roots as a smooth operator, both on and off the field.

    I would give special mention the the Whip. Blackwell’s motion was positively scary for right handed batters.

  6. gdc said...

    Seeing Bob R’s first list before the second I did wonder whether the Chairman’s real name was Whitey.  Good nicknames should be unique (sorry Bullet anyone or any simple alliteration like Rapid Robert), fitting to the person and easy enough to call someone by (“Hey Moon, how’s it goin’”).  So unless you can call Ted Williams “Splint” or Juan Marichal “Dan” some of the fancy ones are limited to print.

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