Baseball, for some unknown reason, is replete with nicknames. Other sports occasionally have ones that become known such as hockey’s the Great One, the Golden Jet and Rocket Richard, basketball’s Dr. J, Magic and Pistol Pete and football’s Night Train Lane, Sweetness and Bronko Nagurski but it seems that a great many more baseball players have nicknames. So I thought I’d devote a page to them.
Oscar Melillo was a second baseman from Chicago who broke into the show with the St. Louis Browns in 1926 and was their starting second sacker from ’29 through ’34. Although he had little home run power, he had four straight seasons with 10 or more triples and got 189 hits in 1931. He was a top notch fielder though—it was noted in his obituary that he set a major league record for fielding percentage in 1933 that would stand for ten years. After his playing career, he coached for Cleveland and the Kansas City A’s.
That he had a major league career at all is remarkable. He suffered from a severe kidney disorder that was known as Bright’s Disease. Hall of Famer’s Ty Cobb and Ross Youngs also had the same health issue. It was one of several maladies Cobb suffered from late in life but Youngs died from it at age 30. Because of this illness, Melillo was told in 1926 “to eat nothing but spinach for the next few months if (he) wanted to live.” “I tried to talk them into letting me have a steak, spaghetti, ravioli, or goulash once in a while,” he said, “but they said nothing doing. When I told them I couldn’t stand the monotony of spinach three times a day, they told me I could have some variety by boiling it for breakfast, making a salad of it for lunch, and baking it for dinner.” Naturally, some folks started calling him ‘Spinach’ although he was known as ‘Ski’ to all. This nickname came from when he worked as an apprentice at International Harvester. The company had a football team with a popular tackle named Frank Fiske, who was known as Ski. Melillo was a particularly enthusiastic fan of this fellow and people soon were calling him Ski was well. For more info, see http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c3d5add1 (an article by Bill Nowlin that cites The Sporting News, November 30, 1963) as well as the obituary section of www.thedeadballera.com.
Outfielder William Chester Jacobson was a huge man for his time. Born in 1890, the Swedish farm boy from west central Illinois stood 6’3”. He broke into the big leagues with Detroit in 1915 but found the outfield clogged with Cobb, Crawford and Veach. He was traded around, never doing much at the plate until after he got back from serving in World War One. By this time he was a St. Louis Brown. At the opening of the 1919 season, his manager told him that he was one of their starting outfielders. Jacobson, much relieved by this news, relaxed and reeled off seven straight Hall of Fame caliber seasons–hitting between .309 and .355, poking as many as 19 homers, 41 doubles and 16 triples, scoring over 100 runs twice and twice getting over 210 hits. His offense tailed off during the 1926 season and was traded to the Red Sox. After the 1927 season, he was out of the majors but played minor league ball for a couple of years before going back to his Illinois farm.
His nickname came from a song. “In his obituary, The Sporting News quoted him: ‘Everybody called me Bill until that day in Mobile. It was opening day and a band was playing. Just before the first pitch, they struck up ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll,’ a popular song at the time. Well, I led off with a homer on the first pitch and a lady sitting behind the plate jumped up and shouted: ‘You must be that beautiful doll they were talking about.’ The name stuck with me and that was it.’ “ From an article written by Bill Nowlin for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), found at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/a2668210 citing The Sporting News, February 5, 1977
Puddin’ Head Jones
Willie Jones was a third baseman for the Phillies in the 1950’s. The right-hander from Dillon, SC was an All-Star in ’50 and ’51 and a member of the Whiz Kids, the Philly team that won the NL pennant in 1950 only to be swept by the Yankees in the World Series. He was the kind of steady, above average player that I would love to have on any team I would compile. He wouldn’t command a budget breaking salary since he was never at the top of any glam stat lists (he did lead the NL in sacrifices in ’51) but he played almost every game each year for eight straight years with very good offensive production and top notch defense. Offense: good power—averaged 18.5 home runs from ’49 through ’56, with a peak of 25 in ’52, 33 career triples and eleven straight years of walking more than he struck out. Durability: Nine straight seasons in top four of games played at 3B in NL. Defense: Eight seasons (’50-’57) in the top four of fielding percentage, landing at first four times.
His nickname appears to be derived from his love for liver pudding, a popular pork dish in the Carolinas and with the Pennsylvania Dutch. See the comments to a 2005 blogpost http://sportsprof.blogspot.com/2005/07/how-did-this-guy-get-his-nickname.html. For more on the preparation of liver pudding, see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/135574. As one commentator put it, “when a pig was butchered, everything but the oink was used.”
