By Any Other Name …

By Any Other Name …

A friend recently spoke with some emotion about a gift she had received as a girl – The Fireside Book of Dog Stories.  It had been a Christmas gift and one that occupied her every thought for several months and intermittently for the next few years.  A bookseller on line had a copy, which I ordered and which I have enjoyed, particularly as it includes a touching story by James Thurber and several of his line drawings of dogs.  I had forgotten how much I admired both.

I’m burying the lead here, which is not about the dog book, magnificent as it is, but about my own Fireside Christmas gift, The Fireside Book of Baseball, which captured my imagination in 1956 and is still on my bedside table as I write.  I received Volume II of the Fireside Book several years later, an updated tribute to baseball as it entered the 1960’s, pretty rich stuff, but my soul had firmly attached to the earlier book.  Charles Einstein edited the book, inviting an astounding panoply of writers to rhapsodize about baseball.  Alphabetically, the list runs from Franklin P. Adams, Nelson Algren, and Roger Angell to P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Wolfe, and Dick Young.  I met Ring Larder for the first time in these pages, and H.L. Mencken, Thurber, Mark Harris, Shirley Povich, Red Smith, and Damon Runyon. 

And, Lee Allen’s article,  “Red, Lefty, and a few animals – About baseball nicknames”.

We have not world enough and time to consider the breadth of nicknames in the game up to the 1960’s.  Some were obvious tributes to size and strength – Moose, Hack (after famous wrestler Hackenschmidt), Zeke (short for physique), and Ox; some for lack of size – Flea, Rabbit, Bunny, Skeeter, Peanuts, and Jigger (incorrect version of Chigger).   In this category, I was already familiar with Harry (The Cat) Breecheen, Hippo Jim Vaughn, Rabbit Maranville, Goose Goslin, and Ducky Medwick.  Cy was short for Cyclone, of course, a tribute to Cy Young’s delivery.  Mannerisms were also fair game as Hot Potato Luke Hamlin, Fidgety Phil Collins, and Herky Jerky Horton were not pleased to find.  

Virtually every player of note in baseball’s middle years (1920 – 1950) had a sobriquet, the most famous universally recognized.  George Herman (Babe) Ruth was The Sultan of Swat and The Bambino.  Ty Cobb was The Georgia Peach (a kinder name than that terror deserved).  Lou Gherig, The Iron Horse, Walter Johnson, Big Train, and Mordecai Brown, Three Finger (after a farm accident cost him two).  Yankee second baseman in one of their golden eras (late 1920’s), Tony Lazzeri, had the nickname “Poosh-Em-Up” after an Italian friend encouraged him to push baserunners in with a hit.  Paul and Lloyd Waner, stalwart stars on the Pirate teams of the 1920’s were Big Poison and Little Poison.  Charlie Keller was King Kong, George Henry Sternweiss Snuffy, apparently so dubbed as he played with a conspicuous case of hay fever. Elegant fielder Tris Speaker was “The Grey Eagle”, and Hughie Jennings may have had the most easily vocalized nickname, “Ee-Yah”

May it please Your Honor, I intend to bewail the relatively sudden decline in nicknaming as baseball moved into the last decades of the 20th Century.  Things continued to roll along through the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, although some “nicknames” were sports column affectations.  Nobody I knew called Ted Williams “The Splendid Splinter” or Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid”, or Mickey Mantle “The Commerce (OK) Comet”.  Some did stick.  Sal Maglie was known as “The Barber” because he almost shaved batters’ heads, and yes,  Jim Grant was “Mudcat” (an apparent likeness).  DiMaggio was “Joltin’ Joe”, Stan was “The Man”, Berra was “Yogi”, Bill Skowron was “Moose”, and Snyder was “The Duke”, but Whitey Ford was “The Chairman of the Board” only in the papers.  Oddly, Ernie Banks was called “Mr. Cub”, or “Mr. Cubby”, a more delicate nickname than most.  

Some genuinely evocative names did emerge in this period, perhaps because ethnicity, physical oddity and mental disability were still available for ridicule.  Thus, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Doug Gwosdz was “The Eyechart”, Orlando Cepeda “The Baby Bull”, and Al Hrabosky “The Mad Hungarian”.  Jimmy Piersall, whose behavior was often erratic and occasionally violent, made public his psychiatric hospitalization in Fear Strikes Out, but had only the quaint and rarely used nickname, “The Waterbury Wizard”.

It is of interest that most effective contemporary pitchers are rarely nicknamed.  Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson aside, powerhouse hurlers are respected enough, or feared enough, to be spared clever word play.  Try calling Bib Gibson a name, or Nolan Ryan, Ryne Duran, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens, Arnoldis Chapman. Ok, Tom Seaver was truly “Tom Terrific”.

