I'll admit it, I'm an old-school guy who eschews change -- and quite a bit about baseball has changed in my lifetime, much of it for the purpose of increasing popularity (aka profits). But while many unnatural alterations have been forced into the game to make it more "interesting" (i.e., the DH, smaller strike zone, interleague play, wild card, etc.), one naturally occurring element seems close to extinction: the nickname.
Growing up in the New York metropolitan area in the 1970s, there was no shortage of baseball player nicknames. The Yankees had "Goose," "Mr. October," "Puff" and "The Vulture," to name a few. The Mets boasted "The Hammer," "Kong," "The Franchise," "Bad Dude" and "Stork," among others. Superstars like "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron had nicknames, as did utility infielders such as Fred "Chicken" Stanley. Some guys even had two nicknames; Ron Guidry was both "Gator" and "Louisiana Lightning", for example. And I distinctly remember Phil Rizzuto trying to call Lou Piniella "The Italian Stallion," until he discovered "Sweet Lou" was Cuban. Rizzuto then attempted to peg the moniker on Rick Cerone, irking Mets fans who felt Lee Mazzilli deserved the honor; as it turned out, the label never stuck with any of them.
When nicknames weren't fabricated by announcers, they often reflected a player's physical traits. There was Willie "Stretch" McCovey, Fred "The Flea" Patek and, long before my time, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. The entire Pittsburgh Pirates team had two nicknames -- first, "The Lumber Company", and later "The Family", led by Willie "Pops" Stargell, Dave "Cobra" Parker, Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner, Tim "Crazy Horse" Foli and Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock.
Maybe the propagation of nicknames can be traced to A's owner Charlie O. Finley, who felt them so central to marketing that he forced them on his players. Jim Hunter became "Catfish" the moment he signed his first pro contract (along with an accompanying, fictional story created by Finley); similarly, John Odom became "Blue Moon". However, Vida Blue -- whose name was already pretty cool -- refused Finley's offer of several thousand dollars to change his name to "True".
Nicknames became less common in the 1980s and 1990s, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the ballplayers began making too much money and became too serious to be associated with silly pseudonyms such as "Dimples" or "Scoop". Sure, there were still plenty of nicknames out there -- "Big Unit", "Boomer", "Donnie Baseball", "The Big Hurt" and "Crime Dog" were a few of many -- but as the years pass, they seem less prevalent, and less creative. Today we have "King Felix", "Giambino", and the various "-Rods", which are simply alterations of the player's names. I checked out the subject on Wikipedia and found a vast array of nicknames for present-day players that I'd never heard before (Ian "Lettuce" Kinsler? Cole "Hollywood" Hamels?), so maybe I'm just not paying as close attention in my old age. Perhaps, the baseball nickname is better known and appreciated by the young fans, who have the time and brain power to collect these details and remember them. I hope that's the case, and that 30 years from now, the nicknames evoke fond memories of the game, just as they do for me.
Joe Janish writes the Mets Today blog and is a part of the SweetSpot blog network.