Cooperstown Confidential By Bruce Markusen
Baseball Nicknames: Where Have They Gone?
It has become baseballís lost art, along with complete games and the sacrifice bunt. And like the loss of ironhorse pitchers and subtle strategies, its absence has lessened the game. It is the art of nicknaming, once so prevalent in our national game, but now reduced to the rubble of unimaginative minds. Whereas once we reveled in colorful nicknames like "Blue Moon," The Sultan of Swat," and "Death to Flying Things," we are now subjected to such uncreative drivel as "Coney" (for David Cone), the effortless shortening of names (such as "Junior" for Ken Griffey, Jr. or "A-Rod for Alex Rodriguez), and silly commercialism (like calling Mark McGwire "Big Mac" or "McZilla"). Such nicknames really arenít nicknames at all; most of them are puns, or plays on words, which tell us very little about the player. Canít we do better than this and come up with some descriptive, image-instilling nicknames? In reality, it wasnít long ago that we did. In the late 1960s, nicknames held such a special place in the conscience of baseball that they even became an intriguing part of one of baseballís most essential pieces of equipment__the uniform. As one of the decadeís most colorful characters, Kansas City Aís and Boston Red Soxí slugger Ken "Hawk" Harrelson had already developed a reputation for rebellious individuality. Referred to alternately by his given name and by his nickname of "Hawk" (which signified his large, curving nose), Harrelson had previously become the first player to sport batting gloves at the plate. Upon being traded from the Red Sox to the Cleveland Indians in the spring of 1969, the maverick first baseman created another stir by having the letters "HAWK" stitched above his number in lieu of the traditional use of his surname. Harrelson thus became the first player in major league history to don his nickname on the back of his jersey. The Oakland Aís continued Harrelsonís trend-setting maneuver in the early 1970s. When relief pitcher Jim Grant joined the Aís in a 1971 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he instructed the teamís equipment manager to put the letters "MUDCAT" on his uniform. Since most fans and media types usually referred to Grant by his nickname anyway...preferring it over his given name of James or Jim...the switch made sense and created little confusion for knowledgeable baseball fans. And as with Harrelson, the donning of the nickname made the uniform a more colorful part of the game. Oakland owner Charlie Finley liked Grantís fashion statement so much that he encouraged other Aís players to wear their nicknames, or even their first names, on the backs of their shirts. In 1977, Oaklandís Dick Allen opted for the letters "WAMPUM" on the back of his jersey. Unlike other playersí usage of alternate names, "Wampum" wasnít Allenís nickname; rather, it signified the name of his hometown in Pennsylvania. In 1976, the practice of wearing nicknames on uniforms reached epidemic proportions with the Atlanta Braves, who had just become the property of boating maverick Ted Turner over the winter. Turner arranged for many of his regular players to wear their nicknames on their home uniforms. Outfielder Ralph Garr played with his well-known alter-ego, "ROADRUNNER," stitched into the jerseyís fabric. Burly catcher Earl Williams wore the word "HEAVY" on his back, an interesting choice given the constant criticism of his weight. Even players with longer nicknames joined in the act. Outfielder Jimmy Wynn, known as "The Toy Cannon" for his ability to pack home run power into a diminutive frame, featured the single word "CANNON" where his last name otherwise would have been placed. Turnerís nickname game reached unparalleled heights when pitcher Andy Messersmith joined the Braves as a high-priced free agent. Shortly after his signing, Turner assigned Messersmith uniform No. 17__instead of the No. 47 he preferred. He also gave him the strange nickname, "Channel." With the name over the number, the back of Messersmithís shirt served as a commercial for Turnerís television station...Channel 17 on the local cable system. When National League president Charles "Chub" Feeney learned about Turnerís not-so-subtle attempt at free advertising, he ordered Messersmith to dispense with the "CHANNEL" jersey and revert to the tradition of using his last name on the back of his uniform. Instead, Messersmith opted for another nickname, "BLUTO." After reaching new levels of popularity during the 1970s, nicknames started losing their steam and dropped completely from the backs of uniforms. Perhaps not so coincidentally a new generation of high-salaried players began the annoyingly lazy habit of referring to their teammates by their initials, or by adding the letters "ey" or "ie" to the first syllable of their last name. Therefore, players with the last name of "Nelson" became "Nellie," while those with the last name of "Jones" became "Jonesy," ad nauseam. Creativity and originality__at least when it came to nicknames__had officially become a thing of the past. Are the nicknames of the past buried in the ground forever, never to be resurrected again? Perhaps not. These things tend to go in cycles. Perhaps baseball can revive one of its more colorful pastimes by encouraging any player with a decent nickname...i.e. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez or Orel "The Bulldog" Hershiser...to wear it proudly on his uniform. Anything to bring some creativity back into the game. Just spare us the "juniors," the abbreviations, and the commercials...
