Major League Baseball gave the wrong message when it required players to wear their so-called nicknames on the backs of specially designed uniform jerseys this weekend of Aug. 25-27.
It took slogans, slang, clubhouse talk and family and private words and claimed they were their nicknames.
I’d like to offer how the fans in my generation and in several since, referred to our heroes in a time when nicknames were actually nicknames.
If you don’t believe me, the following is a dictionary definition of “nickname.”
“A name that is different from one’s real name, but what family, friends, and others say when they are talking to or about that person.
Most of those things worn during Players’ Weekend did not come close to the above definition.
Maybe the most famous example in baseball was the Babe. actually George Herman Ruth. He also earned the title, Sultan of Swat. A Yankee of another era, Yogi Berra was hardly ever called Lawrence Peter, while Bill Skowron, was given the appellation Moose.
I remember (please don’t guess my age) when the Cubs had a player who got everybody nervous, especially the opposing pitcher, by repeatedly swishing his bat while waiting for the pitch. He was known, of course, as Swish Nicholson. Another guy who played for several National League teams was Ducky Medwick. He was not just another Joe.
Back to the famous Yankees, they had an abundance of men whose first names were rarely used. There was King Kong Keller. He was actually Charlie, but that did not fit his physique as well. If someone met up with Phil Rizutto, he likely would have said, “Hi Scooter.” Flash Gordon was taken from a comic strip character, but in reality, he, like Medwick, was just another Joe.
DiMaggio and Williams had theirs
The greatest of the great were not lacking in nicknames. Joe DiMaggio was the Yankee Clipper and Joltin’ Joe. His brother, Dominic, became the Little Professor because he wore eyeglasses and looked scholarly.
Whenever Joe is mentioned then Ted Williams cannot be ignored. Ted was known in several ways, starting with “The Kid” when he was a rookie in 1939. Later he became the “Splendid Splinter” and the “Thumper,” both courtesy of broadcaster Mel Allen. Today, biographers like Connecticut’s Leigh Montville, prefer Teddy Ballgame.
Mel Allen created two monikers for Frank Shea. Sometimes he was Spec Shea, because he wore eyeglasses, and on other occasions the Naugatuck Nugget. That, of course, made a lot of people in the Naugatuck Valley of our state very happy.
The Dodgers, when they were in Brooklyn, were filled with genuinely nicknamed players, whose actual mark of identity was left in obscurity. Take a test and come up with the proper names for Spider Jorgenson, Cookie Lavagetto, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Dixie Walker and Pistol Pete. If you got them all, you’re a true student of the game. One wrong and that’s still good. But if you can’t identify any of them, no offense, You probably haven’t reached your 35th birthday.
The Groundskeeper and the Wizard of Oz
A couple of great shortstops had names that described their actions. The Groundskeeper was Marty Marion, because he had the habit of picking up and tossing pebbles between pitches. The Wizard of Oz was, of course, Ozzie Smith, because he played his position like a magician. Did anyone outside his family know that Ozzie was actually Osborne? Oddly, both of the above played for the St. Louis Cardinals, although years apart.
On the Mound
Pitchers with famous nicknames range way back from The Big Train (Walter Johnson), Rapid Robert, aka Bob Feller, to Satchel Paige, who was born Leroy. Today we have CC, nothing to do with the liquor Canadian Club, but for Carsten Charles Sabathia. There is also royalty in baseball, King Felix of the Mariners. Although his legal name is Felix, the King part came later in life.
He wasn’t an MD, but Dwight Gooden was better known simply as Doc. The Yankees had Doc Medich (by way of the West Haven Yankees). But he was going to medical school and became a real doctor, as was Robert Brown, who had a conventional nickname, Dr. Bobby.
Other pitchers with popular nicknames were Whitey (Ed) Ford, Smokey Joe Wood (ex-Yale coach and long time resident of New Haven’s Westville area), and Oil Can Boyd.
Though he was banned from baseball, Pete Rose carries on. In better times he was Charlie Hustle.
David Ortiz has been known, especially to kids, as merely Big Papi. David just doesn’t sound right.
Not too many recent players have had names that were almost exclusively used instead of what they were given at birth The obvious one is Chipper Jones. He so disliked his actual name, most baseball fans do not even know it. The exceptions are the Mets fans. They used to taunt him by chanting “Larry, Larry, Larry,” whenever he came up to the plate. He would often silence them with a home run.
Let’s not forget the former New Haven Raven and later Big Leaguer, Coco Crisp. His name is Covelli Loyce Crisp. But why bother when you could just say Coco?
More Hall of Famers
The great Stan Musial was Stan the Man. Jimmy Foxx was “Double X” to the fans. A relatively unknown Red Sox teammate for a while, Pete Fox, was given “Single X,” so as not to be confused with the Hall of Famer.
A few called Junior come to mind. Junior Gilliam, Junior Griffey and Junior Stevens. Today they don’t refer to Jackie Bradley Junior as Junior. Instead, he is JBJ.
Oh, and don’t laugh at this one. By no means a great ballplayer, but one with a great nickname. Remember Marvelous Marv Thronberry? He was on a team with the same nickname, the Marvelous Mets.
Players who almost require nicknames
Foreign players, often because their names are not common to us and harder to pronounce, have proliferated with nicknames. The Yankees had a Cuban pitcher, Orlando Hernandez Pedroso. We knew him simply as El Duque. The Red Sox’ Daisuke Matsuzaka, is better known simply as Dice-K.
Outside of baseball
Quickly now to other sports, what can beat Magic? Did you ever hear an announcer of one of his basketball games say “Earvin shoots?” Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain was self-descriptive. He was also the Big Dipper.
One of football’s most famous nicknames belonged to O.J. Simpson. Well before his legal problems, hardly anyone would say or write “touchdown by Orenthal James Simpson.”
Too Tall Jones would better have fit a hoop star, but it went to a player of the gridiron game.
In public life there was the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, known by most as Lady Bird. She was actually Claudia, but who, outside of Lyndon, knew that?
By now you should get the point. A nick name should be earned and become synonymous with a person’s actual name.
Very few players today have such nicknames. One of them, however, is Mookie Betts of the Red Sox. Did you know that Markus Lynn Betts and Mookie Betts are one and the same?
Few real nicknames were displayed on Players’ Weekend
Not everyone has a nickname. It has to be earned. Putting some of those ridiculous things on the uniforms, such as “Don’t ya know” for Robinson Cano, was a disservice to those who have become entitled to be called by other than what is on their birth certificates.
Or maybe I’m just jealous, because I have always been called Joel and don’t have a nickname myself.