Charles William Douglas was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last few months of the 1957 season. He lost one eye in a childhood fight and is only one of a very few one-eyed players to ever compete in the big leagues. Signed when Branch Rickey was the Bucs GM, he worked his way through the minors until his big break. He started eight games and threw a total of 47 IP with an impressive ERA+ of 118 even though he walked more batters than he struck out (30 to 28.) He was sent back to the minors after the season and never got back to the show due to shoulder trouble. Here’s a coincidence for you—in Whammy’s first start in the majors, the opposing pitcher was another guy on this nickname list, Vinegar Bend Mizell, who pitched a two-hitter. True story. And there’s more: Douglas gave up five homers in his brief career to four batters, one being another guy on this nickname list, Rip Repulski. The other guys? All Hall of Famers—Aaron, Mathews and Banks, who hit two.) His nickname? “I was striking everyone out, so they just started calling me ‘Whammy’,” (Douglas) said. “They couldn’t hit the ball and it just stuck with me. I don’t know how, but it did. Some people still call me that now.”
(See http://www.milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080728&content_id=438677&vkey=news_milb&fext=.jsp and http://www.forums.mlb.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&webtag=ml-pirates&tid=55282)
Probably the most common nickname in baseball history celebrates the uncommonness of being left-handed. (Only about 10% of the population are southpaws, according to a May 1977 article in Psychological Bulletin by Hardyck and Petrinovich.) If you search on www.baseball-encyclopedia.com for “Lefty,” you get the records of over 200 players. The most well known, I would guess, are the Hall of Fame pitchers Lefty Grove and Lefty Gomez. Grove is considered by most to be one of the greatest pitchers ever–he led the league nine times in ERA+ as a starter and finished with a career ERA+ of 148, topped only in modern times by Pedro Martinez‘s 154 and Mariano Rivera‘s unbelievable 206. Gomez had a relatively short career almost all with the Yankees and had two huge seasons. Steve Carlton was also nicknamed Lefty but I don’t remember anyone calling him anything but Steve. Lefty O’Doul was a terrific hitter for about five seasons with the Phillies. His 1929 campaign was stunning, even given that he played in the hitter friendly Baker Bowl and the generally high stats of the era—254 hits and a .398 avg with an OBP of .465, all league leaders.
One of the original Mets, Clarence Coleman was a catcher. He broke into the majors with the Phillies in 1961 but had trouble with the ash—he hit only .128/.180/.149 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 47 at-bats, mostly as a pinch hitter. New York claimed him in the expansion draft and he had 152 AB’s with the inaugural Amazin’s with the best batting stat line of his career–.250/.303/.441 with six homers. You can find references online to his hitting a homer in the bottom of the 9th to knock the Reds out of the 1962 pennant race but the event occurred on September 14th and the Reds played another 12 games, finishing in third place, just 3 ½ behind the Giants. Anyway, Choo-Choo enjoyed the most playing time of his big league career in ’63 but his batting regressed and so he was sent down to the minors at year’s end. He got back to the bigs in ’66 but only appeared in six games. He went back to the minors, played a little in Mexico in the early ’70s then retired, eventually returning home to Florida where he ran a Chinese restaurant. Coleman had trouble remembering names and coped by calling everyone ‘Bub.’ (Babe Ruth had the same issue but called people ‘Kid.’) He also is widely reported to have told Ralph Kiner, former Pirates slugger turned broadcaster, that he didn’t know where his nickname came from. Maybe he wasn’t a brain surgeon but he was good enough to play in the majors, tough enough to be one of the first black players in Philadelphia (whose fans were noted as being the most nasty in their opposition to Jackie Robinson) and tenacious enough to keep working when his teams lost 108, 120 and 111 games.
A Hall of Fame third baseman, John Franklin Baker was known as an excellent fielder as well as a slugger who wielded a monster 52-ounce bat. He led the league in homers for four straight years, 1911-1914, as part of the “$100,000 Infield” of Connie Mack‘s first Philadelphia A’s dynasty. ($100,000 was a lot of money in baseball back in those days.) However, Baker owes his nickname to the 1911 World Series when he smacked round-trippers off of Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard in successive games. After losing the 1914 World Series to the Miracle Braves from Boston, Mack broke up his team and sold his star players off. Baker, who still had a year left in his contract, wanted to renegotiate but Connie refused. In protest, Baker sat out the 1915 season but played for the team from his small home town of Trappe, MD as well as a few others nearby. Mack finally sold Baker to the Yankees where he was a solid starter from 1916 through 1919. After that season, his wife and two daughters contracted scarlet fever. His wife died. The whole episode destroyed his desire to play and so he sat out the 1920 season. His desire returned and he played in ’21 and ’22 for the Yanks but was not nearly as effective. Nonetheless, Home Run Baker got to play alongside the man who secured the prominance of the home run in popularity and strategic importance, Babe Ruth. See http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/frank_baker_biography.shtml and http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2f26e40e.
