By Glen Sparks
If you know about ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman, you know about the Bermanisms. They’re catchy nicknames of major league players. Usually, they rely on puns or other wordplays. Examples include: Bert “Be Home” Blyleven, Ross “I Never Promised You a” Baumgarten and Jim “Two Silhouettes on” DeShaies. You get the idea.
Nicknames of older players worked a bit differently. They were often inspired by a player’s ethnic origin (Hubert “Dutch” Leonard), hair color (Edward “Whitey” Ford or Albert “Red” Schoendienst), native state (Ty Cobb, “The George Peach”) or specific baseball talent (Phil Niekro threw a knuckleball, so he was “Knucksie.” Hey, people didn’t spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff.)
Of course, many players had more than one nickname. Ted Williams was “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Kid” and “The Splendid Splinter,” and George Herman Ruth wasn’t just “The Babe,” and he wasn’t just “The Bambino.” He was “The Big Bam!” He was “The Sultan of Swat!” He was “The Colossus of Clout!”
What follows is a list of 10 players from yesterday and their nicknames, plus the alleged stories behind those names.
Samuel “Sad Sam” Jones (1951-64) … He rarely looked happy. Some people called him “Toothpick” Sam Jones, because he always had a splinter stuck in his mouth. Samuel Pond Jones (1914-35) was also “Sad Sam” Jones. Both the “Sad” players were pitchers. The more famous “Sad Sam” was the “Toothpick” guy. He compiled a 102-101 won-loss record and a 3.59 ERA (108 ERA+). “Sad Sam” of 1914-35 went 229-217 with a 3.84 ERA (104 ERA+).
Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (1940-58) … “Pee Wee” wasn’t a big guy; supposedly, he only weighed 120 pounds as a high school senior in Louisville, Ky. Most sources list him at 5-feet-9 or 5-10 during his days as a shortstop with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But, most sources list Willie Mays at just 5-10 or 5-11 as a big leaguer, albeit with a much more muscular frame than “Pee Wee.” Rather, Reese got his nickname because he was a marbles champion as a kid. A “pee wee” is a small marble.
William “Dummy” Hoy (1888-1902) … Back in the day, if you were a deaf ballplayer, they called you “Dummy.” It wasn’t nice, but that’s the story. Hoy was pretty good. He hit .288 in his career, drove in 725 runs and stole 596 bases. He was class valedictorian at the Ohio School for the Deaf. … Luther Taylor (1900-1908) was also called “Dummy.” He won 116 games as a big leaguer with a 2.75 ERA.
Harold Joseph “Pie” Traynor (1920-37) … Traynor was one of the greatest third baseman in baseball history. He could hit (.320 batting average life-time, 2,416 hits). He was a slick defender, too. Traynor, from Massachusetts, made plays look “as easy as pie.”
Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1926-65-no, that is not a typo) … This one has a couple of versions. One is that while working as a kid at a train station in Mobile, Ala., he put together a pole and a rope so that he could carry several bags at one time. A co-worker said Paige, all loaded up, looked like a walking satchel tree. The other story is that a cop caught Paige trying to steal a bag, hence the nickname. Anyway, Paige’s career began in 1926 with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in the Negro Leagues and ended nearly four decades later with the Kansas City Athletics, the legend firmly in place. “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
Rogers Hornsby, “The “Rajah” (1915-37) … Hornsby was opinionated and Texas tough; a lot of people didn’t like him. But, the guy could hit. He batted .358 lifetime (second all-time to Ty Cobb) and topped .400 three times. Admirers called Hornsby “The Rajah”, a term meant for royalty, most often used in India. Maybe baseball’s greatest second baseman, he refused to watch movies because he thought it might hurt his batter’s eye.
Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown (1903-16) … Brown lost parts of two fingers in a childhood farming accident. The unusual grip he needed in order to pitch probably helped the break on his curveball. The right-hander won 239 games and compiled a 2.06 ERA (139 ERA+), mostly with the Chicago Cubs. Brown was selected for the Hall of Fame in 1949, a year after his death. Yep, he was born in 1876.
Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1946-65) … Berra grew up in an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis, The Hill. One of his childhood buddies was Joe Garagiola. Supposedly, all the boys went to a movie one day that featured an Indian character who waddled when he got up to walk. One of the boys (Joe?) thought the character, a Yogi or Hindu holy man, looked like Berra. He was “Yogi” from then on. Berra hit 358 home runs in his career and play on 10 World Series winners with the New York Yankees. He said some funny stuff. “You can observe a lot by watching. … If you come to fork in the road, take it. … You can observe a lot by watching.” What he really said is still up for debate.
Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (1908-20) … Jackson came out of the hills of South Carolina. He wasn’t what some people call “book smart.” He swung a baseball bat just fine, though. Ty Cobb called Jackson “the finest natural hitter in the history of the game.” While playing a game in Greenville, S.C., Jackson took off his baseball shoes before coming up to bat. He was suffering from blisters. A fan shouted “You shoeless, son of gun, you!” And, he became “Shoeless Joe.” Jackson hit .356 in his 12-year career. His alleged participation in the 1919 Black Sox scandal is the only reason he is not in the Hall of Fame. (Jackson hit .375 in the Series, better than anyone, after batting .351 in the regular season.)
George “High Pockets” Kelly (1915-32) … Kelly stood 6-foot-4. He was one of the tallest players in baseball. Willie McCovey, a first baseman from a later era, also stood 6-4. They called McCovey “Stretch.” But, Kelly was “High Pockets” or “Long George.” Kelly batted .297 in his career, for a variety of teams. He hit 148 home runs and drove in 1,020. The San Francisco native was good, but was he a legit Hall of Famer? The Veterans Committee put him into Cooperstown in 1973. This article argues that Kelly is the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Hey, someone has to be.