Sunday, July 03, 2005

The (Nick)Name's The Thing

(the following column can also be viewed at RetailDetroit.com, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to www.RetailDetroit.com and click on "Columnists")

I wonder what Dr. Strangeglove is doing nowadays. Or Superjew. I know Daddy Wags has passed on, but The Toy Cannon is alive somewhere, maybe in Houston. Old Aches & Pains has left us, as has Poosh Em Up, but for sure Stan The Man Unusual is still around, as is The Spaceman.

"Dr. Strangeglove", Dick Stuart -- my favorite baseball nickname


I just love nicknames, and baseball, especially, seems to have had the best. They can start in all sorts of ways, and some stick while others don’t, but for the ones that adhere, there usually is a neat little story behind their origin. And even if there isn’t, and the moniker is seemingly unexplained, that’s okay too, because that leaves you to conjure up your own version of how it got started, and that can be pretty fun.

And by the way, for those of you who might be wondering, Dr. Strangeglove (one of my favorite nicknames) was Pirates first baseman Dick Stuart, whose fielding prowess was suspect at best. Superjew was Mike Epstein, one of the few successful Jewish ballplayers. Daddy Wags was the Angels’ Leon Wagner, so tagged because he was the franchise’s first hitting star. Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon, was a slugger for the Astros and Dodgers and Braves. Old Aches & Pains was the White Sox’ Luke Appling, who always seemed to be playing through nagging injuries. Poosh Em Up was the Yankees’ Tony Lazzeri (not sure of the origin of that one). Stan The Man Unusual was relief pitcher Don Stanhouse, one of the game’s all-time flakes. And speaking of flakes, The Spaceman was, of course, pitcher Bill Lee, whose exploits could make up an entire one of these columns.

I’m not sure what it is about a cool nickname that gets my juices flowing. I’m not even sure what makes a nickname cool to begin with -- it’s probably subjective and up to each individual’s preference. What I think is a rocking tag might just cause you to shrug, and vice-versa. But at the same time, I am confident that when you read "Superjew", you grinned, at least inside. Ain’t that a fun one? Dr. Strangeglove must have come about because Stuart’s career was at its apex when the movie "Dr. Strangelove" was in theaters. Regardless, I’ve always adored that nickname. Yes, we may differ on what we think is neat, and you might not even care much about nicknames, but isn’t The Capital Punisher pretty darn cool? That was Washington Senators power hitter Frank Howard, who stood about 6’7" and once hit 10 home runs in one week, in 1968. I know The Capital Punisher sounds like the name of a WWF wrestler, but it was Howard, who also had another nickname -- Hondo. Two nickname guys are extra cool.

Baseball, more than any other sport, seems to be a haven for nicknames. I did a little research with my Baseball Encyclopedia -- the book version, not the one my wife and friends claim I have in my head -- and a vast majority of nicknames seem to be attached to men who played in the early days of the game -- 1900 to World War II. So that tells me that the use of nicknames was probably more relied upon to identify people in general, not just ballplayers necessarily. And I’m sure that since that time frame also includes the so-called Golden Age of Sport, with such sportswriters as Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner who were known for their romanticism of the games, the nickname was even more prevalent as a method of identification.

I never had a nickname, which maybe contributes to my fascination with them now. I would get the occasional "Gregger", but that was about it. Some of my friends, like my colleague at the Miami Herald, Chris Gerbasi, tried "Eens", but it never stuck (I, in turn, tried to call him Gerbs, which actually stuck better to him than Eens did to me). I was teflon to a cool tag. So I must live vicariously though others’ monikers.But that’s okay, because I don’t need to have my own nickname to appreciate The Penguin (Ron Cey, because of the way he ran), Pliers (Kent Tekulve, because his legs were so long and skinny they looked like a pair of pliers), or the Baby Bull (Greg Luzinski, because he was built like....a bull). I can enjoy, from my own non-nickame perch, The Big Wheel (Lance Parrish, so named by teammate Jack Morris), The Gentleman from Virginia (Johnny Grubb, because he was so nice), and The Monster (reliever Dick Radatz, a big, angry-throwing righthander).

Like I indicated, some nicknames have stories, some don’t. But the stories add a nice little touch. Like the tale of origin that accompanies John Odom’s nickname. Odom, a pitcher for the A’s, was known as Blue Moon. It’s appropriate that his sobriquet was two words, because he received them at two different times. In the minors, so the story goes, teammates thought Odom’s face, perfectly round, looked like the moon. Hence, Moon. Later, as he made it to the big leagues, his A’s comrades thought he always had a sad expression on his face; he looked blue. Voila! Blue Moon Odom was born.

"Blue Moon Odom", who got his nickname in two steps

George Herman Ruth, a.k.a. Babe, according to legend, was dubbed "Baby" at the Baltimore orphanage where he lived because he cried a lot as a toddler. Baby Ruth became Babe Ruth eventually. (Contrary to some people’s belief, the candy bar Baby Ruth has nothing to do with George Herman. I think it was named after the daughter of one of the candy bar company’s executives).

Sometimes players give out nicknames to other players. And sometimes it’s out of convenience. Back to Ruth, for example. Apparently the Bambino was terrible at remembering people’s names, so he called everyone "Judge" to be safe. Ruth was so bad with names -- and faces sometimes -- that, according to lore, a pitcher who had been with the team for three years was brought in from the bullpen when Ruth, playing first base on a rare occasion, joined the pitcher and manager at the mound for a discussion. Ruth looked at the hurler and said, "Who are you? You just get called up?" The incredulous pitcher said, "No, Babe! I’m so-and-so.....I’ve been with the Yankees for three seasons!" Whether this story is apocryphal or not, I don’t care. It still tickles me.

Another cute little story surrounds the nicknames of the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd, who terrorized National League pitchers as members of the Pirates in the 1920’s. Paul was "Big Poison" and Lloyd was "Little Poison." I always assumed it was because they were, you know, "poison" to the opposition. But recently, I read where there is an alternate origin. New York Giants fans are also credited with the tags, because the words "Big Person" and "Little Person", said with a New Yawk accent, sounds like Big Poison and Little Poison. And the Waners apparently beat Giants pitcher like drums. So fans started calling Paul, the older and bigger of the two, Big Person, and so on. Again, true or not, who cares?

But, like anything else, there’s always a dark and not-so-romantic side to nicknames, too. Take the example of catcher Tim McCarver, a.k.a. Old Second Inning. Late in his career, playing for the Red Sox, McCarver earned the nickname from teammate Bill "Spaceman" Lee because of McCarver’s habit of, ahem, relieving himself of solid waste between the first and second inning of every game. A little unseemly, yes, but if the shoe fits....

"Old Second Inning" -- Tim McCarver (don't ask)

Sometimes I think we should swap nicknames. Wouldn’t "The Big Hurt" (Frank Thomas) be more applicable to often-injured Juan Gonzalez? Or maybe Juan, who has been on the disabled list almost as much as eggs has been on a grocery list, could borrow from Appling. We could call Gonzalez "New Aches & Pains."

Okay, so it’s not brilliant, but what do expect from a Gregger?

1 comment:

Paul said...

Poosh 'Em Up Tone--
Cesare Rinetti of Salt Lake City gave Tony Lazzeri his nick name.

Click on this link for the official story:
http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/in_another_time/100393.html

...an' Tone She Poosh