Where Have Those Grand Old Nicknames Gone?

This article was written by Stanley Grosshandler

This article was published in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal


Disappearing from the scene along with natural grass, the Polo Grounds, and the Reserve Clause are the colorful nicknames that often identified our favorite players. Other than “Catfish” and “The Bird”, few modern players possess such distinguishing marks.

During the early part of this century rosters were dotted with such colorful names as Crazy Schmidt, Candy LaChance, Boileryard Clarke, ZaZa Harvey, Ducky Holmes, and Sea Lion Hall whose magnificent voice could be heard from one end of the ballpark to the other.

Some nicknames have been obvious-Red Rolfe, Blondy Ryan, Whitey Lockman, Pinky Whitney, Darky Clift, Fats Fothergill, Skinny Brown, Jumbo Brown, Lefty Grove, and Stubby Overmire. Some have meant the reverse as Tiny Bonham, a 6’2″, 215-pound pitcher, Cupid Childs who in no way resembled the love god, and Little Eva Lange who was indeed everything the heroine of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not.

The elderstatesman of the club was Pop (Pop Anson) while the youngster was Kid (Nichols), Schoolboy (Rowe and Hoyt), or Babe.  Ruth was certainly not the first to be tabbed Babe as it was common to call a rookie, especially a very young one, “Babe”. In fact there were some well known Babes prior to Ruth. Babe Adams, a star Pirate pitcher, won three games in the 1909 World Series.

In his excellent book on Babe Ruth, Marshall Smelser pointed out that when George Herman Ruth reported to the Baltimore Oriole spring camp a coach told the veteran players they better not haze him for he was owner Jack Dunn’s Babe. This meant he was Dunn’s favorite young player. After the success of Ruth a player who was a hard hitter became Babe and we had Babe Herman, Young, Phelps, Dahlgren, and Barna.

The player who wore glasses was “Specs”. Specs Torporcer, the first infielder to wear glasses, broke in with the Cards in 1921 and the following season combined with Rogers Hornsby to post the highest combined batting average of a keystone combination ever seen in the National League. Torporcer was a remarkable man who had a long career in the game that took him to the front office of the Red Sox.  His eventual blindness ended his baseball career; but he has continued to write and lecture on the game. Spec Shea got his nickname not from eye glasses but because of his freckles.

If you came from Texas you had to be Tex. There was Tex Carleton and Tex Vache, the only player to hit .300 his first season in the American League and then drop from sight. Other geographical nicknames were Bama Rowell, Jersey Joe Stripp, Arky Vaughan, and Casey Stengel. Casey was from Kansas City whose abbreviation “K.C.” sounded like “Casey”.

If dad came from Ireland you were either Irish or Mickey; however neither Irish Meusel nor Mickey Cochrane were Irish, they just looked like they were. The same was true of Jap Barbeau. Those of German descent were “Hans”-Wagner and Lobert or “Dutch”-Leonard and Ruether. The German word is Deutsch so “Dutch” became a corruption of it. Others were Frenchy Bordagaray, Greek George, Turk Lown and Swede Hansen.

A boy with a rural origin was either Cy or Rube. There are two different versions of Cy Young’s name. One of rural Ohio beginning and the second that he was thought to throw as fast as a cyclone, therefore he was “Cy”. Rube was the circus term for a hick and when lefty Rube Waddell turned out to be such an eccentric, any left-handed pitcher was thought to be a nut and became a “Rube” as witnessed by Rube Marquard, Bressler and Walberg.

The talkative were Gabby, Street and Hartnett; while if you tended to tell people how good you were you were Braggo Roth (who may have had something to boast about for his seven homers in 1915 led the league) or Orator O’Rourke. Lippy Leo Durocher is said to have been named by Babe Ruth when the brash rookie reported to the Yankees.

The number of feminine names given to the oldtimers is baffling. Baby Doll Jacobson earned his when in the minors he opened a game with a homer. An enthusiastic lady fan yelled “Oh you Baby Doll” and he was Baby Doll ever after. His recent obituary in The Sporting News pointed out that many years after he retired when he returned to St. Louis he found no one ever heard of William Jacobson; but many remembered Baby Doll Jacobson.

