These days, basketball is much more popular with the youth than baseball. Some people say it’s because basketball is faster paced. While there may be some truth to that, I have another theory: it’s the nicknames. Nicknames are fun. And basketball has them. Some of its biggest stars are “King James,” “The Greek Freak,” “CP3,” “The Beard,” and “the Joker.” But what happened to the great nicknames in baseball?
Many of the greatest players in baseball from the first half of the 20th century were known almost exclusively by their nicknames. Only some folks know who George Ruth was, but everyone knows him by his alter ego Babe Ruth. The annual award for the best pitcher is named for Cy Young. That sounds like a real name, but his given name was Denton True Young (which actually sounds pretty cool). “Cy” was a reference to the fact that he threw like a cyclone.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is filled with players from the past whose nicknames are much more famous than their real names. It has two “Leftys” (Grove and Gomez), two “Whiteys” (Ford and Herzog), two “Gooses” (or two Geese? – Gossage and Goslin), and three “Rubes” (Waddell, Marquard, and Foster). There are young and old (Kid Nichols and Old Hoss Radbourn). The Hall has your Thanksgiving main course and dessert both covered, with Turkey Stearnes and Pie Traynor. There are diminutive men both wee (Wee Willie Keeler) and even more wee (Pee Wee Reese). There are animals of land and lake (Rabbit Maranville and Catfish Hunter). Two legends of the Negro Leagues were apparently well-known for being fathers, though only one was a Cool Dad (Pop Lloyd and Cool Papa Bell). Plus, there are Yogi Berra, Pud Galvin, Heinie Manush, Biz Mackey, Buck Leonard, Red Ruffing, Chief Bender, Kiki Cuyler, Dizzy Dean, Hack Wilson, and the legendary Satchel Paige.
Even players who were known primarily by their real names had great nicknames: Willie Mays was the “Say Hey Kid,” Hank Aaron was “Hammer,” Lou Gehrig was “The Iron Horse,” Reggie Jackson was “Mr. October,” Walter Johnson was “The Big Train,” Ted Williams was “The Splendid Splinter,” Stan Musial was “Stan the Man,” Willie Stargell was “Pops,” and Duke Snider was “The Duke of Flatbush” (even “Duke” was a nickname, as his given name was Edwin – a nickname on top of a nickname!).
As the nicknames dwindled, we still had some legendary players with great nicknames in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s. Andre Dawson was “Hawk,” Ozzie Smith was “The Wizard of Oz,” Frank Thomas was “The Big Hurt,” Fred McGriff was “Crime Dog,” Randy Johnson was “The Big Unit,” Vladimir Guerrero was “Vlad the Impaler,” and Sammy Sosa was Sammy “So-Many-Steroids” (I might be misremembering that one). And then there was Alex Rodriguez: “A-Rod.” This might be the nickname and the player that brought baseball low: uncreative nickname, huge cheater.
These days, perhaps the only star player who is mostly known by his nickname is Mookie Betts (real name Markus). But sadly, his nickname is unoriginal, as he was named for former NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock. Side note: Mookie Blaylock was also the original name of the band Pearl Jam and even after they changed their name, they called their debut album “Ten,” a nod to Blaylock’s jersey number. So Mookie Blaylock has had a bigger influence on rock music and baseball than he ever did in his chosen sport of basketball. Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich have been called “Belli” and “Yeli,” which are fun as a pair, but individually these are boring nicknames (kind of like their 2020 seasons after their glorious 2019).
We need to do better. I hereby suggest some nicknames for today’s baseball stars (along with explanations for those who need them):
Clayton Kershaw – “K-Ton Kershaw” (The man has 2,500 career Ks and he’s only 32.)
Mike Trout – “Kingfish” (Yes, the former fishily named Angel Tim Salmon had this nickname, but obviously Trout is better so he assumes the title, and Salmon is downgraded to Princefish.)
Aaron Judge – “The Verdict” (Okay, technically it’s usually the jury that delivers a verdict, but this sounds cooler than “The Sentence”.)
Charlie Blackmon – “Mountain Man” (Epic beard, plays in the Rocky Mountains)
Fernando Tatis, Jr. – “Tater Tatis” (He hits a lot of taters.)
Cody Bellinger – “Cow-Bell” (Just having fun with his name. And Will Ferrell is a Dodgers fan, so yes, he needs more Cow-Bell).
Manny Machado – “Macho Man Manny Savage” (A nod to the late wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage, if you are not up on your 1980s wrestlers)
Giancarlo Stanton – “Giancarlo Slam-Ton” (He hits it really far.)
Chris Sale – “No Deal” (Sale may be selling, but hitters don’t want to buy the heat that he’s dealing.)
Nolan Arenado – “Tornado” (It sounds similar to the way Americans want to pronounce his surname, and he is very destructive to baseballs).
Matt Chapman – “Dyson” (Because he vacuums up everything that comes his way at third base)
Jacob deGrom – “The Marrying Man” (He is the groom. Or maybe “Always a Bridesmaid” would be more apt, since his team rarely gets him wins.)
Shohei Ohtani – “No Way Shohei” (Because he is hard to hit… when he is healthy enough to be a pitcher. And in 2020 maybe this nickname because he couldn’t buy a hit as a hitter.)
Bryce Harper – “The Har-binger of Pain” (This wins out over “The 13-Year Itch,” which would honor the length of his contract with the Phillies.)
Shane Bieber – “K-Pop Star”(K for strikeouts, pop star because of the other Bieber, K-Pop because that is a thing)
Christian Yelich – “The Second Coming” (Edging out “Jesus of Milwaukee” for this Christian)
Blake Snell – “Snell Ya Later” (Perhaps more of a fun thing to yell when he strikes out a hitter)
Justin Verlander – “The Supermodel Slammer” (He is married to Kate Upton.)
Mike Clevinger – “The Truth Hurts” (Paul Pierce was called “The Truth” in the NBA, but Clevinger risked exposure to COVID-19, then lied about it to his teammates and was promptly traded away.)
Jose Altuve – “Lil’ Cheat” (Because he is little and he cheated, if you didn’t get it)
If these nicknames catch on, I guarantee* that within the next five years, baseball will reemerge as the National Pastime, instead of seeming like its time has passed.
*Guarantee not actually guaranteed