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Nature's creatures, big, small and tiny, have always been the source of baseball player nicknames. I would imagine several of the players so-nicknamed did not appreciate it. Here are my favorites among the players who pretty much had the nickname to themselves:

 
James "Hippo" Vaughn was nicknamed for his sizesix-foot-four-inches, 215 pounds (swelling to nearly 300 late in his career). He was a pitcher who began with the New York Yankees in 1908, but won 151 of his 178 games with the Chicago Cubs. He had five 20-win seasons for the Cubs. On May 2, 1917, Vaughn threw a no-hitter at the Cincinnati Reds. His opponent, Fred Toney, didn't allow a hit, either. In the 10th inning Vaughn gave up a hit and a run, Toney didn't, so on his best day, Vaughn wound up the losing pitcher.

Davy "Kangaroo" Jones was an outfielder who played for several teams, but is remembered mostly for his years with the Detroit Tigers (1906-12), when he played alongside Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. In 1901, after graduating from Dixon College (now Northern Illinois University), Jones joined the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League. When the Brewers became the St. Louis Browns, Jones declared himself a free agent, and jumped to the Chicago Orphans (Cubs). He became known for jumping contracts, thus his nickname.

Ed Heusser grew up in Salt Lake County, near the southern end of the Wasatch Mountains, and someone (probably a newspaper writer) dubbed him "The Wild Elk of the Wasatch." Why the elk? Who knows? Heusser was pitcher who spent nine seasons in the major leagues, spread over 14 years. He broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1935, and his "Gas House Gang" teammates included "Dizzy" Dean, "Daffy" Dean, "Ducky" Medwick, "Ripper" Collins, Frankie "The Fordham Flash" Frisch, "Leo the Lip" Durocher, and the following outfielder-third baseman, who had two nicknames, one of which may have inspired Heusser's.

Harry "The Cat" Brecheen was given his nickname for his cat-like reflexes that made him one of the best fielding pitchers. The left-hander pitched didn't get called up to the St. Louis Cardinals for good until 1943, when he was 28 years old. He was classified 4-F, which kept him out of the military in World War Two. The Cardinals won the pennant in 1946, though Brecheen had a so-so season, splitting 30 decisions, but he emerged as the star of the World Series, winning three games against the Boston Red Sox. Two years later, Brecheen had his only 20-win season. He retired, in 1953 with 133 major league wins against 92 losses.

Catcher Clint Courtney had two nicknames — "The Toy Bulldog" and "Scrap Iron." Both reflected his toughness and willingness to fight, which stood out more than his ability in an 11-season major league career.His lifetime batting average was .268, but he hit .286 with the St. Louis Browns in 1952, finishing second in the rookie of the year voting. He was a minor league manager from 1970 until the day he unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1975 in Rochester, New York, where he was with his Richmond Braves team for a series against their International League rivals, the Rochester Red Wings.

It's too bad athletes aren't required to explain their nicknames before they are allowed to play major league sports. Why would Eddie Lukon be stuck with the nickname "Mongoose"? No one seems to know. Lukon was an outfielder who put together three straight .300-plus seasons in the minors to make his way to Cincinnati in 1941. He returned to the minors in 1942, then spent two years in the the service before rejoining Cincinnati in 1945.

I admit to some cheating with this one. During his long playing career, which included 12 seasons in the major leagues (1954-65), infielder Don Zimmer was nicknamed "Zim" and "Popeye." It was during his even longer career as a major league manager that Zimmer, while leading the Boston Red Sox, had to contend with flaky pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee. The two men did not get along, and it was Lee who dubbed Zimmer "The Gerbil," which made most folks forget his previous nicknames.

Marty "The Octopus" Marion was an eight-time all-star in his 11 seasons as shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals (1940-50). His nickname suggests he seemed to have extra arms when he covered his position. Many regard him as the best shortstop ever. At six-foot-two, 170 pounds, Marion was also called "Slats."