Spurgeon Ferdinand Chandler was a starting pitcher who spent his entire career with the New York Yankees. He was a standout in baseball, track and football at the University of Georgia, his home state. His skills at halfback brought him an offer from the New York (football) Giants but he loved baseball and, since childhood, the Yankees despite being reared in the South. After graduation he toiled in the Yankee farm system for five years before being brought up in 1937. He was effective throughout his career once he mastered the slider but his reliability was not good—he suffered through several ailments that kept him off the mound because “(e)very pitch, every slide, every swing was executed with the ferocity of a clothesline tackle.” Nonetheless, he had several superb seasons, especially 1943 and 1946. In ’43, he had a league leading ERA+ of 198 (!) over 253 IP and lead the circuit in complete games (20) and shutouts (5). His “win” total (20) and “win percentage” were also at the top of the charts and he was awarded the MVP . However, since this was a war year, the competition was not as robust as it was in ’46 and so I think his stats in the latter are more impressive—257.1 IP and an ERA+ of 164. (He also “won” 20 in ’46.) MVP voters were not as impressed though—he finished tied for 16th with George Kell and Aaron Robinson. His nickname was originally ‘Spurge’ (well, duh) but was later transmuted to Spud. My guess it had much to do with his farm upbringing and his degree in agriculture from UGA. (See www.jockbio.com/Classic/S_Chandler/S_Chandler_bio.html)
A speedy, left-handed, power hitting outfielder from Nashville, Norman Stearnes was a quiet star of the Negro Leagues for 20 years, playing for several teams. He had a .344 career batting average, won seven league home run titles and was posthumously enshrined in Cooperstown in 2000. “Stearnes had an unique stance, with his front foot turned heel down and toe pointed straight up, but although not a heavy man, he was a natural hitter with powerful shoulders.” (from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum e-museum at www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes citing James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.) His nickname was reportedly a product of his unusual running style. In the 1920’s, when he was a star with the Detroit Stars and in the prime of his baseball career, Stearnes actually worked for the co-owner of the Detroit Tigers, Walter Briggs. Unfortunately for baseball fans, it was at Stearnes’ second job–on the line at Briggs Manufacturing Company. Briggs, who became the Tigers’ sole owner in 1935, refused to hire blacks for the Tigers, even in the farm system, and also refused to allow black fans to sit in the box seats at Detroit’s home stadium, Briggs Field, even after the color line was broken.
Eldon John Repulski was an outfielder who hailed from Sauk Centre, MN. He played for the Cardinals as a regular outfielder from 1953 through 1956 and was given his nickname when he was coming up through the vaunted St. Louis farm system. He was fourth in the 1953 Rookie of the Year balloting, playing alongside Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter in the St. Louis outfield, and was an All Star in ’56. After that season, he was traded with Bobby Morgan for Del Ennis by St. Louis’s GM Frank “Trader” Lane. Rip had a good year for the Phillies in 1957 but then began to slow down. He was part of a package deal with the Dodgers that brought promising second baseman Sparky Anderson to Philadelphia then finally was traded to the Red Sox where he played alongside Ted Williams. Rip retired after the 1961 season. He had medium power, averaging over 17 dingers his first five years in the league and was considered a good, maybe even very good outfielder, especially in his St. Louis heyday. After he retired, he opened a bar in St. Cloud, MN where he enjoyed telling stories, with liberal dollops of embellishment, about his baseball career. Ironically, the noted storyteller never could remember who it was that gave him his famous moniker.
Hoy, born William Ellsworth Hoy, played in the majors from 1888 to 1902, primarily with the Cincinnati Reds. He lost his hearing to meningitis at an early age. The nickname ‘Dummy’ reflects the sensibilities of the era and wasn’t terribly uncommon–www.baseball-reference.com lists at least six others that played in the big leagues. Hoy reportedly didn’t mind it. I am including him not because I like that he was called Dummy but because his nickname illustrates how we have progressed as a society and because he was a helluva player. Hoy was a speedster; he was credited with 596 stolen bases in his career. He also had superb plate discipline–his career walk-to-strikeout ratio is 1006 to 345. He was also, according to Hall of Famer Sam Crawford, “a fine outfielder. A great one.”
