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The Old Curmudgeons Are Right: Baseball Nicknames Useta Be Way Better

If you’re anything like me, you despise the dearth of imagination in the nickname-industrial complex, which nowadays requires that every nicknameless athlete be referred to by their first initial and the first three letters of their last name. From time to time, a decent nickname will slip through the cracks — Carlos “El Caballo” Lee, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Covelli “Coco” Crisp — but this relative paucity only highlights their general absence. Many of the nicknames that break the paradigm are derivative of previous ones: Francisco Rodriguez’s “K-Rod” is a takeoff on Alex Rodriguez’s A-Rod, just as Jason Heyward’s “J-Hey Kid” recalls Willie Mays’s “Say Hey Kid”, and Derek Jeter’s “Mr. November” recalls Reggie Jackson’s “Mr. October.”

I was reading Robert Creamer’s terrific biography of Casey Stengel (born Charles, nicknamed “Casey” and “The Old Perfessor”), and I was struck by just how weird yet pervasive and evocative the nicknames used to be. The following passage about the 1913 Brooklyn Dodgers really did it for me:

Best of all, Robby [manager Wilbert Robinson] found an impressive young pitcher named Ed Pfeffer to take Rucker’s place as ace of the staff. Pfeffer, a big strong right-hander, was nicknamed Jeff after his brother Frank, who had pitched in the National League some years earlier and had been called Big Jeff after Jim Jeffries, the heavyweight boxing champion. His kid brother inherited the name.

Just marvel at that flight of fancy: because of a prizewinning boxer who’d retired in 1905, two brothers named Edward and Francis wound up being named “Big Jeff” and “Jeff.” Nowadays, they might have been called Eddie and Frankie, or maybe Ed and Frank; anything but Big Jeff and Jeff. Robby Robinson himself had a nickname so well-known that during his entire managerial tenure with the club, the Dodgers were known as the Robins. (Other players on that squad included George “Nap” Rucker, Ross “Tex” Erwin, James “Red” Smith, and, best by far, Fred “Mysterious” Walker.)

Of course, plenty of old-time nicknames were hackneyed, too, as SABR member Rick Solensky discovered hundreds of baseball players named “Lefty,” “Dutch,” “Doc,” “Deacon,” “Bull,” “Moose,” “Rabbit,” “Red,” and “Kid.” But even those could have their moments. Two of Stengel’s early mentors were Charles “Kid” Nichols and one of my personal favorites, Norman Elberfeld, the Tabasco Kid. So maybe, once upon a time, those names got worn out from overuse. But I wouldn’t mind seeing a few of them return. I certainly doubt Johnny “Big Cat” Mize minded when Andres Galarraga dusted off his nickname and wore it well. It’s such a good name it would have been a shame to use it just once.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic. But I think it’s a shame that, with a few notable exceptions — Chipper, Boof, and Joba, bless your hearts — players are nightly announced to bat with the first names their mothers gave them. Look up and down any major league lineup, and you’ll see nary a Preacher nor a Schoolboy, neither a Dizzy nor a Dazzy, nor a Duke nor a Skoonj. Instead, you might find a V-Mart or an F-Mart, a K-Rod or an A-Rod or an I-Rod. Without question, the baseball that’s been played in this Year of the Pitcher has been truly transcendent. It’s just a shame we lack nicknames to match.