By Dan Schlossberg
When he retired last year, Chipper Jones took a great baseball tradition with him. Few current players have nicknames as memorable as the one given to Larry Wayne Jones, Jr., whose dad described him as a “chip off the old block.”
The top nicknames today are Big Papi (David Ortiz), Frenchy (Jeff Francoeur), CarGo (Carlos Gonzalez), Pronk (Travis Hafner), Kung Fu Panda (Pablo Sandoval), and the Freak (Tim Lincecum).
Coco Crisp was named by siblings who said he resembled a cartoon character on a Cocoa Krispies cereal box. His real name is Covelli Loyce Crisp – hardly handy for a televised game.
The best active nickname belongs to a rookie. Fans in the Venezuelan Winter League dubbed Evan Gattis “El Oso Blanco” because of his size and power and Sports Illustrated followed by posing the Atlanta slugger in a white bear outfit to accompany a profile in its June 10 issue.
There’s no Sultan of Swat, Splendid Splinter, or Chairman of the Board in today’s game but many of baseball’s most memorable nicknames found immortality in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nicknames of Cooperstown
Denton True Young packed as much punch as a cyclone (shortened to Cy). Walter Johnson was “the Big Train” because his fastball rivaled the speed of a steam locomotive, the fastest man could move in that pre-jet era. Fans in Brooklyn called brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” not because of the damage the Pittsburgh duo did to Dodger pitchers but because one was taller than the other (big person and little person in Brooklynese).
Ebbets Field fans saluted seven-time batting champ Stanley Musial by calling him “Stan the Man” while Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale waited til the team moved to Los Angeles before dubbing Hank Aaron “Bad Henry” – because he homered more often against Big D (17 times) than anyone else.
Brooklyn executive Branch Rickey, whose signing of Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, was dubbed “the Mahatma” after New York writer Tom Meany read a description of Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi in John Gunther’s Inside Asia. Meany mentioned that Rickey was paternal, political, and pontifical – all ideals he attributed to Ghandi.
Most baseball nicknames do not have such storied origins. Many were dictated by headline writers, reporters reaching for colorful catch-phrases, or teammates seeking brevity for in-game communications.
The rationale can be almost anything: size, shape, ethnicity, quirks, military service, or similarity to animals, machines, foods, and body parts. Names are also fair game.
George Herman Ruth collected almost as many nicknames as slugging records. Called Babe because he was “the newest babe” among Jack Dunn’s independent Baltimore Orioles, he was also referred to as “Jidge” (a slang version of his given name), the Bambino, and – after he became the first prodigious home run producer – the Sultan of Swat.
Lou Gehrig, who formed a formidable 1-2 punch with Ruth, won his Iron Horse nickname after playing in 2,130 consecutive games (a record later topped by Cal Ripken, Jr.). He couldn’t be called the Iron Man because that nickname had already been claimed by Joe McGinnity, a pitcher known for working both ends of doubleheaders.
As the best owner of baseball’s best batting average, Ty Cobb was “the Georgia Peach” but Rogers Hornsby, a close second, also resembled royalty at the plate. His “Rajah” nickname fit.
Heavy-hitting Jimmie Foxx was not only Double-X but also The Beast. Ted Williams, a Foxx teammate in Boston, was variously called Teddy Ballgame, The Splendid Splinter, Thumper, and Kid.
Joe DiMaggio, or Joe D to his teammates, was so graceful in center field that he was called “the Yankee Clipper” for his stately play. Teresa Brewer even had a hit song called Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
Frank (Home Run) Baker, on the other hand, did not deserve his nickname. Active during the Deadball Era, he hit just 96 homers in 13 years – but had a pair for the A’s in the 1911 World Series against the powerful New York Giants. That’s all it took.
Legitimate sluggers Hank Greenberg and Hank Aaron both became “Hammerin’ Hank,” with the latter later shortened to “the Hammer.” The long-time home run king was one several players known simply his uniform number (44).
Reggie Jackson, who wore 44 in Aaron’s honor after he joined the Yankees, proved so potent in postseason play that New York writers called him “Mr. October.”
Two slugging first basemen who reached San Francisco in the ‘60s and advanced to Cooperstown because of their bats were also known by their nicknames. Orlando Cepeda was “the Baby Bull” because his father had been “The Bull” in his native Puerto Rico. Willie McCovey, another famous No. 44, was simply “Stretch” because his long frame enabled him to reach for balls.
Hack Wilson, still the single-season RBI champ (191 in 1930), was so compact (5’6″, 190 pounds) that he looked like a brick wall. Bricks were sometimes known as hacks, so the name stuck.
Since ballplayers love opposites, Charles Leo (Gabby) Hartnett’s nickname was a natural: he was shy as a rookie.
Another star of the ‘30s, Harold Traynor, wasn’t too shy to ask for pie whenever his mom sent him to the market. He did it so often that a nickname was born.
Charles Dillon (Casey) Stengel was a lefthanded dentist from Kansas City (K.C.) with such fractured syntax that he was called “the Old Perfessor” and his language was called “Stengelese.” George (Sparky) Anderson, another master of malapros, also acquired his nickname long before he became a Hall of Fame manager – though he later added “Captain Hook” for his propensity to give little slack to starting pitchers.
