Many people –myself included –find baseball history fascinating. We're especially fond of old-time players who had unusual names. Some were born with these names, others created new names for themselves, while many others are remembered for nicknames they couldn't escape ... for a variety of reasons, from their shoe size to the color of their hair, from how they talked to how they walked, what they said or how they said it.
Online are hundreds of all-name baseball teams. There are food teams (Taffy Wright, Peaches Graham, Cookie Lavagetto, Candy Maldonado, Ham Iburg, Chili Davis, Beef Bonser, Noodles Hahn, Coot Veal, Ribs Raney, etc.), bird teams (Robin Yount, Hawk Harrelson, Ducky Medwick, Goose Gossage, etc.), rhyming teams (Jason Bay, Ron Cey, Boots Day, Joey Jay, Milt May, etc.), the all-Robinson team (Don, Aaron, Eddie, Jackie, Brooks, Frank, etc.), the You Can Call Me Al Team (Al Simmons, Al Kaline, Al Gionfriddo, Al Lopez, Al Kozar, etc.), the possibilities may be endless.
Recent years has seen a marked increase in players from Japan, Korea and China. This has introduced players with names that, to Americans, at least, seem colorfully unusual – Shin-Soo Choo, Kosuke Fukudome, Chin-Lung Hu, Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura, and Ichiro Suzuki, for example. I included some of these names in previous lists, but have had second thoughts. For example, perhaps in Japan Ichiro Suzuki is as common a name as Joe Smith. (I made a such a discovery about my mother's maiden name, Smolinski. Turns out that in Poland the name is not at all unusual.)
The Latin American influence in organized baseball also is very strong and getting stronger. In recent years major league rosters have had several players named Gonzales, Ramirez, Rodriguez and Cabrera. This is an interesting development, but the names themselves fit into the Smith, Jones and Johnson category. More intriguing are Vladimir Guerrero from the Dominican Republic, Yorvit Torrealba of Venezuela and Yuniesky Betancourt of Cuba.
MY LATEST LIST is pretty much confined to players born in the United States and Canada. Only a few contemporary players are included. One of them, Placido Polanco, is an exception to my Born in the USA rule. Polanco is a native of the Dominican Republic, but the reason he is incuded is musical.
Today's American-born players tend to have bland names. A century ago parents were more inclined to use old family names for their children. A woman whose maiden name was Jennings and who married a man named Poindexter might well insist that one of their sons be named Jennings Poindexter. Today the boy more likely would be named Bradley, Todd or Matthew. Good names all, but not standouts.
Nicknames have fallen out of favor, too. What passes for contemporary nicknames seem almost like labels or afterthoughts. For example, old-time pitcher Frank Hahn was called Noodles. Today he more than likely would be introduced as Frank Hahn, "The Big Noodle." Thus we had Randy Johnson, that giant stringbeann of a pitcher, called "The Big Unit," which was about a clever as things get these days. As an example of the awful state of nicknames, there's Ryan Howard, a monster of a man who plays first base with the Philadelphia Phillies. His nickname: "The Big Piece." Is that feeble or what?
Many of today's athletes have received the Chris Berman treatment. The ESPN personality has a clever way with words, but his results aren't really nicknames. More on them later.
SCANNING THE NAMES of today's player is like reading Yellow Pages listings of law firms:
For example, there's Barmes, Bartlett and Barton (Clint Barmes, Jason Bartlett and Daric Barton).
Or Desmond, Dewitt and Dickerson (Ian Desmond, Blake Dewitt and Christopher Dickerson).
Or Hanigan, Hardy and Hamilton (Ryan Hanigan, J. J. Hardy and Josh Hamilton).
Only a few of today's names jump out: Prince Fielder holds his own against old-timers. I like Torii Hunter, especially when I insert his middle name, Kedar. Lastings Milledge certainly isn't your every day name. And there's something catchy about Hunter Pence. It suggests a villain in a James Bond story or a British prime minister.
GOOD NICKNAMES have rescued mediocre players from obscurity, but those days are over, barring an unexpected nickname revival. Bill James in his "Historical Baseball Abstract" explains how nicknames changed from decade to decade.
At the dawn of professional baseball, the 1870s, there were elaborate nicknames that today defy explanation. James mentioned an outfielder named Charlie Pabor who was nicknamed "The Old Woman in the Red Cap."
The catchiest nickname of the era belonged to Bob Ferguson, "Death of Flying Things." Without that nickname, Ferguson almost certainly would be forgotten. I believe it was a tribute to his defensive ability.
Oddly, it was the forementioned Randy Johnson who had a stronger claim to Ferguson's weird nickname. A bird once flew in front of a Johnson fastball and was instantly killed.
Old-time outfielder Clifford Cravath also killed a bird in flight, but did it with a line drive off his bat while he was playing with Los Angeles of the Pacific League. Spanish fans started chanting, "Gaviota! Gaviota!" ("Sea gull! Sea gull!") and other fans mistook this as a cheer for the player. Thus Gavvy was born, though Cravath himself always spelled his nickname with one v. (I'm with the stubborn majority who insist on rhyming it with savvy, not wavy.)
If Bob Ferguson had a rival for memorable early nickname, it would be the one pinned on a much more colorful character, Arlie Latham, who was called "The Freshest Man on Earth." Latham was baseball's ultimate smartass. He played pranks on everyone. Often there was method to his madness and after his playing days were over he hung around as a coach, partly because of his ability to distract the opposition with his taunts and endless chatter.
However, soon after the dawn of thd 20th century baseball outgrew Latham's antics. The coaches boxes at first and third base were created, along with a rule that prohibited coachess from leaving those boxes while the ball was in play. This was aimed at Latham, who earlier liked to run toward home plate and scream at the pitcher during his delivery.
