Illustrations by Craig Robinson
In college I knew three guys named Paul. Since they were all friends, the likelihood of calling a Paul and getting the right one was small, so nicknames were devised. I'd love to tell you we planned it all out, discussed, wrote down ideas, conferenced, maybe focus-grouped a few possibilities before settling on nicknames, but we didn't. We went with what came naturally. That is how we ended up with Small Paul, Tall Paul, and Across-the-Hall Paul.
The moral of the story is: Don't name your kid Paul, because there are no more good nicknames. The other moral of the story is: Sometimes the best nicknames arrive organically.
This is true of baseball players, too, even the game's greats. Recently I penned a piece for this very website that required me to look at each Hall of Famer's Baseball Reference page. In the top corner, by their name, the site lists any and all nicknames they had during their career. For example, Hank Aaron's page lists him as The Hammer, Hammer'n Hank and Bad Henry. The Hammer is a good one. One imagines a giant hammer coming to bat, wagging its face back and forth through the strike zone pre-pitch. How does it stand? Nobody knows! It's a funny image, but it's not the best Hall of Famer nickname. In fact, it's not even close.
I've listed the best below, and to help you visualize them, I've enlisted the help of artist Craig Robinson of Flip Flop Fly Ball. The drawings are his, the words are mine, and the best Hall of Famer nicknames are below.
Refers to: Harry Heilmann, first baseman and rightfielder for the Tigers and Reds in the late teens and '20s.
Origin story: One evening in the minor leagues, Heilmann was out with a lady friend when a man came up and started hitting on her. Heilmann was furious and was about to slug the guy when he looked down and saw an actual slug crawling up the bar. Shocked, Heilmann forgot his anger and pointed out the slug to the man who, it turned out, was none other than world-famous scientist and expert in slug-studies, Dr. Herbert Van Philistine. Philistine correctly identified the slug as a variety of Banana Slug. Then he punched Heilmann in the face and left with the lady.
Actual origin story: According to Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings by James K. Skipper Jr. (where all the origin information from this article is taken), Heilmann was painfully slow, so the name was a reference to his foot speed or lack thereof.
Why it's a great nickname: There are few less complimentary animals to be named after; maybe a leech, or possibly the naked mole rat. "Now, coming to bat, catcher, No. 28, Tommy 'The Naked Mole Rat' Johnson!"
Old Tomato Face
Refers to: Gabby Hartnett, catcher for the Cubs and New York Giants in the 1920s and '30s.
Origin story: Hartnett lived through the Great Depression and the toughness of the economy made a big impression on him. Thus it was that Hartnett decided he would grow tomatoes on his face. This would save money on water and soap, and provide food for his family as well. The tomatoes grew in well, so well in fact that he was able to can them and sell them as Gabby's Famous Face Tomatoes. Slogan: Nothing makes a tomato grow like oil from a human face!
Actual origin story: Hartnett laughed a lot and when he laughed his face turned bright red, like a tomato.
Why it's a Great Nickname: It's probably the most bizarre of the Hall of Fame nicknames. It sounds like a random nickname generator on the internet created it.
[Enter: body part]
Congratulations, you are now and forever known as "Middle-Aged Boat Nipples!"
Refers to: Al Simmons, power-hitting outfielder who played most of his career for the Philadelphia A's.
Origin story: Simmons once saved a little boy from a well by riding down on a small bucket, grabbing the boy and hoisting himself and the child to safety. Upon getting out of the well, Simmons' foot became lodged in the bucket and the townsfolk, fickle and organized in a Simpsons-like way, stopped chanting "Hero, hero!" and started yelling "Bucketfoot! Bucketfoot!"
Actual origin story: Simmons' batting stance featured his front leg stepping toward the dugout during his stride, a movement that is commonly referred to as "stepping into the bucket." That and his first name was Al.
