A dearth of handles

Frank Lynch

June 14, 1993|By Frank Lynch

WHATEVER happened to nicknames in baseball?

They used to be as much a part of the game as home runs, strikeouts and stolen bases. That charming part of the game seems to have been lost on the current generation.

Everyone has a theory as to why attendance has dropped and only a handful of major league teams are showing a profit.

I'd like to add mine. It's the missing nicknames.

Where, I ask, are Peanuts, Smoky, Lippy, Major, the Brat, the Hat, the Cat, the Kitten, the Crow, the Barber, the Whip, Boog, Yogi, Cot, Junior, Scooter, Cookie, Pee Wee, Salty, Lefty, Piggy, Sheriff, Bobo, Cura, Milkman, Old Reliable, Rude, Big Cat, Snuffy, Swish, Sibby, Skoonj, Moose, Scrap Iron, Preacher, Prince, Gabby, Rajah, Diamond Jim, Pistol Pete, Bullet Bob, Jungle Jim, Ducky, Whitey, Big Poison, Little Poison, and of course, Sey Hey, Duke, the Mick, the Kid or Slendid Splinter, the Yankee Clipper or Joltin' Joe, the Man and the Babe?

If you can identify the aforementioned and can put surnames with the nicknames, you are indeed a fan from a happier time. And remember, most of the above played when there were only 16 teams and 400 players in the majors and no teams west of the Mississippi.

Most of the men whose names I listed played during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

But the names have one thing in common: They are all identifiable to most avid baseball fans.

They played when fans made players part of their own families. Fan clubs existed in all parts of the country, even where some fans never got to see their heroes perform live.

Fans followed these players daily through newspaper accounts and radio. Broadcasters were identified with the teams they covered. You may have heard of Red Barber, Mel Allen, Russ Hodges, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Jack Buck, Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson. . . But that's another story.

My love affair with nicknames began with the old syndicated Ozark Ike comic strip.

Ozark was a three-sport athlete. He could throw a touchdown pass the length of a football field and sink his famous "peg shot" from anywhere on the basketball court. But his best sport, by far, was baseball.

His team rarely lost. How could it, with the likes of the power-hitting Ozark, hard-throwing pitcher Spike Cleats and the defensively brilliant Bubba Bean, the lanky first baseman?

From fantasy to reality, my attention swung to the Orioles and the rest of the teams in the International League.

There were the likes of Clarence "Soup" Campbell, Boris "Butch" Woyt, Al "Yogi" Cihocki, Howitzer Howie Moss, Fireman John Podgajny, Al "Moose" Lakeman, George "Bingo" Binks, Jack "Lucky" Lohrke, Glenn "Red" McQuillen, Marv "Wiggles" Rickert, Herbert "Babe" Barna, Ralph "Putsey" Caballero, Stan "Stash" Lopata, Kenny "The Kid" Braun, Don "Jeep" Hefner and Bob "Sarge" Kuzava. Other clubs in the league had the likes of Sam "Jet" Jethroe, George "Specs" Toporcer, George "Shotgun" Shuba, Hank "Bow-Wow" Arft, and Glenn "Rocky" Nelson.

But for my money, the best name wasn't a nickname, though it should have been. It was a classic, and none I've heard since has changed my mind. My all-time favorite baseball name belonged to a tall, rangy outfielder who played for the Syracuse Chiefs, Carden Gillenwater.

Only a few of the modern performers carry labels of national recognition: Oil Can, Bo, Mookie, Storm, T-Bone, Goose and Chili.

Then there are the nicknames created by Chris Berman, a commentator on ESPN, the cable sports network. Although none has really caught on, Berman is having fun doing his thing.

A sample: Joaquin "Your Dog" Andujar, Todd "Third-Degree" Burns, Steve "Alto" Sax, Jim "Puff" Rice, Mike "Short Order" Cook, Dennis "Table" Lamp, Rich "Not" Yett, Bruce "Cotton" Fields, Rob "Rain" Deer, Joe "Colonel" Klink, Bruce "Eggs" Benedict, Steve "Rainbow" Trout, Robbie "Dry" Wine and Shawn "L'il" Abner. You get the idea.

Try to compile a similar list from the rosters of today's 28 teams and some 700 players. It only counts if a player can be identified by nickname only. If you reach 50, I'll autograph a copy of this column.

Good luck!

Frank "Mob" Lynch is a staff writer of The Baltimore Sun.

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