Nicknames are on my mind, having spent spent several weeks researching baseball players to update and greatly expand a feature I removed from this website a few years ago. It seemed nicknames were in the news last season (2018) when the major leagues had have certain players on every team select nicknames that would be spelled out on the backs of the their jerseys.
As I recall, that project was a farce, in part because the nicknames were so feeble, and because people shouldn't be allowed to choose their own nicknames. These are given by family and friends, and often by people who dislike the person being nicknamed. People are allowed to select what I call "starter nicknames."
Example: My parents named me John, but from the get-go called me "Jackie." About the time I entered elementary school, I told them "Jackie" was too baby-ish; I insisted on being called "Jack." Most folks complied. However, I was interrogated by my fourth grade teacher.
"I know your name is John," she said. "Why do you call yourself Jack?"
I thought she was joking, but apparently she didn't consider Jack a nickname for John, but she reluctantly began calling me Jack in class.
My real nicknames were something else, and I had several over the years. Because my college roommates considered me the sloppiest person they'd ever met, they called me "Neatness." And when I began having dinner at a restaurant that served Coca-Cola in six-ounce bottles, I'd order two at a time, which earned me another nickname: "Couple of Cokes."
My most enduring nickname was given me by a neighbor, Daniel "Red" Mathews. I was about 10 years old at the time; Red was probably 16. Perhaps he'd just read O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," and didn't realize the word was pronounced with a soft "g", or perhaps he was tailoring the word for me. He greeted me in his driveway where a bunch of us were about to play basketball, and said, "I've got your nickname — 'Magi,' " but he pronounced it MAG-eye.
It stuck for years, though calling me "Magi" Major seemed redundant, so I was simply "Magi."
WHILE I READ about old-time baseball players — and how three guys named Harold lost their first names, becoming Pie Traynor, Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese — I wondered again how my father wound up being called "Buster." It seemed logical the nickname had something to do with sports, because my father was a bruiser in high school, bigger than most of his classmates and a fullback on the football team. I imagined that when he was a toddler, people would look at him as say, "He's a buster!"
But whenever I asked how he got the name, he'd simply answer, "Buster Brown."
When I was a boy, I considered Buster Brown the name of a shoe. Certainly my father couldn’t have been nicknamed after the girly-looking kid featured — with his dog — in the shoe company’s label. The company's radio commercials featured the voice of a child actor who made popular the phrase, "I'm Buster Brown, I live in a shoe. That's my dog, Tige, he lives there too!"
I became aware of a line of Buster Brown clothes for young boys, outfits that seemed designed for a 17th century prince. My image of Buster Brown certainly didn't fit my image of my father. Whoever dubbed my father "Buster" must have been very cruel indeed.
Only recently did I become aware of the Buster Brown comic strip that began in 1902, the year before my father was born. I learned that, despite his Lord Fauntleroy appearance, Buster Brown was a bit of a smartass who enjoyed playing practical jokes, and always had a quick excuse for his behavior.
Suddenly, it made sense, because my father was a bit of a smartass who enjoyed playing practical jokes.
MY FATHER remained “Buster” his entire life. His given name was Stanley, so there were people who called him that. Occasionally he was called “Stan,” but mostly it was “Buster.” When he entered politics, newspapers often identified him as Stanley “Buster” Major. Which gets me to a handy thing about nicknames — how they help differentiate between two people with the same given name. My father had a cousin named Stanley, who became a Syracuse dentist. If he had a nickname, I didn’t know it. To anyone confused by the two Majors named Stanley, I’d say my father was “Buster”, the other one was the dentist.
I just as curious about why my grandparents named my father Stanley, an unusual name for our family. My Major ancestors came from Ireland. My grandfather, John W. Major, married Rose McLaughlin, daughter of another Irish immigrant. The Majors and McLaughlins who settled in Skaneateles, New York, where my grandparents met, were big on the names William, John, Charles and Edward for boys; Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth for girls.
My grandparents had six children, but used only two of those names — William and Margaret — which were turned into obvious nicknames, Billy and Maggie.
My grandparents had two other boys, two other daughters. The first born, a son, was named Emmet Leo Major, who died of diphtheria when he was 12. This is just a guess, but I believe his middle name was Leo because he was born during the reign of Pope Leo XIII. My guess is Emmet was in honor of an Irish patriot named Robert Emmet, who was executed in 1803, but was the subject of a play that was performed in Central New York in the 1890s. (Emmet Major was born in 1894.)
I can't find anyone named Stanley who was important either in the church or in Ireland in the early 1900s, but find it odd that those two Stanley Majors were born in 1902 and 1903. The Stanley who became a dentist had a middle name that began with J — I'm guess it stood for John — but my father's middle name was Ernest, also unusual for our family; perhaps unique.
In addition to Margaret ("Maggie"), my aunts names were Lola and Irene. Well, Lola, it turned out, was actually named Viola, but she was always Aunt Lola to me, and the name fit. Lola was brash and enjoyed exchanging wisecracks with my father. Her first husband drowned during one of his trips across Lake Ontario, carrying booze he'd picked up in Canada during prohibition.
My other Major aunt was named Irene, who had no nickname that I recall. I don't know of any other Irene in the family.
MY MOTHER overruled my father when he wanted to name me Stanley. She didn't like the name, and may have realized I'd get stuck with the nickname "Little Buster." So my parents compromised on John Stanley Major, the John honoring my paternal grandfather.
There was one fairly interesting nickname story in my family. It involved two of my father's cousins, Floyd and Lloyd Major, who were twins. Floyd was born with black hair, Lloyd's hair was red. Thus Floyd became "Blackie," and Lloyd became "Red."
Which gets me back to what started it all — baseball player nicknames. Once upon a time there were twins name Emerson and Elmer Hawley born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. They were identical twins, so identical that the only way their parents could tell them apart was to tie a pink ribbon around the hair of one, a blue ribbon round the hair of the other. They called Emerson "Pink," ad Elmer "Blue."
The boys grew up to love baseball. "Pink" was a pitcher, "Blue" a catcher. "Pink" Hawley made it to the major leagues, and won 167 games from 1892 to 1901, pitching for St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York and Cincinnati of the National League, and Milwaukee in the American League's first season. He had a few very good seasons, but had a few bad ones, finishing his career with 179 losses. It has been written that "Blue" got as far as the minor leagues,, but there's no evidence he ever played professional ball.
Many other tales of baseball nicknames and several baseball player names that didnt need nicknames to be interesting begin elsewhere.