What did the 20th Century’s last two decades have to offer?  Reggie Jackson’s “Mr. October” and Henry Aaron’s “Hammerin’ Hank” were hardly worth remembering.  Dennis Eckersley?  “The Eck”.  Carlton Fisk?  “Pudge”.  Carl Yaztrzemski?  “Yaz”.  Vladimir Guerrero was too obviously “Vlad The Impaler”, but, Geez, that’s a name!  I am fond of Brooks Robinson’s “The Vacuum” because his play at third base was flawless, and Ozzie Smith’s play at short was magical, so “The Wizard of Oz” is apt.  

Of the top five baseball position players heading to Spring Training this year, only one, Marcus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, has a nickname.  The rest?  Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Alex Bregman, and Clayton “Cody” Bellinger, “Cody” arriving with Bellinger from childhood.  Not promising.

Football had its nicknaming heyday in the 1920’s as Red Grange was celebrated as “The Galloping Ghost”.  On the contemporary gridiron, a fan can really only point to Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch.

Ice Hockey has a cultish following and its greats are pretty much called names that indicate superiority, with the exception of the Bruins’ star defenseman, “Number Four” Bobby Orr and Lorne “Gump” Worsley.  Wayne Gretsky is “The Great One”,  Bobby Hull was “The Golden Jet”, Mario Lemieux “Super Mario”, Gordy Howe, “Mr. Hockey”.  There is some onomatopoeia at work as slap shot pioneer Bernie Geoffrion was known as “Boom Boom”. Maurice and Henri Richard were “The Rocket” and (slightly smaller Henry) “Pocket Rocket”, but clever does not seem to apply to the ice warriors.

Ah, but all is not lost!  Basketball has not only picked up the slack but appropriately has taken nicknaming to new heights

Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michael “Air” Jordan, Allen “The Answer” Iverson, Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, Gary “The Glove” Payton, Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant, Karl “Mailman” Malone, LeBron “King James” James, David “The Admiral” Robinson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, “Sir Charles” Barkley, Ray “Jesus Shuttelsworth” Allen, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, “Pistol Pete” Maravich, George “Iceman” Gervin, Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, Vince “Vinsanity” Carter, and my favorite, Shaquille “The Big Aristotle” O’Neal.

There must be a cultural shift of note in all of this, but why basketball nicknames should flourish while football’s limp along, I cannot guess.  Baseball, once clearly America’s Game, has to be considered a weak also-ran if 2012 Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, All Star, and certain first round Hall of Famer, Mike Trout stumbles home with the lackluster non de guerre, “The Millville Meteor”.  

Perhaps “The Big Aristotle” can shed some light on contemporary nomenclature were he to take a break from his second career as all-purpose pitchman for products from Pepsi to Gold Bond Powder, from Taco Bell and Oreos to Vitaminwater.

Hope springs.

The Axolotl

The Axolotl

I’ve just read Julio Cortazar’s short story “The Axolotl” again after some five years of Axolotl-free reading and find myself audibly cheering as I follow Cortazar into a labyrinth.  The story is much too good to be hashed up in this setting; I hope a curious reader will search it out and share my appreciation.  The curious achievement of the story is in presenting a narrative voice that is simultaneously the narrator and not the narrator.  It’s one thing to go all Sybil as an author, pumping out personalities by the gross and laboriously coming up with accents or verbal ticks that set them all apart, a convention I find tiresome.  There are numbers of effectively unreliable narrations, some of which employ a divided mind, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club for example, but Cortazar’s game is not in writing a hide-and-seek, gotcha, surprise ending, or in documenting a descent into madness.  He’s not even trotting out an elaborate tale of metamorphosis.

Cortazar has created a mobius strip in words, a closed loop in which what we might call opposites share an identity.  That’s not quite it, and in attempting to put the experience of reading these words into words, I am acknowledging that there’s no head or tail on which to fix a point of entry.  Cortazar’s literary cousin, Jose Luis Borges, approached the same territory in his story, “The Aleph”.  His protagonist/narrator finds that language is inadequate to his purpose. “What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write is successive, because language is successive.”

I swim in language; it’s what I know, but to express what it is that Cortazar brings into being, I have to leave words and the universe as I understand it and stumble into a field of mathematics known as topology. I am somewhat familiar with topography, the description of surfaces, but to go beyond the surface, that discipline is as inadequate as language.  Topology, on other hand, is concerned with the study of objects under continuous deformation, objects simultaneously stretching, twisting, bending, crumpling … but not breaking.  Leave it to mathematics, the bane of my existence, to approach what words cannot.  

So, topologists are interested in objects that experience continuous deformation(de- forming) while remaining continuous; they can move between what math calls functions, which I’ll call identities, without losing any of their properties.  A mobius strip is described as non-orientable because it is continuous, no head/no tail and that’s why I can’t put the experience of reading the story into words, which creates a very interesting conundrum for a reader, as this business of reading, which is a more complicated and isolated form of mentation, is all about words. Successive. Words in the hands of a magician such as Cortazar, however, can deform and reform, as do the narrator and the axolotl. So, in the end, even though language is inadequate to the description of the simultaneous, the experience of reading “The Axelotl” is that against all odds, Cortzar pulls it off.

“The Axolotl” is found in several anthologies including the remarkable Blow Up and Other Stories.