So long, Crazy Legs

August 13, 2002|By David Wharton

LOS ANGELES -- The early days of Chick Hearn at the microphone were also the days of Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain and Jerry West, otherwise known as "Mr. Clutch."

Mr. Hearn's career as the Los Angeles Lakers' announcer progressed through Magic and Silk. It was no surprise when, after watching forward James Worthy produce one clutch performance after another, Mr. Hearn coined the name "Big Game James."

Mr. Hearn, who died Aug. 5, hailed from a more colorful time in our sporting past. It was a time when players had nicknames such as Pee Wee and Crazy Legs, Broadway Joe and the Bronx Bull. Ted Williams was the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame and The Kid.

That era could be long gone.

"Sports nicknames are becoming much fewer and not nearly as interesting," said Edward Callary, former president of the American Name Society. "Instead of the Splendid Splinter, we have Mark McGwire as Big Mac. I mean, how clever is that?"

It might seem trivial, this matter of the vanishing moniker, but people who study language suggest it illuminates a shift in how fans watch games, if not a sea change in the culture at large. They believe it says something about who Americans have become.

"That was an earlier, heroic, more innocent age," said Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguistics professor and San Francisco Giants fan. "We aren't like that anymore."

Nicknames have always been an intimate lingo, terms of endearment circulated among a close-knit group. Family. A squadron of fighter pilots. The Mafia.

In the world of sports, however, they were often coined and publicized by sportscasters such as Mr. Hearn, said Terry Pruyne, who collected 20,000 of them for his book, Sports Nicknames.

The best sobriquets reflected a player's persona. Joe DiMaggio was as majestic as a "Yankee Clipper" and Pete Rose intense enough to be "Charlie Hustle." Jack "The Assassin" Tatum tackled like one on the football field. Hockey goon Dave "Tiger" Williams skated ferociously.

Such insights were not always flattering. After a base-running error in a 1908 game, the otherwise competent Fred Merkle would forever be known as "Bonehead." Chuck Wepner was called the "Bayonne Bleeder," an accurate but unfortunate tag for a boxer.

Even worse, Mr. Pruyne found that many nicknames were unimaginative -- scores of "Leftys" and "Reds" -- while others were bigoted, derived from skin color or religion.

For good or bad, this language was more closely associated with sports when fans felt chummier about their teams, said Mr. Callary, an English professor at Northern Illinois University who busies himself with onomastics, the study of names and naming practices.

Years ago, in his native Baltimore, it was common to see legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas -- "Johnny U" -- on the street. Other Colt players attended prayer meetings at Mr. Callary's neighborhood church. "These were guys who lived in our town," he said.

Now the best players become free agents and franchises move across the country for the promise of a new stadium. Fans are no longer relegated to the local ballpark or radio station -- they can choose from half a dozen games on cable each night.

Add rising ticket prices and labor disputes to the equation and, as Mr. Callary said, "I don't think we feel the same way toward our players. We've just put so much distance between ourselves and them."

If anyone has tried to keep nicknames alive, it has been sportscaster Chris Berman. In college, he and his pals "hung names" on players they read about in box scores. This quirk became a professional trademark when, as an announcer for the then-fledgling ESPN, he uttered the words: "Frank Tanana Daiquiri."

"It wasn't planned but I guess it worked," he said. "We did a few more and everyone seemed to enjoy it."

Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff. Eric "Sleeping with" Bienemy. Andre "Bad Moon" Rison.

Mr. Berman is quick to acknowledge that his word plays and pop culture puns, delivered tongue in cheek, are not like nicknames of old. He figures the traditional style served a purpose -- in its time.

"Way back when, most of the people in America never went to a game, so they were doing it off visualization," he said. "The Splendid Splinter was descriptive of how Ted Williams looked."

That might still work for fighter pilots and recent gangsters such as John "The Dapper Don" Gotti and Vincent "The Chin" Gigante because they are not on television daily. But in sports, cameras peer into every dugout and inside every facemask, leaving little to the imagination. "There's less language because we see all of them," Mr. Berman said.

Instead, Mr. Pruyne has noticed a new trend: the commercialized nickname.

"Air Jordan" was a shoe marketing campaign before it was shorthand for basketball star Michael Jordan. Athletes have followed the lead of rap singers in crafting their personas.

"In Los Angeles, Shaquille O'Neal has a thing about giving himself names like `The Big Aristotle,'" Mr. Pruyne said. "Players see the value of nicknames."

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