POLITICAL correctness was still many years down the road, so all of the handful of early baseball players who were deaf and/or dumb were called "Dummy," with outfielder Dummy Hoy being the most famous.
Players who were full-blooded (or even half-blooded) American Indians often were nicknamed "Chief." German and German-American players often were called "Heinie." (One notable exception was pitcher Irvin Key Wilhelm, whose nickname was "Kaiser.") Players considered country bumpkins – and there were plenty of them – were called Rube, with pitcher Rube Waddell the most famous.
"Kid" was a popular nickname, but it didn't necessarily reflect youth or youthful appearance. The name also was applied to quick-tempered players, especially if they were good with their fists. (There were no less than three Kids on the 1901 Detroit Tigers – Kid Gleason, Kid Elberfeld and Kid Nance.)
On the other hand, Clarence Childs paid the price of his cherubic face, being called "Baby," "Fatty," "Chubby" and "Cupid." It was "Cupid" that stuck. And while Childs probably didn't like it, "Cupid" was better than the alternatives.
Players who were too aggressive were called "Rowdy." Players who had other popular nicknames of the day were Pop Dillon, Buck Herzog and Doc Casey.
Also on the team was Ducky Holmes, whose name was part of a trend noted by Bill James – that animals became a popular source for nicknames at the turn of the century. Thus "Turkey Mike" Donlin, Bunny Hearn, "Bald Eagle" Isbell and Jimmy Slagle, "The Human Mosquito." My favorite, however, was pitcher Snake Wiltse. On the surface Kitty Bransfield may seem to fit with this group, but his original nickname, "Kid," was changed by a sportswriter who has a bit hard of hearing.
Two of the more unusual nicknames around the turn of the century belonged to guys named William. Catcher William Jones Clarke was much better known as Boileryard Clarke, while pitcher William Park Kennedy was known as Brickyard. Clarke claimed he owned his nickname to his voice, which I interpret as being loud. I say that because my father worked at the Solvay Process and for a long time was a welder in what was referred to as the "boiler shop." My father had to speak loudly in order to be heard. It carried over into the home. When we finally got a telephone we had to warn people to hold the phone away from their ear when they dialed our house ... because if my father answered they were in for a jolt.
Back to baseball, Kennedy's nickname also may have been due to his speaking voice. He was very boisterous and uninhibited.
Bill James also noted that around 1910 the three-word nickname became popular, leading to such things as "The Georgia Peach" for Ty Cobb and "The Big Train" for pitcher Walter Johnson. However, these nicknames, like the contemporary examples already cited, never replaced a first name. Tyrus Cobb was Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, never Georgia Peach Cobb.
However, my list includes two-word nicknames that did replace a player's first name. Charlie Hickman? Forgettable. "Piano Legs" Hickman? Memorable. Another example is pitcher "Boom-Boom" Beck.
ACCORDING to Bill James, nicknames took on a nasty edge in the 1930s, but you can find plenty of examples from previous decades. Many of these nicknames are the type that replace the actual first name. Thus "Fat" (or "Fatty") Fothergill became a popular way to identify a good-hitting outfielder whose first name actually was Bob. Catcher Frankie Hayes, who doesn't look it in any picture I've ever seen, was called "Blimp." Hazen Shirley Cuyler stuttered his last name in an early interview and forever after was called "Kiki" (rhymes with guy-guy). For him this might have been a break.
Eugene Hargrave, one of the best-hitting catchers who ever lived, supposedly stuttered a bit, most noticeably on the letter B, which is the explanation usually given for his nickname, "Bubbles."
Outfielder Nick Cullop was called "Tomato Face" and in the 1940s infielder Frank Crespi became known as "Creepy," apparently because some teammates thought he resembled a movie creature called "The Creeper," portrayed by Rondo Hatton, an actor whose face was disfigured by acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland.
There are two pitchers on my list that are linked in my mind by the letter V. The first, Van Lingle Mungo, needed no nickname. He pitched from 1931 until 1945, but may be best remembered today as the title of a song by Dave Frishberg, whose lyrics are made up entirely of baseball names, some of them on my list.
The other pitcher is Wilmer Mizell, best known to baseball fans as Vinegar Bend Mizell, after his childhood hometown. Mizell, who later was elected to the U. S. Congress, pitched in the majors from 1952-62 and his was one of the better nicknames of the era. Again I differentiate between nicknames that flow with the name and those that are set apart. For example, pitcher Edward Charles Ford was known as "Whitey," for the color of his hair. It was a common nickname for an uncommon pitcher. Say "Edward Ford" and you'll get a blank look in return. Say "Whitey Ford" and people recognize the name. However, Ford's special nickname was the one set apart: "The Chairman of the Board."
So it was with my all-time favorite baseball nickname, which actually was more of a description of the player's fielding ability (or lack of same). Dick Stuart wore the label not proudly, but, at least, with a smile. Stuart had the misfortune to be in the major leagues when the movie, "Dr. Strangelove," was released. Result: Stuart became known as "Dr. Strangeglove."
THIS PIECE wouldn't be complete without mentioning ESPN's Chris Berman, whose clever word play may be a reason old-fashioned nicknames are an endangered species.
It was Berman who gave us such things as Rick See Ya Later Aguilera ... and Roberto Remember the Alomar ... and Craig Matinee at the Biggio. Other Berman favorites are Jim Bela Fregosi ... Greg Appa Maddux ... John I Am Not A Kruk ... Albert Winnie the Pujols ... and the best of a very funny bunch, Jim Two Silhouettes on DeShaies.
If you have favorites that I've somehow ignored, contact me at the address below.
My list begins.