Friday, September 18, 2015

What's in a Name: Baseball's Eternally Great Nicknames, Truth and Fiction

Not long ago my wife and I were driving through western Indiana looking at covered bridges and we came across an unexpected baseball treasure. In the tiny town of Nyesville, Indiana (population: a cow, three chickens and a rust-out 1954 Chevy) is a memorial to the birth place of famed Chicago Cubs pitcher Mordechai Three-Finger Brown. If you are younger than, say a hundred-and-ten, you may not remember the man who pitched the Cubs to their last world championship in 1908. As they say, it's been a rough century.

I always thought that Brown had one of baseball's all-time great nicknames. It's a well-known part of baseball lore that Brown had his hand injured in a farming accident as a child and that left him with not only a great handle but a great handle. The peculiar grip imparted by the accident gave him the unique ability to throw what Ty Cobb called the best curve ball he ever saw. I did some checking and came across the following picture of Brown's hand:

It turns out that he only lost two-thirds of his index finger. The lateral three fingers were mangled, but intact.

This immediately filled me with a strange sort of disappointment. If you can't trust well-known nicknames, what can you trust?

Obviously, Brown should have been known as Four-and-One-Third-Finger Brown or, if you are one of those jokers who insists that the thumb doesn't count, Three-and-One-Third-Finger Brown. But Three-finger, while having a much nicer ring, is a definite, and deliberately-deceiving, misnomer. And there are few nomers I find more irritating than a misnomer.

It got me to thinking about other famous baseball nicknames and how many times we as the trusting, naive public have been duped.

Fortunately, on careful inspection, I think baseball nicknames have been remarkably honest and accurate over the years. Steve Carlton was obviously a Lefty. I witnessed Charlie Hustling. There are plenty of accounts from old-timers to let us know that Robert Feller's fastball was indeed Rapid. And Leo Durocher undoubtedly gave plenty of people lots of Lip

From numerous anecdotes we can safely assume that Eddie Stanky was certainly a Brat and Dick Stuart, while not a Doctor, did attempt to play (and play is a term used loosely in his case) the field with a Strangeglove.

Watching him in his Chicago years left little doubt that Greg Luzinski was as big, if not bigger, than a prized Bull and Bill Skowron was probably as large as the occasional Moose.

Home Run Baker did hit two home runs in a single World Series--a distinctly unusual occurrence at the time, worthy of the ostentatious moniker. At 5-foot-4, Willie Keeler was decidedly Wee. It didn't take long watching them field their positions to realize that Brooks Robinson really was the closest thing on a baseball field to a vacuum cleaner, and Ozzie Smith was a Wizard with a glove on his hand.

As a Kid in his early New York days, Willie Mays reportedly said, "Say Hey" quite often. Tom Seaver was mostly Terrific for years. There was never any doubt that, with a bat in his hands, Stan was definitely The Man. Edwin Donald Snider lorded over his center field domain in Flatbush like a Duke and one only has to listen to an old tape of Enos Slaughter talk to understand that he was from far out in the Country.

Ron Cey exhibited a running gate that could be compared to nothing but a Pinguin. It doesn't take long while looking over some of his quotes to conclude that if ever a baseball player deserved to be called Spaceman, it was Bill Lee. Ron Guidry was from Louisiana and threw as fast as lightning. And Dennis Boyd assured writers that in his early days he drained more than his share of Oil Cans (his colloquialism for beer cans).

Sad Sam Jones often appeared to be morose. And when reed-thin Ewell Blackwell reached back for a side-arm fastball, it looked just like he was using a whip.

There have really been only a few glaring examples of attempts at deception in baseball nicknames. Al Hrbosky, while he certainly appeared Mad when he took the mound, staring wild-eyed at the batter with smoke coming out of his ears, surprisingly was not Hungarian, but was born in Oakland.

Joe Jackson, played every single game of his major league career with shoes on and only played Shoeless once in a minor league game.

People who watched Marv Throneberry perform for the early New York Mets thought many things of his play, but apparently Marvelous was not one of them.

Watching Lou Piniella's fiery demeanor, both as a player and a manager, leaves one to conclude that there was very little that was Sweet about him on a baseball field.

There are no reports of Orlando Cepeda actually doing the Cha Cha in the dugout or dance floor.

And it's highly unlikely that Jay Hanna Dean could have pitched the way he did while suffering from the type of chronic vertigo that would have made him Dizzy.

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Speaking of nicknames, should we have expected trouble if Henry Hammerin' Hank Aaron sat down on the bench next to Lenny Nails Dykstra?

What if Sal the Barber Maglie squared off against Burleigh Ol' Stubblebeard Grimes? And what if he had Mark the Blade Belanger and Razor Shines behind him in the field?

What if Sparky Anderson, aka Captain Hook, was following the Yankee Clipper around the clubhouse?

What if Bill Mad dog Madlock took a seat on the bench next to Jim Kitty Kaat with a sinister look in his eye? Or Andres Big Cat Galarraga silently stalked Mark The Bird Fidrych? Or Tony Big Dog Perez was drooling while eyeing James Rabbit Maranville?

Should Fred Crimedog McGriff feel obligated to track down Harmon Killer Killebrew and Mike Hit Man Easler?

If Gary Sarge Matthews walked into a clubhouse containing Derek the Captain Jeter, Ralph The Major Houk, Pee Wee the Little Colonel Reese and Johnny the Little General Bench who would he salute first?

And, most perplexing of all, what if John The Count Montefusco, on an extremely thirsty night, encountered only Walt No-Neck Williams in a dark alley?

It's questions like these that keep baseball fans warm throughout the long winter months.


  1. Very cute.Glad you posted a link to this from our Goodreads baseball book club.

  2. Enjoyable list. It made me wonder why there are so few unique monikers today. Scotter Gennett immediately comes to mind, but it ends there with me at the moment. Is it because players make so much that they don't need nick names or that writers and broadcasters of today don't have the charm of Red Barber, Jack Buck, and Erniew harwell?

  3. I agree it's unfortunate. Maybe we're in a more sophisticated world. A guy making $20 million just doesn't seem to be a Spanky or a Bannana nose anymore. And we need a few more guys like Red, Jack and Ernie too.