“I’d be in right field and he’d be in center, and I’d have to listen real careful
to know whether or not he’d take a fly ball. He couldn’t hear, you know, so
there wasn’t any sense in me yelling for it. He couldn’t talk either of course,
but he’d make a kind of throaty noise, kind of a little squawk, and when a fly ball came out and I heard this little noise I knew he was going to take it. We never had any trouble about who was going to take the ball.”
(Crawford, as quoted in Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory Of Their Times, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1966.)
Crawford also said that Hoy was the reason umpires started using hand signals although this is disputed. See http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/sports_blog/2012/01/did-umpires-develop-hand-signals-because-of-deaf-player-dummy-hoy.html
Hoy threw out the first pitch in Game Three of the 1961 World Series. (It was the first game in Cincinnati–the first two games were in New York.) He was 99 years old and, sadly, passed away a few months later.
Arnold McBride was a fast outfielder from Fulton, MO who broke into the majors with the Cardinals in 1973. His nickname is/was apparently a contraction of “Shake ‘n Bake” which I believe was a reference to his footspeed, in the sense that he would ‘burn the basepaths.’ He won the Rookie of the Year in ’74 and was traded during the ’77 season to the Phillies. He became their regular right fielder and enjoyed his best seasons in Philadelphia, playing a key role in the Phillies’ winning the World Series in 1980 by hitting a three-run homer in Game One and batting .304 overall.
Ernest Judson Wilson, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, was a star of the Negro Leagues, playing for the Baltimore Black Sox, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Philadelphia Stars. He was known for the ferocity of both his temper and line drives and was nicknamed “Boojum” because that was the sound that was made when one of his liners slammed into an outfield wall. Satchel Paige claimed that Wilson was one of the two toughest hitters to face and Josh Gibson considered him not a peer, but someone whose batting skill exceeded his own remarkable talent. Wilson was a good but not great fielder and was not generally regarded as a gentleman on the field–he once became so incensed by a call that “(i)t took three policemen, freely using their blackjacks, to put him inside the patrol wagon and take him to jail.” See http://baseballhall.org/hof/wilson-jud and http://www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html, citing James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994
Harold Reese was a Hall of Fame shortstop for the Dodgers from 1940 to 1958. His nickname had nothing to do with his stature but came from his skill as a marbles player as a youngster. (Marbles was an enormously popular game for American kids in the first half of the 1900’s. A “pee wee” was a type of marble.) Reese was a reliable player, appearing in 140 or more games in 11 straight seasons after he spent three years in the Navy in WWII. His statistics are unspectacular but he was good enough to be the starting shortstop for the Dodgers when they were dominating the National League in the 1950’s. Reese, a Kentuckian, is also known for his public support of Jackie Robinson when the latter joined the Bums and became the subject of much verbal and physical abuse from fans and opposing players alike.
He reportedly was given his nickname by Kansas City A’s owner Charley Finley, who thought all ballplayers needed a nickname. He’s in the Hall of Fame although there are those, and I’m one of them, who think his selection may not have been one of the Hall’s best moments. He was a workhorse who threw at least 234 innings a year for ten straight seasons but was, in truth, usually just an average pitcher. He pitched a perfect game in 1968 against the Twins, then one of the best teams in the league. He won the Cy Young in 1974 and was considered the ace of the Oakland A’s staff when they won three consecutive World Series (1972-74). He finished his career in 1979 after spending five seasons with the Yankees and picking up two more World Series rings.
William Martin Dillhoefer was a popular catcher, known for his hustle, who tragically died of typhoid fever a few weeks after getting married at the age of 27 in 1922. His nickname was apparently bestowed because of his last name: Dillhoefer, dill pickles… He broke into the bigs in 1917 with the Cubs as their third string backstop. After that season, he was one of the players traded to the Phillies for HOF’er Pete Alexander and change. Philly traded him to the Cardinals for the 1919 season and he spent three seasons with St. Louis as their the top back-up receiver. He wasn’t much of a hitter but he got to play alongside HOF’ers Rogers Hornsby and Jesse Haines and for Branch Rickey, who was the Redbirds manager. Info from www.baseball-reference.com and www.justonebadcentury.com/chicago_cubs_nicknames_09_25.asp. You can read his obituary: http://www.thedeadballera.com/Obits/Obits_D/Dillhoefer.Pickles.Obit.html
Pitcher Johnny Lee Odom was reportedly given his nickname by a grade school classmate who thought Odom had a round head that looked like the moon. He came to the big leagues with the Kansas City A’s and was part of the A’s starting rotation from 1968 through 1973. He pitched extremely well in the ’72 post season as Oakland won the World Series. He also saw action in the ’73 and ’74 Series, also won by the A’s. Although he enjoyed quite a bit of success in baseball, he struggled with his control both on and off the diamond. Over his career, he struck out 857 but walked 788. After leaving baseball, he was convicted of selling drugs, held his wife at gunpoint for several hours in a standoff with police and underwent treatment for alcohol dependency.
