This article was written by James K. Skipper Jr.
This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal
The word nickname is derived from the Old English eke name based on the verb ecan meaning to add or augment. Thus, nicknames augment given names and provide a richer and more explicit denotation. They tell us something more about a person than just the fact that he is officially James Smith. Nicknames often serve as thumbnail character sketches or illustrations of aspects of a person’s personality, physical appearance, or mannerisms. For instance, Dizzy Dean is once reported to have remarked:
Most of all ballplayers got nicknames, and Birdie Tebbett’s is Birdie because he’s always ahollerin’ like a little ole Kinairy bird.
Nicknames may also serve as a capsule history of an individual by selecting and amplifying some incident in his life which is particularly striking. For example, Stan Musial received the nickname “The Man” due to an incident occurring in Brooklyn at Old Ebbets Field. In a series in 1946, he got so many hits against the Dodgers, that when he came to bat one time fans exclaimed, “Here comes the Man.” “The Man” stuck as a nickname.
Language scholars inform us that most American boys receive descriptive and often derogatory nicknames from their peer group during their school years such as, foxy, fatty, tiny, luny, smarty, and so forth. However, most males shed these nicknames by adulthood. For most males, by adulthood, and regardless of occupation, the only nicknames that remain are those common ones derived from their given names such as Jim for James, Jack for John, Woody for Woodrow, etc. However, this does not seem to be the case for professional athletes and especially baseball players. Sports, but particularly baseball, is richer in colorful nicknames than perhaps any other American occupation. “Georgia Peach,” “Big Train,” “Splendid Splinter,” “Three Finger,” “Say Hey,” are all familiar to baseball fans. Yet recently, a number of longtime fans have remarked that there does not seem to be the number of nicknames of this sort as there used to be in the “good old days.”
The purpose of this report is to investigate the fascinating realm of baseball nicknames to document their frequency over time, discover the most popular ones, and develop a scheme for classifying them. To accomplish this I used the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia published in 1969 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of professional baseball. It provides data for every man who played in the major leagues for the first 10 decades of baseball from 1871-1968. I used the first edition since even the latest edition still does not provide complete data on the l970’s decade. My interest was not in ordinary nicknames. Therefore, for the purposes of this report nickname is defined as any name used to identify a player in the Baseball Encyclopedia which is not a derivative of any of the legal names listed for the player or the common nickname for his first name. For example, Silas Kenneth Johnson was called Si. Since Si is a derivative of the first name it did not qualify as a nickname for this study. In a similar fashion, although Henry John Aquirre was called Hank, Hank did not qualify as a nickname since Hank is the common nickname for Henry. However, there were cases where players were called Si or Hank independent of any of their given names. For example, Homer Blankenship was called Si. In this case Si is counted as a nickname.
The 1969 edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia lists the names of 10,112 individuals who played major league baseball from 1871 through 1968. By my count 2,851 players (28.2%) had nicknames which were not derivable from their given names. Table I presents the data by decades. Column one lists the first 10 decades of recorded major league baseball. Column two lists the number of players with nicknames who began their career in a particular decade. Column three lists the total number of teams participating in a decade. For example, a 10-team league would have 100 teams competing in a decade. Column four represents a frequency of nickname index. It is derived by dividing the number of nicknames by the number of teams, with a correction factor included for the two decades that were short by one year.