John McGraw, who managed the New York Giants for 33 seasons, was a strict boss known as “Little Napoleon” for good reason. Leo Durocher, who managed the Giants years later, was such a bench jockey and umpire baiter as a player that he was called “Leo the Lip” or “Lippy.”
Mordecai (Three-Finger) Brown acquired his nickname after a farming accident but Bullet Bob Feller, also called Rapid Robert, was named for the ferocity of his fastball.
Satchel Paige, who became Feller’s teammate with the 1948 Cleveland Indians after a long tenure in the Negro Leagues, picked up his nickname hauling suitcases at the Mobile, Ala. train station as a kid. Few fans knew him as Leroy.
Fellow pitchers Vernon Louis Gomez, Robert Moses Grove, and Steve Carlton were so good that all were simply called Lefty.
Just as Phil Niekro’s pet pitch yielded his “Knucksie” nickname, Nolan Ryan (the Ryan Express) was a power pitcher with a memorable moniker.
Italian fans at Yankee Stadium urged Tony Lazzeri to “Poosh ‘em up, Tony” years after spray-hitting Wee Willie Keeler worked his way on base because he “Hit ‘em Where They Ain’t.”
En route to Cooperstown, Luke Appling complained so often that Chicago writers branded him “Old Aches & Pains.”
Two other shortstops, Harold (Pee Wee) Reese and Phil (the Scooter) Rizzuto, got their nicknames because the former was a boyhood marbles champion while the latter glided so effortlessly in pursuit of batted balls that he seemed to have help. Star college infielder Frankie Frisch was “the Fordham Flash” before he reached the majors, where he was a contemporary of Charlie Gehringer, who honed his baseball skills so well that he became “the Mechanical Man” in Detroit. None were as skilled defensively as Ozzie Smith, whose acrobatic shortstop play prompted pundits to call him “the Wizard of Oz” after the 1939 film.
Diminutive Walter Maranville was known as “Rabbit” even to his wife, but Joe Medwick’s Ducky moniker had nothing to do with gait or appearance. Medwick, whose 1937 Triple Crown was the last recorded by a National Leaguer, won his nickname when a fan yelled, “Isn’t he a ducky wucky of a ballplayer!”
John Henry Wagner, perhaps the greatest player of the Dead Ball Era, was called “the Flying Dutchman” by sportswriters despite his German heritage. The nickname Honus – German for John – was more appropriate.
One of many Mickeys, George Stanley Cochrane had true Irish heritage but Emil Frederick (Irish) Meusel merely looked the part. Like Wagner, he was of German extraction.
Yogi Berra, who grew up in St. Louis when Medwick played there, acquired his famous moniker as a teenager. Watching a film about India, future Giants shortstop Jack Maguire spotted a Hindu yogi that resembled his short, squat friend. Lawrence Peter Berra has answered to the Yogi nickname since.
Complexion dictated the nickname of Edward (Whitey) Ford, such a reliable pitching ace that he was also known as Chairman of the Board (with due respect to Frank Sinatra). The Yankees carved another niche in nickname lore after George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973. It wasn’t long before his hands-on presence and blustery behavior won him the appropos nickname of “The Boss” (long before Bruce Springsteen).
As for Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, Mays was a shy rookie whose greeting to strangers was invariably “Say hey!” Mickey Mantle, not a nickname, got his given name from Mickey Cochrane, which was. And Edwin Snider, considered royalty in Brooklyn, was dubbed The Duke of Flatbush before his nickname begat another.
Enos (Country) Slaughter had rural roots but avoided the “Rube” nickname slapped on mercurial pitchers George Edward Waddell and Richard Marquard.
The Gashouse Gang Cardinals of 1934 were led by brothers Dizzy and Daffy Dean, who combined for 49 wins and at least as many pranks, malaprops, and misadventures. When Daffy pitched a no-hitter in the nightcap of a doubleheader, Dizzy said, “I wish you’d a let me know you was gonna throw one so I coulda throwed one too.” Jerome Herman Dean, alternately called Jay Hanna Dean, reached the majors first, with Paul following him to St. Louis.
Johnny Leonard Roosevelt (Pepper) Martin, teammate of the Deans, won his “Wild Horse of the Osage” nickname for his daring baserunning exploits. He was one of many – including Lavonne Paire of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – whose bubbly personalities provoked the “Pepper” tag.
Carl Hubbell, a superb screwball specialist who pitched for McGraw, was not only known to the Giants as King Carl but also as The Meal Ticket. Another New York standout of the expansion era, Tom Seaver was Tom Terrific with such regularity that he became known to Mets fans as The Franchise.
Christy Mathewson could have claimed that title after throwing three shutouts for the Giants in the 1906 World Series. Whether he was called Big Six because of his height (6’2″) or because of a fast-responding New York fire company remains subject to conjecture, however.
Other Memorable Monikers
One thing is certain: Hall of Famers did not have a monopoly on great nicknames.