Probably my favorite nickname. “Among the most illustrious players in Negro league baseball history, James Cool Papa Bell was noted for his incredible speed on the basepaths, excellence as a leadoff hitter and his superb defensive play as a center fielder. He began his career as a pitcher, but his other talents ensured his future as an everyday player. Bell’s career lasted 20 years with teams such as the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.” (from http://baseballhall.org/hof/bell-cool-papa) And from the same site: “Let me tell you about Cool Papa Bell. One time, he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his rear end as he slid into second.–Satchel Paige” The “cool” part of his nicknme came from teammates who noted his calm demeanor. “Papa” was reportedly added by Bill Gatewood, his manager on the St. Louis Stars. http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/277/cool-papa-bell
Wilmer Mizell was a left handed pitcher from Mississippi. His nickname refers to his place of birth. As a 21-year-old rookie in 1951, he started 30 games for the Cardinals. He led the league in K’s per nine innings in ’51 and ’52 but also led the senior circuit in walks in ’51. He spent ’52 and ’53 in the military then came back to be a dependable starter for St. Louis until early in the ’60 season when he was sent to Pittsburgh. He got into two games in the 1960 World Series and got whomped. He ended his career as a member of the ’62 Mets. After baseball, he worked in sales and PR for Pepsi then went into politics, serving as a U.S. Representative for the North Carolina district that included Winston-Salem from 1969 to 1975. He later was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. (Info derived from www.baseball-reference.com and wikipedia.com)
The Earl of Snohomish
This great nickname was actually given to two players, both named Earl, both from Snohomish, WA (2010 pop: 9,098.) Earl Averill (b. May 21, 1902) was a Hall of Fame outfielder who primarily toiled for the Indians from 1929 to 1941. Earl Torgeson (b. January 1, 1924) was a big, lefthanded first baseman who played for five teams from 1947 to 1961, but saw the most action with the Boston Braves early in his career. Averill was tiny but a batsman of the first order, producing 401 doubles, 128 triples and 238 homers in his rather short career (he was 27 years old in his rookie campaign.) Torgeson was not as productive but still was no slouch at the plate–he hit .389 in the ’48 World Series for Boston.
Sudden Sam McDowell
McDowell was a big lefty who was in the Show from ’61 through ’75, hurling primarly for Cleveland. He had lots of speed but not much control, which is a bad combination for pitchers and race car drivers. He led the AL in strikeouts five times (topping 300 twice), walks five times and wild pitches thrice. He also led the Junior Circuit in shutouts in ’66 and ERA in ’65.
Hill Billy Bildilli
Emil Bildilli was a pitcher who toiled for the St. Louis Browns from 1937 through 1941. A lefty who started 17 games in his career, he was credited with four wins and eight losses. He allowed 96 earned runs over the 148 innings he pitched, (an adjusted ERA of 81), struck out 55 and walked 75. As a batter, he hit .178. He died in 1946, a few months after his 33rd birthday.
Biscuit Pants Gehrig
I’ll assume you know who Lou Gehrig was. Pretty good player. I don’t know who might have first called him “Biscuit Pants” but I learned of it from Ray Robinson’s biography of the Iron Horse cleverly titled “Iron Horse.” (HarperCollins, 1990). “Suited up, Gehrig looked bovine, unathletic. His appearance earned him the uncomely nickname of ‘Biscuit Pants.’ ” Very nice.
Downtown Ollie Brown
Brown was an outfielder for the Padres and other teams from ’65 through ’77. He had a very good arm and is currently 73rd on the all-time list for defensive games played in right field.
Walter “No Neck” Williams
Signed in ’63 by the Houston Colt .45s, No Neck was an outfielder who primarily played for the White Sox in a ten year career. He was fifth in the league in OF assists in 1970 and finished sixth in the 1969 AL batting race.