Table I. Frequency of Baseball Nicknames By Decade – 1870-1969
* correction factor used
As can be seen in Table I, 75 players who had nicknames began their careers in the decade 1870-1879. Given the number of teams competing during the decade, the frequency index score is 1.06. For the next four decades both the number of players and the frequency index score continue to increase, reaching a peak of 502 players and a frequency score of 3.14 in the decade 1910-1919. During the next three decades 1920-1929, 1930-1939, 1940-1949 there is a gradual decline in the number of players given nicknames and the frequency index scores. From 1950-1959 there is, however, a major decline of over 100% in the number of players with nicknames as compared to the 1940-1949 decade. The frequency index score drops to 1.03. This is lower than any preceding decade since 1870-1879. Between 1960 and 1969 the number of players with nicknames, 142, and the frequency index score, .82, dip even lower, but not at the accelerated rate for the previous decade. Nevertheless, the frequency index score of .82 is over three times lower than the peak period of 1910-1919. Thus, there is ample evidence to indicate that longtime observers are correct that there were many more nicknames in the “good old days” than there were in the l960s. I strongly suspect that when all the data are available for the 1970s it will be found that the five-decade decline in the use of nicknames continues downward at about the same rate that it did from 1960-1969. Truly, the hey day of baseball nicknames is in the past.
Table II. Most Popular Baseball Nicknames – 1871-1968
6. Big (Jim, Bill, etc.)
Table II presents all nicknames which were listed for more than ten ballplayers. “Lefty” and “Red” are by far the most popular, and if combined with the next four, “Doc,” “Bud-Buddy,” “Dutch,” and “Big,” the six constitute 16.8% of all nicknames. The 32 names on the list represent 32.3% of the total, almost one-third of the baseball players with nicknames.
Table III. Categories of Baseball Nicknames – 1871-1968
1. Directly Related to Baseball
2. Association with Familiar Name, Object, Event
3. Feminine Orientation
4. Indicative of Family Relationship
5. Description of Physical Characteristics
6. Description of Personality, Habits, Mannerisms
7. Identification with Ethnic Group
8. Identification with Geographical Location
10. Occupations Including Military and Royalty
11. Food Stuffs
12. Fauna-Animals, Fish, Birds and Insects
13. Other Peoples’ Names
14. Tradition-Familiar Nicknames
15. Esoteric and Individual
Table III divides the nicknames into 1 5 categories. There are probably an infinite number of ways to categorize nicknames. The one I have chosen may not be the best. However, it seems meaningful and useful to me. I started out with the idea that most ballplayers would have nicknames related to baseball. I found this not to be fact. I could trace only 108 nicknames directly related to the game or the player’s ability or inability to play the game. Representative of nicknames in this category were: Joseph Horan – “Shags,” Edward Yost – “Walking Man,” Albert Orth – “Curveless Wonder,” William Hamilton – “Sliding Billy,” and the one that caught my fancy the most, Robert Ferguson “Death to Flying Things.” Nicknames directly related to the game were more characteristic of pitchers than other positions. In fact, “Wild” as applied to pitchers was the most frequently appearing nickname in this category.
Originally, I had suspected that many nicknames would be derived from a player’s given names, being associated with a famous person or a familiar event or object. Yet, I could place only 26 names in this category. For example: Jack Daniels – “Sour Mash,” Richard Erikson – “Lief,” William McGee – “Fibber,” Joseph Gordon – “Flash.” There were several Rhodes who carried the nickname of “Dusty.”
I would not have suspected that any baseball players would receive feminine nicknames. But the Baseball Encyclopedia listed 50 players who did. Included in this category were such macholess nicknames as: Milton Waton – “Mother,” Grayson Pearce –“Grandmother,” William Calhoun – “Mary,” Frank Oberlin — “Flossie,” and my favorite, Charles Pabor – “The Old Woman In The Red Cap.” All but four of the ball players with feminine nicknames began their careers before 1930.
Related and somewhat overlapping with feminine nicknames is the category of family orientation. In addition to “Mother” and “Grandmother” which I have placed in the feminine category, there were 61 instances of nicknames indicating a family relationship which was not feminine. “Pop,” of which there were 22, was most popular, but there was also a “Father,” “Dad,” and “Pappy” as well as “Uncles,” “Juniors,” and “Sonnys.” Ellis Kinder was one of three ball players who were nicknamed “Old Folks.”
