The first great Baseball-Reference.com sponsorship I remember really taking note of was Bris Lord's.
If you are a baseball fan with internet access, you have probably spent quite a bit of time on Baseball Reference. The baseball internet is split up over thousands of fan bases, blogs and sites -- but just about everyone comes to Baseball Reference. In an increasingly fragmented landscape, it is about the closest thing we have to a town square.
And, if you are a certain kind of obsessive, you have probably gotten lost in a Baseball Reference wormhole at some point. You can wander in one of those for hours, until someone tosses you a rope and/or yells at you to get back to work. It is these wormholes that lead to discoveries like the one I made the other day, while looking up Roy Halladay, whose real name is Harry: Namely, no one who actually goes by the name Harry has played in the majors since the 1960s. Dozens did before then, though, and they had nicknames like "The Golden Greek," "Handsome Harry," "Deer Foot," "Harry the Cat," "Harry the Horse" (there are actually two of these), "The Giant Killer," "Wildfire," "Fighting Harry," "Gunboat," "Stinky," "Slippery," "Slug" (a Hall of Famer), "Husky," "Hook," "Baldy," "Suitcase," "Mule Trader," "Klondike," "Beans," "Cannonball," "Bucketfoot Al" (cheating because Harry was his middle name, but I had to include it), "Scatter," "Silk Stockings," "Bird Eye," "Harry the Hat" (Dixie Walker's brother), and "The Flame Thrower" (Harry Fanok, the last of the major-league Harrys, who retired in 1964). Before you know it, you have forgotten all about Harry Leroy Halladay. Also, your column is overdue.
My fascination with Bris Lord -- full name, Bristol Robotham Lord -- came out of a larger, longstanding interest in great baseball names and nicknames, which of course goes hand-in-hand with spending extreme amounts of time on Baseball Reference. Lord not only had the name, he had, according to Baseball-Reference, the nickname: The Human Eyeball. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have been puzzling over that for nearly seven years now.* One theory suggests he was so named because he had "an unusually large forehead," but (a) the photos all show a perfectly ordinary-sized forehead, and (b) that makes no sense anyway. A commenter on a site I wrote for years ago even went to the library at Cooperstown to try to solve the mystery, with no success. In any case, adding to the exuberant weirdness of the Bris Lord Baseball-Reference page was its sponsor:
"This page is sponsored by Lord Peaches Von Wolfenstein. Bless this man - The King of the Mohels."
I don't know who Lord Peaches Von Wolfenstein is, or was, but I feel sure we could have been friends. In fact, the page's next sponsor was someone I know, though we had never discussed Mr. Robotham Lord: Ted Berg, now a baseball writer at USA Today, whose message was simply "I can't believe it only cost five bucks for The Human Eyeball!" The price has since gone up to $10, still plainly a bargain.
If only for the confluence of weirdness, Lord Peaches remains my favorite (at least since my own sponsorship of Denard "no relation" Span's page lapsed -- it was $10 then, but $275 now, a testament to his success and the site's). Rising prices have cut down a bit on the number of silly sponsorships. But you still stumble on some great and odd ones out there -- all kinds of fans leaving signs and messages to each other, and to players, for all kinds of reasons. Bronson Arroyo, for instance, does not strike me as an especially Hemingway-esque figure, yet:
(Baseball Reference also claims that Arroyo's nickname is "Saturn Balls." I refuse to believe anybody ever actually calls him that).
And there are opportunities for clever advertising, as seen on the page for Turkey Gross, who played for the Red Sox in 1925:
(A previous sponsor was FanGraphs.com, which said simply: "Turkey Gross did not care for Thanksgiving.")
Some are random and sweet, such as this one dedicated to Doug Mientkiewicz, once #16 for the Twins:
Safe to say Mietkiewicz's number is unlikely to be retired any time soon, but it's easy to appreciate the sentiment, and I want that light switch cover. Meanwhile, whoever sponsors the page of the fabulously named Cannonball Titcomb is someone after my own heart:
And there is another great odd one on Stubby Clapp's page -- yes, Stubby Clapp:
Four or five years ago, MLB.com Yankees beat writer Bryan Hoch sponsored backup catcher Wil Nieves' page in former Star Ledger writer Lisa Kennelly's name as a birthday present, because Nieves' niceness had become a running joke at Yankees camp:
"The nicest backup catcher in the world."
(It's true, too. Wil Nieves is ludicrously, ridiculously nice, which is why I am always happy when he surfaces in the majors, even though he has a career OPS+ of 54.)
That last sponsorship has long since expired, but it turns out records are still kept, so I checked the wording with Sports Reference's User Affairs Coordinator, Neil Paine, who runs the sponsorship system. He also confirmed that Jason Kubel's page once was sponsored by Grant Maki, and read:
"Jason Kubel is my hero. Like if Nightcrawler was real and played baseball."
And that Mariners blog Lookout Landing once sponsored Felix Hernandez, using the platform to say:
"He's ours, and you can't have him."
(The sponsorship has lapsed, having served its purpose, since Hernandez is now Seattle's through 2019 at least).
Paine was kind enough to share some of his own favorites from years gone by. There was Randy Tomlin's:
"Randy Tomlin: forever my hero after striking out Aryeh Bak 22 times in one game on Sega Genesis 1993 Tony La Russa Baseball. The look of frustration on Aryeh's face still comforts me today."
And then, on Fernando Rodney's:
"Fernando, save everyone their time. Next time just walk up and place the ball on a tee."
Paine's personal favorite, however, was on Marvin Bernard's page:
"A high fastball sponsor(s) this page. 'I loved this guy. He couldn't hit me with a tree trunk.'"
Those are amusing, but people do, rarely, cross the line, Paine says. Really the only things Sports Reference (Baseball Reference's parent company) does not permit are "promoting gambling, NSFW content, representing yourself as a player (in a non-joking fashion; i.e., pretending they endorse your product), and personal/ad hominem attacks."
The ad hominem attack ban has stymied the anonymous sponsor of Bobby Cox's page a few times. Somebody changes the sponsored message to insult Bobby Cox in various ways every few months, and has been doing so for years -- which is permitted, as long as it does not cross the line into overly nasty insults.
Hey, everybody needs a hobby.
Old Hoss Radbourn's page was once sponsored by deceased and debauched Twitter personality @OldHossRadbourn: "Gaze below at the statistical flibberdigab that supposedly represent the greatness that was my career. But these numbers are useless: there are no columns for pints consumed, harlots bedded, or blades brandished."
And Fred McGriff's once read: "His stats below are wrong. Fred McGriff hit one million home runs in his career. I believe that makes him the all time record holder."
These are really only the tip of the site's vast reservoir of information, enthusiasm, annoyance and wonderful oddness. So the next time you are in the middle of important research indicating that, for example, there have been 10 players with dog-themed nicknames ("Bird Dog," "Wonder Dog," "One Dog," "Mad Dog" (three of those), "Crime Dog," "Big Dog," Old Dog" and "Hit Dog") and only eight with cat-themed nicknames, take yet another detour, since your productivity is already shot, and read the ads. Often it will turn out that another fan has been down the wormhole before you, and left you a note.
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*Anybody who successfully solves this mystery will win a Sports on Earth t-shirt, a blog post honoring him or her, and eternal gratitude. If you have information about why Bris Lord was called "The Human Eyeball," email firstname.lastname@example.org.