Why it's a great nickname: It's so negative. Simmons hit .334 with more than 300 homers in his Hall of Fame career, so what do they base his nickname on? The odd way his foot moves before he swings. This is like calling Joe Montana Super Bowl Bucket of Barf Joe or, farther afield, dubbing Abe Lincoln the Great Paper Crumpler. Poor Bucketfoot.
Refers to: Johnny Evers, second baseman with the Cubs just after the turn of the century.
Origin story: Evers' father was a crab. His parents had met when his mother had traveled to the beach with some friends. The marriage was a stormy one, as things like washing the dishes and cuddling were difficult for Evers' dad, what with his claws and all. Shortly after Evers was born, his father went outside to molt and never returned. His mom told him his dad was eaten by seagulls but Evers could have sworn he saw his dad coming out of the dry cleaners one morning, arm in claw with another woman. Once kids at school got wind of Evers' family history, well, the nickname was a given.
Actual origin story: Baseball writer Charles Dryden coined the nickname because, according to Dryden, Evers used a crab-like way to grip the ball.
Why it's a great nickname: It harkens back to the age when baseball writers could give players derogatory nicknames. Sadly that era appears to be behind us. Imagine if I started calling Mike Trout the Squid because he has as many talents as a squid has tentacles, or Dustin Pedroia the Sand Flea because he's small and makes people itch.
Big Poison/Little Poison
Refers to: Paul and Lloyd Waner, brothers who played outfield for the Pirates in the 1930s.
Origin story: When Paul was a little boy, he accidentally ingested a lot of poison. His brother came running to his side and said, "If you took poison, then so will I" and grabbed the bottle but just took a very small sip. Asked later why he didn't drink as much poison as his brother, Lloyd said, "Are you kidding? That stuff will kill ya!"
Actual origin story: The nicknames supposedly came from the way New York fans pronunced "big person" and "little person."
Why it's a great nickname: These players, according to their nicknames, were so good at baseball that they would actually kill the other team, or if proper medical attention were administered in time, just make them vomit. When the best-case scenario is the other team vomits at the mere sight of you, that's the cornerstone of a great nickname.
The Man Nobody Knows
Refers to: Bill Dickey, catcher, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate with the New York Yankees in the 1930s and '40s.
Origin story: Dickey worked part time at the fledgling Daily Planet newspaper and frequently left the clubhouse wearing a cape and hiding his face. Also nobody knew him.
Actual origin story: It should not surprise you that nobody knows the origin story for The Man Nobody Knows. I guess we're stuck with the whole "nobody knows him" thing.
Why it's a great nickname: It's just bizarre. Nicknames often come from a place of endearment, but this is the 1940's equivalent of calling someone "that dude." If a guy isn't around enough for people to know him, you'd think he wouldn't be around enough to receive a formal nickname, let alone one as involved as The Man Nobody Knows. Also, did people really call him that?
"Hey The Man Nobody Knows, can you pass the salt?"
"Oh, sure, well [points] you see The Man Nobody Knows? You walk past him and the restroom is right there on your left."
"You listen here, The Man Nobody Knows, I ain't throwing no fastball. I'm throwing a curveball and that's all there is to … hey, where'd you go?"
The Mechanical Man
Refers to: Charlie Gehringer, a second baseman with the Tigers during the 1920s and '30s.
Origin story: Gehringer was five years old when he lost is tongue, left pinky and right ear to a merry-go-round accident. The doctors at the time were experimenting with, as it turned out later, faulty robot technology and operated on Gehringer, replacing his pinky with a pocket watch, his ear with a primitive decibel meter and his tongue with another pocket watch.
Actual origin story: It came from a teammate of Gehringer's who supposedly said, "All you have to do is wind him up on Opening Day and he runs on and on -- doing everything right."
Why it's a great nickname: It's so old-timey. He's not the Digital Man, or the Outer Space Man or the Electronic Man. He's a superhero, but one that needs winding occasionally.
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