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“Nicknames are more common in childhood than later in life—except in sports. In no other sport are nicknames more pervasive than baseball. Who hasn’t heard of “Slammin’ Sammy” or the “Rocket” or the “Big Unit”?
A nickname often tells us something about a player. Nicknames such as “Penguin,” “Pee Wee,” “Stretch,” “Red,” “Whitey,” “Bones,” “Moose,” “Baby Bull,” and “Pudge” all reveal attributes of appearance or physique. Having hardly anything between his chin and his chest, Walt Williams was called “No Neck,” and Ken Harrelson’s prominent nose caused him to be called “Hawk.” “Wee” Willie Keeler was just five-foot-four. Occasionally a nickname relates to personality, such as “Goofy,” “Space Man,” “Bulldog,” “Daffy,” and “Blue.” Some nicknames are based on unusual mannerisms, such as the “Human Rain Delay” for former Cleveland first baseman Mike Hargrove because of his time-consuming batting rituals or the “Hat” for Harry Walker, who took his cap off between every pitch when batting.
Some nicknames, such as “Charlie Hustle,” “Mr. October,” “Hammerin’ Hank,” “Wizard,” and “Sudden Sam,” often stem from performance. Less often they stem from a player’s weakness, such as the nickname “Wild Thing” for Phillies pitcher Mitch Williams, who sometimes couldn’t find the strike zone; he walked the bases loaded and caused his team to lose the 1992 World Series.
Geographical origin is the source of other nicknames, such as the “Georgia Peach,” “Mex,” and “Oil Can.” “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, and “Hondo” Clint Hartung were all nicknamed after their hometowns. During the late 1960s and early 1970s a few players had their nicknames, instead of their surnames, stitched on the back of their jerseys. “Hawk” Harrelson was the first to do so, followed by Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Ralph “Roadrunner” Garr, and others. The trend declined around the time Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner asked his newly acquired free agent pitcher Andy Messersmith to have “channel” stitched above his jersey number 17, looking for some free advertising for his cable network with that same channel number.
Elaborate, multiword nicknames coined by sports-writers and broadcasters are known to fans but never used by the players themselves. Can you imagine the Boston Red Sox players calling teammate Ted Williams the “Splendid Splinter,” or the Giants calling Willie Mays the “Say Hey Kid,” or the Pirates calling Honus Wagner the “Flying Dutchman”?
Authentic or not, nicknames have been good for baseball. Fans feel closer to individuals when they can use a nickname, and such memorable monikers as the “Sultan of Swat” (Babe Ruth), the “Iron Horse” (Lou Gehrig), or the “Yankee Clipper” (Joe DiMaggio) probably increase a star player’s potential of becoming a household name.
Time is required for a player to acquire a genuine nickname. When players are starting out in pro ball, most are called by simple diminutives of their surnames, such as “Ash” for Ashford, “Topper” for Topham, “Doobie” for Duboise. Although these are not very original, they do imply an intimacy lacking with given names. A few rookies retain the nicknames they had while playing amateur baseball when those names are known to one or more of their new teammates.
What’s in a Name?
“Acquiring a nickname is part of arriving,” said Chicago Cubs infielder Mark Grudzielanek. “If you are worth giving a name to, it means your teammates think you’re okay and that you’re going to be around for a while.” Players who are not well liked usually do not have nicknames, or such nicknames are seldom used. When former Mets pitcher Rick Reed was called up to the big leagues after having been a replacement player—a scab —during the 1995 strike, he was snubbed by his teammates. Two seasons later he knew that he had redeemed himself when his teammates began to use his nickname “Reeder.”
However, nicknames may not always be positive. As Jack Fitzpatrick, a former minor leaguer and now psycho-historian, notes during a phone interview, “Nicknames can sometimes also be used to express derision or even hostility toward a player. Penguin may be cute, but it can be derisive too if teammates are making fun of the deformity that produces an odd appearance or strange way of walking and running.”
Sociologist James Skipper found that baseball nicknames have been declining since the 1920s. Skipper measured the frequency of nicknames among major league players over the decades, using the Baseball Encyclopedia as his database (The encyclopedia includes all players who have appeared in the major leagues since 1871 along with their statistics and any nicknames known to the public.) From 1871 to 1979, when Skipper did his analysis, 25 percent of the 11,351 players listed had nicknames unrelated to their surnames. The actual figure is likely to be higher because nicknames used by teammates but not known to the public were not recorded. More telling, Skipper found that nicknames declined most sharply after 1950 (the 1950s had a 50 percent drop). He attributed this drop to the more impersonal manner in which major league players were perceived by the public and a diminished belief in folk heroes generally.
Skipper also believed that the first franchise relocations in more than fifty years (i.e., Boston Braves moving to Milwaukee in 1953, St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954, the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City in 1955, and the Giants and Dodgers to the West Coast in 1958), which were all done for strictly monetary reasons, shattered the fans’ illusion that teams have an enduring loyalty to their cities. It also contributed to the fans’ growing realization, said Skipper, that baseball is foremost a business. Nicknames continued to decline during the 1960s but took their sharpest nosedive during the 1970s, the decade of the first players’ strike, the beginning of arbitration, free agency, and multimillion-dollar salaries. In short, fans have become less inclined to use nicknames as their image of ballplayers has changed from larger-than-life heroes to money-hungry entrepreneurs—a change that implies being impersonal and putting self before team. The more detached style of today’s sportswriters has probably meant fewer names being coined in the press box or in the sport pages.
Team nicknames also are less popular today. During the 1920s St. Louis fans often called their Cardinals the “Gashouse Gang,” the 1940s Dodgers were affectionately known as “Bums,” the 1950 pennant-winning Phillies were the “Whiz Kids,” the 1970s Reds were the “Big Red Machine,” and the Oakland As of the same period were the “Mustache Gang,” to name a few. Today we have only the “Bronx Bombers,” which is a carryover from the 1920s.
We cannot say whether real nicknames are gone forever. Some aspects of the game have moved in cycles, and in recent years we have seen the return of belts and button-down uniforms and old-style ballparks with character. Perhaps we will see the return of nicknames, too.
- Light, J. F. (1997). The cultural encyclopedia of baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
- Pruyne, T. W. (2002). Sports nicknames: 20,000 professionals worldwide. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
- Skipper, J. (1992). Baseball nicknames: A dictionary of origins and meanings. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
- Zminda, D., Callis, J., & Miller, C. (1999). From Abba Dabba to Zorro: The world of baseball nicknames. Morton Grove, IL: Stats Pub.
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