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.