Fifty different men who have played in the major leagues were born on Feb. 20. And as luck would have it, several of them earned a memorable name. Richard looks back on a few.
It has been a while since I wrote a column on ballplayers with interesting names. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it has also been some time since I received hate mail from the peeved grandchildren of a ballplayer whose name I made light of in a column.) Since inspiration did not strike me about any particular event or birth this week, we will instead have a column of this, looking back on the memorably named from just one day: Feb. 20, which has an impressive collection of them. We’ll go in chronological order.
What often makes these players for me is that not only do they have slightly crazy-sounding nicknames, but they also have given names that are, usually thanks to the changes in naming conventions with passage of time, equally peculiar. Take second baseman Pug Bennett, who played two seasons in the majors in 1906 and 1907. In addition to his nickname, Bennett’s given name was Justin Titus Bennett. You don’t see “Titus” in a lot of names these days.
Bennett was not a bad ballplayer, though his made his major league debut at age 32. He would have been a serious contender for NL Rookie of the Year in 1906 had the award existed, but dropped off badly in 1907, leading the league in outs. He spent the rest of his career playing in the Northwestern Leagues for teams from Vancouver to Montana and died in Washington state in 1935.
One of the more frustrating elements of writing this kind of column is the inability to explain certain nicknames. This is what makes something like Boardwalk Brown so delightful, because I can explain it, which is a treat. But we’ll get to that in a minute. A not-so-great pitcher during the teens, Brown had his best year in 1913, going 17-11 for the World Series-winning Athletics. Brown did not play in the World Series, as Connie Mack opted to use only three starters in the series, leaving Brown on the outside.
As for the nickname, it came from Brown’s discovery. A native of Woodbury, N.J., Brown—born Carroll William Brown—was discovered playing baseball in Atlantic City. Atlantic City then, as now, was notable for its boardwalk and the nickname was born.
Of course, not all players strangely christened are part-timers (or worse); some are legitimately talented players with long careers and much success. Such is the case of Herold Dominic Ruel, better known to all as Muddy Ruel. His obituary in The New York Times describes the origins of his nickname as “vague at best” but attributes it generally to a childhood spent playing in the mud.
|Babe Ruth, showing off the swing that ended Suds Sutherland’s career (Icon/SMI)|
Ruel is easily one of the more interesting figures in baseball history. Among other things, he was the catcher behind the plate when Carl Mays threw the pitch that killed Ray Chapman (Ruel always defended Mays), was admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court, scored the winning run in the 1924 World Series and served as general manager of the Tigers for three seasons.
Well-regarded for his defense during his career, Ruel was never a strong offensive player, though he did hit over .300 three times in the course of his 19-year career. But it was his defense and his intellect—in addition to the law degree that helped earn him his status at the Supreme Court; Ruel went from White Sox coach to assistant to Commissioner Happy Chandler in the course of one off-season—that earned him the highest praise.
For my part, when I hear the word “suds” I always think of soap, which I’m pretty sure is the primary usage of the word. Others, though, will use “suds” as a synonym for “beer,” presumably based on the foamy nature of a freshly poured glass.
I mentioned this because I assume that Suds Sutherland got his name from either a fondness for beer or a mysterious, unknown reason, rather than a penchant for cleanliness. Unfortunately for Sutherland, forces largely beyond his control prevented him from having a career of more than one game.
According to the commonly accepted version of the story, Sutherland was pitching for the Tigers—managed by Ty Cobb—facing the Yankees, who featured Babe Ruth. Cobb and Ruth were feuding at the time, a feud spurred largely (and not surprisingly) by Cobb, who did not care for Ruth’s style either on the field or off it.
Pitching to Ruth, legend has it with a 3-0 count, Sutherland allowed Ruth to hit a home run. Some reports credit Ruth with hitting the ball into the “upper deck,” but exactly how much of an accomplishment that is depends on where in Navin Field (later, Tiger Stadium) Ruth put his blast. In any case, Cobb was furious and pulled Sutherland from the game.
Sutherland was not pitching brilliantly before the home run; his 6-2 record belied an ERA of almost 5. While did pitch afterward, most reports say that Cobb took out his frustrations with Ruth and the team’s play in general—Sutherland gave up his home run in the midst of a four-game sweep by the Yankees during which Ruth hit six home runs—on the rookie pitcher who did not pitch again after June.
This marked the end of Sutherland’s major league career; after the season the Oregon native was sent back to the Pacific Coast League, where he had success prior to coming to Detroit. Sutherland continued to pitch on the West Coast until 1927 and died in his home state in 1972.
A case could be made, I think, that odd nicknames are mostly so because they were given to mediocre players. Babe Ruth seems a reasonable name because we hear it so often, whereas Suds Sutherland or Pug Bennett (or Tink Turner, also born this date, whom I didn’t even write about) sound strange because they’re unfamiliar.
Perhaps that is the ultimate takeaway from these columns, that the secret to not appearing in one is simply being a great player. Easier said than done, I guess.