The baseball season gets underway in less than two weeks, and with it the resumption of its timeless debates: Are the players of today better than those of yesteryear? Was Barry Bonds’ record-setting year last season more or less spectacular than Babe Ruth’s 1927 campaign? Is there any way to adequately compare the players of our day with those from long ago?
So many variables make comparisons over different eras a difficulty, from the type of ball used to the size of ballparks to the number of teams in the majors to the recent role of relief pitchers. So who knows? Maybe it is impossible and we can never know for sure.
But there is one fact we can assert with some certainty — today’s nicknames don’t hold a candle to those from the past.
Many of baseball’s greats were gifted with grand nicknames by silver-tongued broadcasters, clever sportswriters, or enterprising press agents. Babe Ruth was the Sultan of Swat. His teammate Lou Gehrig will forever be the Iron Horse. Walter Johnson was the Big Train while Cy Young was the Foxy Grandpa. Ty Cobb is known far and wide today as the Georgia Peach. The Waner brothers were Big Poison (Paul) and Little Poison (Lloyd). Honus Wagner was the Flying Dutchman, Tris Speaker the Grey Eagle, Frankie Frisch the Fordham Flash, and Mickey Mantle the Commerce Comet. And let’s not forget Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, the Splendid Splinter and the Yankee Clipper respectively.
But great nicknames aren’t reserved only for great players. Baseball history is replete with wonderful monikers for very good players (Sal “The Barber” Maglie, or Whitey Ford — the Chairman of the Board) as well as some who would command nary a memory were it not for their handle (Moses Solomon — The Rabbi of Swat).
There was Peak-a-Boo Veach and Creepy Crespi. And Lon Warneke, the Arkansas Hummingbird. And in an earlier day when “gay” had different connotations, Al Lopez was Gay Señor while Joe Page was the Gay Reliever.
Don’t overlook Earl Torgeson — the Earl of Snohomish — or Suitcase Harry Simpson. Remember always The Antelope (Emil Verban), as well as Plowboy Tom Morgan, Russ “The Mad Monk” Meyer, and Harry “Peanuts” Lowry. Who knows what to make of Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson. Phil Linz was Supersub. Mike Epstein was Superjew. Hugh Mulcahy was hung with the unfortunate handle Losing Pitcher for losing 76 games in four years.
Not surprisingly a nickname could be conferred on the basis of a player’s appearance. Baseball has seen a slew of Whiteys, for instance. Or think of Johnny Mize, a.k.a. the Big Cat. But it might not be as benign as that. Just ask Jack Lamabe, known as Tomato Face, or Albert Orth, labeled the Curveless Wonder.
Then there is the curious case of Jeff Leonard, a player of recent vintage who had the nickname Penitentiary Face because of his hardened visage. Late in his career Leonard requested that he be introduced during games as Jeffrey, at which point merciless sportswriters mockingly referred to him as Jeffrey “Correctional Facility Face” Leonard.
So what about today’s players? Sure, some have nicknames, but there aren’t many good ones. After Frank Thomas (the Big Hurt) and Randy Johnson (the Big Unit) there is a Big Drop Off. Orlando Hernandez’s nickname (El Duque) is all right, as are David Wells’s Boomer and Rich Garces’ El Guapo. And Roger Clemens makes sense as Rocket.
But most show a startling lack of originality, and many are downright lame. Recently retired Cal Ripken was known as Iron Man, a derivative of Lou Gehrig’s nickname. Andrew Gallaraga is the Big Cat, but Mize had that first. Ivan Rodriguez may be Pudge, but so was another recent catcher who was a lot better player (Carlton Fisk). There was an attempt to hang the Hit Dog on Mo Vaughn, but that never caught on. That idea borrowed from Fred McGriff (the Crime Dog), anyway.
Some are too obvious. Mike Mussina is Moose. Ken Griffey, Jr., is called — surprise! — Junior. Alex Rodriguez is A-Rod. Mark McGwire was Big Mac. Edgardo Alfonzo is Fonzie. Bo-ring!
Where, oh where, have the great nicknames gone? It wasn’t too long ago we saw the likes of Jim “Cakes” Palmer, Oil Can Boyd, and Lenny “Nails” Dykstra. Yet in a short time these colorful names have dried up.
Hope appeared on the way last year when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted phenom Greg “Toe” Nash out of the Louisiana swamps. It was thought he could be the, ahem, nominal heir to George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk. But Toe Nash might have stubbed his chances of making the majors when he was arrested this past January for aggravated assault and rape. Ouch. That smarts.