Another frequently used category includes 561 nicknames indicating physical characteristics of players such as hair or lack of it, skin color, height, weight, and various deviations from normal body types. There were l53 “Leftys,” of which most were pitchers, 120 “Reds,” 45 “Bigs” (“Big Bill,” “Big Jim,” etc.) and 27 “Whiteys.” Although throwing arm, hair color and physical size were the most frequently listed nicknames, other parts of the human anatomy were not ignored – Joseph Sargent – “Horse Belly,” Joseph Dobson – “Burrhead,” Walter Williams – “No Neck,” William Ramsey – “Square Jaw,” Charles Hickman – “Piano Legs,” Ernesto Lombardi – “Schnozz,” and Henry Cullop – “Tomato Face.”
Closely related to physical characteristics is the category of nicknames associated with personality characteristics, habits and mannerisms. There were 298 ball players whose nicknames fell in this category. I subdivided these into positive characteristics of which there were 121, negative 100, and neutral 77. Representative of this category were: (positive) John Townsend – “Happy,” Edward Turchen – “Smiley,” Charles Grimm – “Jolly,” (negative) John Deegan – “Dummy,” Ed Stanky – “Brat,” Harry Davis – “Stinky,” (neutral) Thomas Forest – “Frosty,” Jacob Wade – “Whistling,” John Schmitz – “Bear Tracks.”
There were 137 nicknames which had definite associations with particular ethnic groups. There were 47 “Dutchs,” 21 “Heinies,” and 19 “Fritzs” as well as several other nicknames suggestive of Germanic background. While there were 9 “Swedes,” there were only 5 “Scottys,” 4 “Frenchys” and none with a distinctive English background. All together 20 different ethnic groups were represented. Among the more distinctive nicknames were: Harry Agganis – “Golden Greek,” Louis Novikoff – “Mad Russian,” Michael Epstein – “Super Jew.”
A general or specific geographical location accounted for 97 nicknames. By far the most popular were “Tex,” of which there were 24 and “Dixie” 13. Some ballplayers were nicknamed for a country such as Edward Wright – “Ceylon,” others for a state (“Tex”) or a city, William Terry – “Memphis Bill.” Still others were nicknamed for less populated areas – Wilmer Mizell – “Vinegar Bend,” James Scott – “Death Valley.”
Ninety-eight different objects were the subject of 146 nicknames. Few were listed more than once. The range of objects was quite diverse. For example: Elwood Wirtz – “Kettle,” Joseph Adams – “Wagon Tongue,” Harry Schafer – “Silk Stocking,” John Taylor – “Brewery.”
Occupations, broadly defined to include royalty and the military, provided a category of 187 nicknames. The most frequently listed occupation was physician. There were 61 “Docs.” Royalty consisted of 2 “Sirs,” a “Baron,” “Lord,” “Squire,” “Earl,” “Knight,” 3 “Princes,” 4 “Dukes,” 6 “Counts,” 11 “Kings,” and a “Rajah.” The military was top heavy on rank with 2 “Generals,” 2 “Admirals,” 2 “Colonels,” a “Major,” and 5 “Sargents,” but just one “Soldier,” “Soldier Boy,” “Sailor” and “Gob.” Twenty other occupations were represented. For instance: Dominic DiMaggio “Little Professor,” Marshall Bridges – “Sheriff,” Bib Falk – “Jockey,” Thomas Fleming – “Sleuth.”
There were enough ballplayers, 74, nicknamed for 44 different foods to serve several full-course dinners. For example: “Juice” – George Latham, “Pea Soup” – George Dumont, “T-Bone” – Jessie Winters, “Honey” – John Romano, “Sweet-Breads” Abraham Bailey, “Hot Potato” Luke Hamlin, “Tomatoes” – Frank Kafora, “Squash” – Francis Wilson, “Beans” – Joshua Keener, “Buttermilk” – Thomas Dowd, and “Peach Pie” – John O’Connor.