Mark (the Bird) Fidrych flew into the majors with a flair in 1976, won so often that he started the All-Star Game, and created a cult following by talking to the ball before he threw it. A full head of hair that resembled a nest added to his image.
Bill (Moose) Skowron resembled Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell was named for his Alabama hometown, and John (Blue Moon) Odom combined a moon-shaped face with a perpetual sad expression.
There were a few real Docs – Bobby Brown and George Medich among them – and others considered doctors of sick ballgames, from Dwight Gooden to Roy Halladay. Gooden acquired his nickname as a Little Leaguer, while Halladay was named after a lawman involved in the 1881 Shootout at the O.K. Corral.
A mistake led to the nickname of Jim (Mudcat) Grant, who did not hail from the Mudcat State of Mississippi, but no mistake was apparent when Harvey Haddix was called “the Kitten.” He looked like Harry (the Cat) Brecheen, an earlier pitcher, and was too small (at 5’9″) to be a cat. Andres Galarraga, on the other hand, was unquestionably “The Big Cat” – a moniker Johnny Mize carried all the way to Cooperstown.
Baseball history is filled with dog days: twisting his surname made studious Greg Maddux “Mad Dog” and a cartoon sheriff named McGruff earned Fred McGriff the sobriquet “Crime Dog.”
Future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas was an imposing slugger whom pitchers regarded as “the Big Hurt” but light-hitting Russell Earl O’Dey put a big hurt on the Red Sox with an unlikely home run in a sudden-death playoff game. To this day, he’s called Bucky F. Dent in Boston.
George is the given first name of Seaver, Anderson, both Ken Griffeys, and Birdie Tebbetts, a catcher who chirped like a bird when hitters entered the batter’s box. The younger Griffey was also known as Junior, The Natural, and The Kid.
Before they became successful managers, Mike Hargrove was known as “the Human Rain Delay” and Johnny B. Baker was called “Dusty.” The former went through endless gyrations during each at-bat, while the latter often returned home covered with dirt after playing ball.
Pete Rose, who also managed in the majors, picked up his nickname long before gambling allegations caused his suspension. Mickey Mantle, watching him run out a walk, asked aloud, “Who is this Charlie Hustle?”
Sparky Lyle’s bag of tricks included sitting on birthday cakes, sawing off table legs, and nailing shoes to the floor. The given name of Albert just didn’t describe him.
Doug Gwosdz and Doug Mankiewicz both answered to the name “Eye Chart” for obvious reasons, while an unusual body build dictated the nickname of Walt (No Neck) Williams. Frank Edwin McGraw, Jr. got his nickname early: he used to tug on his baby blanket.
Some nicknames were insulting: weak-fielding first baseman Dick Stuart became “Dr. Strangeglove,” after the popular film Dr. Strangelove; Ron Cey became “the Penguin” because of his distinctive waddle; and Phil Regan was “the Vulture” because of his penchant for piling up wins while making one-inning relief stints during his tenure with the Dodgers.
Not to be forgotten are Clarence (Choo-Choo) Coleman, Walt (No-Neck) Williams, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, John (Boog) Powell, Derrel (Bud) Harrelson, and Daniel (Rusty) Staub, known to French-speaking Montreal fans as Le Grand Orange. The baseball lexicon also includes The Big Unit (Randy Johnson), the Rocket (Roger Clemens), the Cobra (Dave Parker), Straw Man (Darryl Strawberry), Wild Thing (Mitch Williams), and even Psycho (Steve Lyons).
Al Hrabosky, a scowling relief pitcher, thrived on his image as “The Mad Hungarian” just as Mike Epstein promoted himself as “Superjew.” But Kevin Youkilis disdained his minor-league nickname, “The Greek God of Walks,” because he was of Jewish Romanian extraction.
Another Jewish player, pioneer designated hitter Ron Blomberg, was one of three Boomers, along with David Wells and George Scott.
Baseball has had more than one Goose (Rich Gossage, Leon Allen Goslin), Moose (Mike Mussina, Bill Skowron), Mule (George Haas, George Suttles), Donkey (Adam Dunn, Frank Thomas) and Pudge (Carlton Fisk, Ivan Rodriguez), but only one Mookie (William Heyward Wilson), one Roadrunner (Ralph Garr), and one Zorro (Zoilo Versalles).
There were two Hawks, though not for the same reason. Andre Dawson earned the nickname for his stellar outfield defense but Ken Harrelson picked up the sobriquet for his prominent nose.
Not all nicknames resonated with their recipients: oversized Dick (the Monster) Radatz and Dave (Kong) Kingman hated theirs almost as much as Omar (Turk) Lown loved Thanksgiving.
Nicknames may not always be flattering but they did make players more colorful – at least in the eyes of Charles O. Finley, long-time owner of the Oakland A’s. He conceived the idea of calling pitcher Jim Hunter “Catfish” and tried to coax writers to call Vida Blue “True.” In the nickname department at least, Finley batted .500.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 35 baseball books and host of the weekly Braves Banter podcast. His e-mail is email@example.com.