Fred Leib sheds light on Tilly Walker and Ginger Beaumont. Fred stated that Walker, a slugger with a great throwing arm, walked like a girl and was called Tilly; while Beaumont had ginger colored hair. Candy Cummings, given credit for the invention of the curveball, and president of the first minor league, was called Candy because the confectionary was considered the finest thing available; and his admirers must have felt that he was the finest pitcher. As for Sadie McMahon, a pre-1900 30-game winner, or Kitty Bransfield, well, their names defy explanation.

Our grandfathers seemed to take more delight in the comics than we do and named their favorite ball players after their comic favorites.  There was Boob McNair, after Boob McNutt; Nemo Leibold for Little Nemo; Popeye Mahaffey for the famous sailor, and Flash Gordon after the character from 2000 A.D. John McGraw was called Muggsy after a popular cartoon character; however if the dictatorial little manager was ever called that to his face he would forcefully show his displeasure.

Baseball has had hundreds of “Docs”. There was usually a Doc who was a heavy in a gangster movie; and the same was true of the third rate Western movies where the local physician was always Doc; however why there were so many in baseball is hard to explain. Doc Crandall earned his label by being one of the great early rescue artists. The writers labeled him the “Doctor of Lost Games”; while Doc Cramer, the fine outfielder, loved to ride in the buggy of the family doctor as he made his rounds and aspired to become a Doc himself.

True Docs were Doc White, the fine pitcher; Doc Farrell, a much traveled shortstop; and Doc Prothro, father of NFL coach Tommy Prothro, who were graduate dentists. Physicians were Doc Lavan, Doc Powers, and Doc Brown, and Doc Medich is nearing the completion of his studies.

The animal kingdom has always been well represented with Flea Clifton, Rabbit Maranville and Warstler; Crab Burkett and Evers (for their less than winning personalities); Oyster Tommy Burns who sold them in the off season; Bears Garcia and Hutchinson; Mule Haas (even his wife called him Mule) Birdie Tebbetts for his high pitched voice, Goose Goslin; Ducky Medwick; Moose Solters, Dropo, McCormick, Skrowron, and Alexander, Hawk Harrelson; and Ox Eckhardt, who played both major league baseball and football.

Even Catfish Hunter cannot claim originality for his name as George “Catfish” Metkovich was called that a generation earlier. A good outfielder in the 40′ and 5 0’s, Metkovieh once stepped on a catfish while fishing, hurting his foot and earning a nickname.

There were some automatic names. If your name was Rhodes, you became Dusty; if it was Campbell you became Soup.

Some nicknames had more originality such as The Yankee Clipper, Old Reliable, The Meal Ticket, The Gray Eagle, The Big Six (a powerful and famous train of the period) and The Big Train.

Other unique nicknames were Hot Potato Hamlin for he juggled a ball before he pitched it as if it were a hot potato, Boom Boom Beck who once in frustration threw the ball up against the short right field fence in Baker Bowl causing a loud crash, Poosh Em Up Tony Lazzeri whose large Italian following exorted him to Poosh Em Up over the wall, Bad News Hale who was a good hitter and bad news to the other team. Hack Wilson and Miller were named after the famous wrestler Hackenschmidt; while Firpo Marberry resembled Luis Firpo the great boxer.

The most interesting phenomena of the nickname is seen in the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Baseball where the first name has been replaced by the nickname. Several Hall of Famers-Pie Traynor, Three Finger Brown, Gabby Hartnett, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Kiki Cuyler, Pete Alexander, Red Ruffing, Heinie Manush, and Lefty Gomez are alphabetized by nickname rather than given name. In other words, don’t look for Brown under Mordecai but under Three Finger. You can be sure that very few Yankee fans could tell you who the battery of

Edward and Lawrence was; but every fan in the nation knows the Yankee Hall of Fame duo of Whitey and Yogi.

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