For me, one of the most fascinating and colorful categories I have termed fauna. It consists of the 182 ball players who were nicknamed for 76 varieties of animals, birds, fish and insects and a fictional animal. The diversification is great enough to stock a small zoo. The animals in greatest supply were “Moose” – 16, “Rabbits” – 14, “Bulls” – 10. But there were also many other animals less easy to come by: “Reindeer” – William Killifer, “Kangaroo” – David Jones, “Mongoose” – Edward Lukon, and even the invisible “Snipe” – Roy Hansen. There were 8 Hawks, but also such birds as: “Bald Eagle” – William Isbell, “Crane” – Frank Reberger, and a “Blue Goose” – Eugene Moore, to name just a few. In the water there were “Catfish” – Charles Metkovich, “Bull Frog” William Dietrich, “Oyster” – Thomas Burns, “Sea Lion” – Charles Hall, and even a “Whale” Fred Walters. The most frequently listed insect was “Skeeter” of which there were seven, but there was also a “Flea” Freddie Patek, a “Cricket” William Rigney, a “Grasshopper” – Willard Mains, and just plain “Bugs” Arthur Raymond.
A category which I find personally surprising is other peoples’ names. By this I mean 333 ball players had nicknames which were the first name, common nickname, or a last name of other persons. For example, “Mickey” is the common nickname for Michael or it can be a first name itself as it is with Mickey Mantle. As pointed out before in these cases, “Mickey” does not qualify as a nickname in this study. However, there were 27 ball players whose first name was not Michael who had the nickname of “Mickey.” In a similar fashion there were 21 “Petes” whose first, middle, or last name was not Peter, Peterson or anything like it. In most instances the nickname was another person’s first name or common nickname such as Ernest Cox – “Elmer” or George Vico – “Sam.” Yet, there were 17 ball players whose nicknames corresponded to someone else’s last name as was true of Horace Womack – “Dooley” and Arthur Phelan – “Dugan.” I find this particularly puzzling. Given the wide range and variety of nicknames given other ball players, why should more than 300 be nicknamed in this fashion? I have no explanation, but suggest it would make a potentially interesting line of inquiry for future research.
There were 245 nicknames which I placed in the traditional category. It is composed of nicknames with which we are all familiar, but do not fit into any of the other categories. The most frequently listed were “Bud” or “Buddy” of which there were 52, “Chick,” 26, “Kid,” 25, “Babe,” 22, “Chief,” 21, “Rip,” 14. The final category is a residual which I have termed esoteric and individual. The nicknames are esoteric in the sense that many of them would seem to have no common meaning whatsoever and are highly individualistic in the sense that they apply to only one or at best two ballplayers. Examples are: James Weaver – “Fluss,” Everett Virgil – “Pid,” Roger Marquis – “Noonie,” Earl Brown – “Snitz,” and Francis Nekola – “Bots.” No doubt the origin of these names like most nicknames are buried in the life histories of the ballplayers waiting to be discovered. Uncovering them should make interesting research. I ran across the following account by H. Allen Smith which I offer in illustration:
Lawrence Peter Berra refers to himself as Larry, his brothers call him Lawrence, his parents address him as Lawdie, but the world knows him as Yogi. When he was sixteen . . . he went to a movie with a friend. In the picture an Indian fakir or yogi, came on the screen and the friend exclaimed: “Hey, he looks exactly like you. You’re a Yogi! It clung.
Baseball thrives on tradition. Nicknames are part of that tradition. However, the era of the colorful nickname may be over. The frequency of their use appears to be much less in the 1950s and 1960s than it was 20 or 30 years before. What this may mean to the game remains to be investigated. It may be that it is representative of the fact that the general society is becoming more and more impersonal. Nevertheless, nicknames offer a rich body of data for the study of baseball folklore. The categories I have used are arbitrary and only one way of analyzing nicknames. I hope this report will stimulate others to examine nicknames and especially their derivations.