Bad Start To The Millennium
It continues to be a year filled with potholes for Dick Williams. In January, Williams was arrested on much-publicized indecent exposure charges, which brought him the worst kind of attention in the weeks leading up to the Veteransí Committee Hall of Fame vote. Williams, who had been considered a strong contender for the Hall prior to the arrest, lost out to Sparky Anderson, a first-time eligible on the Veteransí ballot. And then last week, Williamsí son, Rick, received his walking papers as the pitching coach of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Rick Williams, one of the hardest-working coaches in either league, didnít deserve such a fate. It certainly wasnít his fault that nearly half of his starting rotation__Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman__spent part of the early season on the disabled listÖ While Devil Rays general manager Chuck Lamar spent much of his off-season beefing up the teamís power attack, he foolishly believed that the additions of Guzman and Steve Trachsel would sufficiently improve the teamís below-average starting rotation. Now the Devil Rays are banking on the acquisition of Tampa native Doc Gooden as a partial remedy to their pitching woes. Gooden may help the dwindling attendance at Tropicana Field, but hasnít been effective since a 23-game stint with Cleveland in the middle of the 1998 season. Like the previous additions of Tampa residents Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff, this move will make some headlines, but really wonít help the Devil Rays escape the cellar in the American League East.
A Visit to the Hamptons
Are the Mets sure that they acquired Mike Hampton, and not Ike Hampton, from the Astros in that blockbuster off-season trade? Whoís Ike Hampton, you ask? He was an obscure catcher who played four games for the Mets in 1974, going hitless in four at-bats. To the Metsí chagrin, Ike was a catcher who didnít throw very well. Sort of like Mike, a pitcher who doesnít throw well...at least not right now. With four New York starts under his belt, Hampton has logged three terrible outings and one mediocre start. But that will change soon. Hampton is too good an athlete and competitor not to make a significant turnaround for the Mets over the next several weeks... Staying with the Mets, they might have received a fortunate break when Darryl Hamilton went to the disabled list with continuing foot problems. Although Hamilton is a decent player, his injury will allow Bobby Valentine to play Jon Nunnally and Jay Payton on a regular basis. Once top prospects who saw their careers turn sour, Nunnally and Payton are capable hitters who have a greater upside__and more power and speed__than Hamilton. Both of these minor league veterans can play...and we mean at the big league level.
Foul Balls Called Fair
Monday nightís game between the Rangers and Yankees featured one of the strangest plays in recent memory. With the bases loaded, no one out, and the Rangers trailing by a run in the 11th inning, Luis Alicea hit a tapper in front of the plate. The ball clearly hit Alicea in the leg, but home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg ruled it a fair ball, enabling Jorge Posada to step on the plate and then tag Alicea for rally-dampening double play. Kellogg originally called only one out (Alicea) on the play, but the other umpires stepped forward to confirm that Posada had also touched the plate before tagging Alicea. While itís understandable that Kellogg didnít see the ball hit Aliceaís leg (what with Posada blocking his view), itís unfathomable that he didnít see Posada step on the plate. If professional major league umpires donít notice what is right in front of them, with nothing obstructing their view, then something is very wrong... Although Posada made the minimal play in picking up two outs, he could have easily turned a triple play on the Alicea dribbler. After stepping on home plate, Posada should have immediately thrown to third for the second out. Since Alicea was still parked near home plate, Clay Bellinger, the Yankee third baseman, would have had plenty of time to throw across the diamond for a game-concluding triple play. What an ending that would have been.
Bud Thanks Two Juniors
Major League Baseball has taken its share of criticism in recent years for its failure to promote its star players. Although that has been a fair complaint in the past, Commissioner Bud Selig deserves credit for his current efforts to reverse the trend. Last week, Selig and Major League Baseball took out a full-page color advertisement in the USA Today sports section congratulating Ken Griffey, Jr. on becoming the youngest player to reach the 400-home run mark. Then MLB did the same on Monday, honoring Cal Ripken, Jr. for his 3,000th career hit. We can expect Selig to recognize similar milestones, such as Mark McGwireís 600th home run and Griffeyís 500th, in future years.
Sparky Stops By Sparky Anderson paid a visit to the Hall of Fame on Tuesday, April 18, as part of his orientation for the upcoming Hall of Fame Ceremony, which is scheduled for Sunday, July 24. Prior to taking a guided tour of the Hall of Fame Gallery and Museum, Anderson met the Hallís staff at a special morning breakfast. He also made a brief speech, impressing Hall employees with his sincere humility and his sense of awe over experiencing the Hall of Fame for the first time. Although Anderson has traveled to Cooperstown in the past to take part in annual Hall of Fame games, he had never before walked on the Hallís premises. He wanted to wait until he earned election, when he felt it was finally appropriate to enter the Hall of Fameís buildings. That wait ended this week, making the Hall just a bit more special.
The second annual Seymour Medal Conference will take place in Cleveland from Friday, April 28, through Sunday, April 30. The conference, which is hosted by SABR, will honor William Marshallís book, Baseballís Pivotal Era, as the best baseball book of 1999. ESPNís Tim Kurkjian, the author of the newly-released Americaís Game, will serve as the keynote speaker on Saturday night. On a promotional note, weíll be doing a book signing at the Seymour Conference on Friday, April 28, for both Baseballís Last Dynasty: Charlie Finleyís Oakland Aís, and Roberto Clemente: The Great One. The signing will take place on Friday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:30 at Borders Books in the Severance Town Center in Cleveland. For more information on the Seymour Conference, contact John Zajc of SABR at 216-575-0500.