Catcher Thurman Munson died August 2, 1979 when the private plane he was flying crashed in an airport near his Akron, Ohio, home. Munson was only 32 years old at the time of his death, and in his 11th season with the New York Yankees. "The Walrus" was just one of his nicknames, pinned on him because of his walrus-like mustache. He also was called "Tugboat" and "Squatty Body," and was the best catcher in the American League, and the toughest. If it hadn't been for Cincinnati's Johnny Bench, Munson might have been regarded as the best catcher of his time. He was the 1970 rookie of the year in the American League, and in 1976 was the league's most valuable player.

George "Catfish" Metkovich was an outfielder-first baseman for the Boston Red Sox (1943-46), then bounced from team to team. He didn't get his nickname for the size of a catfish he caught, nor for a fondness for eating what many consider the best-tasting fish. No, Metkovich was so nicknamed by Boston teammates after he made the mistake of stepping on a catfish when he set out to remove a hook from the fish's mouth. If you know anything about a certain catfish peculiarity, you can guess what happened next: the fish punched its sharp dorsal fin through the sole of Metkovich's shoe, penetrating his skin. In stepping off the fish, the player also injured his ankle.

Thomas "Toad" Ramsey must have disliked his nickname, which probably stemmed from his appearance. He had a reputation as a heavy drinker, so that may have been a factor. The book, Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, says the 19th century pitcher invented the Toad Ramsey cocktail: a pint of whiskey poured into a pitcher-full of beer, which the Ramsey supposedly drank three times a day.

Five-foot-seven Arnold "Jigger" Statz told a reporter he was a small youngster and people called him Chigger, a reference to the tiny, pesky bug. To many folks, apparently, chiggers are called "jiggers," and that's the word that prevailed as the player's nickname. Statz played with four major league teams — the New York Giants, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn Dodgers — but is remembered for his 18 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and his 3,356 hits, the minor league record. Add his 737 big league hits and Statz joins Ty Cobb and Pete Rose as the only professional baseball players with more than 4,000 hits.

Supposedly John "Spider" Jorgensen owed his nickname to a pair of shorts he wore to play basketball as a teenager. The shorts were black with an orange stripe, and a teacher said they reminded him of a spider. Sounds weird, but stranger things have led to nicknames. Jorgensen, primarily a third baseman, signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, but soon found himself in the Army Air Force, his professional baseball career postponed until 1946.


Relief pitcher Phil "The Vulture" Regan was so nicknamed because he always seemed to be hovering around to clean up the mess created by another hurler. Regan pitched in the major leagues for 13 seasons. With the Los Angeles Dodgers in '66, he had a 14-1 record to go with his 21 saves.

One of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame is the "Arkansas Hummingbird," Lon Warneke, probably because he fell short of 200 lifetime wins. Warneke was an All-Star five times, and won 192 games for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis sports writer Roy Stockton first called him “the Arkansas Hummingbird” because of his fast ball and the way it darted across the plate.

Walter Christensen was called "Cuckoo" because of his behavior in the outfield where he sometimes would do somersaults when a fly ball was headed his way. In 1927, he lost a game for Cincinnati when he somersaulted under a fly ball — and proceeded to drop it. A year earlier, he batted .350 as a Cincinnati rookie in 1926. By 1928 he was back in the minors. A year later his average dipped to .254 and he was sent back to the minors. Christensen also had the nickname, "Seacap", which went back to childhood when his mother sent him to school in a sailor's uniform.

Among baseball players, there has been only one Penguin — Ron Cey, long-time third baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-1982). Cey also played for the Chicago Cubs and, briefly, the Oakland Athletics, during his 17 major league seasons. He had 316 home runs.

As for his nickname . . . well, it's like that old saying about ducks. In Cey's case, he was built like a penguin and people thought he walked like one. This Chris Berman pun will serve as a pronunciation lesson: Ron Born in the US Cey.

 
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