Why Don’t Athletes Have Good Nicknames Anymore?


Ken “The Rat” Linseman

Why don’t ballplayers have good nicknames anymore? Sure, in baseball there is Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez, in football Calvin (Megatron) Johnson, and in basketball LeBron (King) James, but that’s only three examples and the first two recently retired. On Facebook a while back, I named some of my favorites sports nicknames, and asked friends for theirs. With spring training in full swing and a daily bowl of wrong coming out of D.C., it seems a good time to present the top responses I got, along with my own picks, grouped by category. At the end, I name the best sports nickname of all time — scientifically chosen, of course. No links provided but you can Google any or all of them for the story behind the handle.

Modes of transportation. Jerome (the Bus) Bettis. Robert (Tractor) Traylor. Walter (Big Train) Johnson. Dick (Night Train) Lane.  Lou (the Iron Horse) Gehrig. Maurice (the Rocket) Richard. Joe (the Yankee Clipper) DiMaggio.

Large household appliance. William (the Refrigerator) Perry.

Just large. Ed (Too Tall) Jones.

Unintentional irony. The most home runs Frank (Home Run) Baker hit in a season was 12, in 1913. He had 96 for his career. In those days that was considered a lot.

Unintentional accuracy. At 6 feet 1, Nate Archibald was small for an NBA player. But he was nicknamed “Tiny” after his father, who was ironically called “Big Tiny” because he was so big.

Best backstory. Anthony Webb was nicknamed “Spud” because, as a baby, his head resembled the Sputnik satellite.

Most complicated backstory. The relief pitcher Ron Davis was known as “the Vulture” because he had a tendency to enter games when his team had a lead, give up the lead, and stay in the game until his team regained the lead — so that he, Davis, would get credit for the win.

Hyperbole. Larry (Larry Legend) Bird. Earvin (Magic) Johnson. Earl (Black Jesus) Monroe.

Politically incorrect. Hank (the Hebrew Hammer) Greenberg. Mike (Superjew) Epstein. Mordechai (Three-Finger) Brown. Walt (No Neck) Williams. William (Dummy) Hoy. (He was deaf.) Lee (Mex) Trevino. Tony (Poosh ‘Em Up) Lazzeri. (The nickname was a rendition of the way a fan of Italian descent supposedly urged Lazzeri to hit a home run. In the New York Yankees clubhouse,  Lazzeri was known as “Big Dago” and his teammates Frank Crosetti and Joe DiMaggio as “Little Dago” and “Dago,” respectively.) Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins. Charles (the Round Mound of Rebound) Barkley. Carlton (Pudge) Fisk. John (Chief) Meyers and Charles (Chief) Bender.

Meta. Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse (a reference to Stan [the Man] Musial). Marvin (News) Barnes. (A previous player, Jim Barnes, was nicknamed “Bad News Barnes.” As a Providence College All-American, Marvin Barnes pleaded guilty to assaulting a teammate with a tire iron. Perhaps people called him “News” because the “Bad” was understood.) Dwight Gooden was dubbed “Dr. K” (later shortened to “Doc”) in honor of Julius (Doctor J) Erving. (“K” is how a strikeout is indicated in baseball scoring.) George Herman Ruth had multiple nicknames, including “Babe,” “the Bambino,” and “the Sultan of Swat.” In reference to the last, Mose Solomon, a Jewish player in the 1920s, was dubbed “the Rabbi of Swat” (also politically incorrect, of course).

Nicknames that throw shade. Hugh (Losing Pitcher) Mulcahy. Ernie (No D) DiGregorio. (DiGregorio, a basketball player initially nicknamed “Ernie D.,” was a great scorer but not so good at defense, commonly referred to as “D.”) Dirk (Irk) Nowitzki — another player who allegedly has no D. Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams. Bill (Dollar Bill) Bradley. (Teammate Howard [Butch] Komives gave Bradley that nickname as a rookie, implying that his huge — for the time — contract was undeserved.)

Best use of a nickname. In the later 1980s, Boston Red Sox Pitcher Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, sometimes referred to as “the Can,” apparently was paid a visit by the police because he had some overdue videos, including Nudes in Limbo and Sex-Cetera. The statistics expert Chuck Waseleski dubbed the affair “the Can’s Film Festival.” No small part of the brilliance of the pun was its incorporation of the way many Americans pronounce “Cannes.”

Which reminds me. Randy (the Big Unit) Johnson.

Forced. Pervis (Never Nervous) Ellison.

Faux. On the Oakland A’s pitching staff in the 1960s were John (Blue Moon) Odom and Vida Blue — whose whole name sounded like a nickname but wasn’t. When the A’s acquired a new pitcher, the owner, Charles Finley, decided his name — Jim Hunter — was boring and henceforth would be called “Catfish” Hunter.

Food. Covelli (Coco) Crisp. Willie (Puddin’ Head) Jones. Harold (Pie) Traynor. Octavio (Cookie) Rojas and Harry (Cookie) Lavagetto.

Animal references. Ken (the Rat) Linseman. Marshawn (Beast Mode) Lynch. Mark (the Bird) Fidrych. Nate (the Snake) Bowman and Kenny (Snake) Stabler. Dennis “The Worm” Rodman.

Metaphor. Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson — so called because he didn’t need any time to heat up. Karl (the Mailman) Malone — because he always delivered.

Existential. Walter (the Truth) Berry. Allan (the Answer) Iverson. World B. Free. (“World” was Lloyd B. Free’s nickname, but he adopted it as his legal first name, hence the lack of quotation marks. Along the same lines, Ron Artest has changed his name to Metta World Peace.)

Local color. Johnny (Pepper) (the Wild Horse of the Osage) Martin. Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell.

Poetic. Michael (Air) Jordan. Ted (Teddy Ballgame) Williams. (Shoeless) Joe Jackson. Walter (Sweetness) Payton. Fred (Downtown Freddie) Brown. Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch. James (Cool Papa) Bell.

And the best sports nickname of all time. In the 1950s, the Temple University Owls had a star forward named Bill Mlkvy. His brilliant handle? “The Owl Without a Vowel.”


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