BASEBALL'S FAMOUS NICKNAMES
Professor of Leisure History and Comparative Phrenology, Mountebank University
One of the continuing glories of baseball is the plethora of colorful nicknames affixed to its stars of the past. A great deal of research has gone into unearthing the origins of these nicknames. I'm more than familiar with the agonies of research from my efforts in compiling A History of Balls of the Base Variety Recently, I've become interested in the derivations of many famous nicknames.
For example, how Ty Cobb's difficulty in handling George Winter's curveball in 1907 caused an exhultant Red Sox fan to cry out in his Italian accent, "He no hit-a George-a peetch!" and thus give Cobb a nickname for the ages.
Equally famous is George Ruth's receiving a lifetime nickname for his performance as the second lead in the St. Mary's School for Boys' stage production of Paul Bunyan and His Blue Ox.
Indeed, many famous nicknames were attached during school days and lasted through careers. Everyone is familiar with how Harold Traynor's excellence in geometry earned him the admiration of his classmates and the appelation "Pi-R-Squared" Traynor (later shortened by newspaper men to fit into headlines). Or how first grader Harold Reese's insistence on printing some of his alphabet in miniscule size gave him his lasting nickname.
An astonishing number of nicknames stem from the inability of children to properly pronounce the names of their older siblings. A well-known example is Lemuel Speaker who had difficulty with the the name of his big brother Chris.
Vernon Gomez is unusual in that he received his nickname when reading aloud from his third grade textbook and stumbled over the famous French hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette.
Often the receiving of a nickname was an unpleasant experience for the receiver. Biographer C. Foote Knoat has written feelingly about the temporary arm trouble that afflicted Tommy Henrich as a high school sophomore and his embarrassment when his weak outfield throws caused other team members to christen him "Old Re-layable."
Children can be so cruel. One need only remember the brutal hazing suffered by a youngster named Cuyler when he inadvertently stuttered over his own last name. In later years, the young man paid bitter tribute to that early trauma by signing autographs, "Hazing Ki-Ki-Cuyler." Worse yet was the ridicule heaped on young Jesse Burkett after the other children learned of his unfortunate infestation with vermin.
Usually the nickname hung on long after its reason for being had passed. Upon reaching adulthood Gordon Cochrane never suffered the fainting spells that so often caused him to drop "as though given a mickey finn" as a youngster. And the full-grown Denton Young exhibited none of the melancholia that haunted the teenage "Sigh" Young.
However, it's likely that Joseph Floyd Vaughan's admiration for the stories of Rudyard Kipling -- hence his nickname "R.K." -- continued throughout his lifetime.
The majority of nicknames, of course, referred to some personal attribute of the player. Fair game was a player's politics ("Red" Ruffing), religion ("Rabbi" Maranville), off-season employment (cabdriver Lewis "Hack" Wilson), or physical appearance ("Wall-eye" Moses).
One nickname that had always puzzled me was "Yankee Clipper." I had somewhat assumed that the second part referred to some talent that Joe DiMaggio showed as a barber, either in the tonsorial manner or in the baseballese denotation of one who razzes, jeers at, and ridicules an opponent. But the first part was a complete mystery in that DiMaggio hailed from San Francisco rather than the Northeast.
At last, in desperation, I decided to contact the great centerfielder himself.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find his address. But I was able to locate a Mr. Walter Board, the catcher on DiMaggio's high school team. Mr. Board was kind enough to write the following explanation:
"I'll never forget that day. Our high school team was playing the S.O.B.'s at the Santa Oro Bambini High School field. Joe hit a home run that just carried over the very short leftfield fence and the Santa Oro Bambini team began ragging him about his `Chinese' homer. Well, Joe was always quick-witted. As each of our succeeding players came to bat, he'd call out as though introducing them on a public address. But he gave everyone nicknames that had something to do with China. I remember Charles Garden was `Chunking Charley,' Peter Blard was `Peking Pete.' I was kind of chubby, so Joe called me `Great Walter China.' We were having a wonderful game. Everytime Joe called a nickname, it seemed like we got a hit. I blasted a double, the only extra base hit I ever made in my life.
"Well, the Santa Oro Bambini players were fit to be tied. We batted around. `Shanghai' Shultz was on first when Joe came up again. Only since he'd been the one doing the nicknaming, he didn't get one at first. And, funny, the S.O.B. pitcher whipped over two quick strikes. Then the pitcher made a mistake. Joe was standing outside the batter's box putting some dust on his hands when the fellow sneered, `Oh, and who are you, Mr. Chinese Nickname-Giver?'
"’I'll tell you who I am,' Joe said, stepping back into the box, ‘I'm the Yangtze Yclepter!' And he hit another homer.
"I guess the name sort of stuck."