Many fans of baseball have been sucked in by the massive breadth of its impact. One could spend a lifetime studying statistics, reading the escapades of retired players, or making trips to the dozens of beautiful ballparks in the country. James K. Skipper found a different niche of the baseball lexicon to get sucked in by: nicknames.
Miller Huggins, a second baseman who played from 1904 – 1916 stood at an intimidating 5 feet six inches, earning the moniker "Mighty Mite." Contrast that with Jon Rauch, a pitcher who broke into the majors in 2006, who was six feet, eleven inches tall. The average height of a major league player is six feet tall.
Baseball nicknames have become an integral part of the sport's culture: "In no sport are nicknames more pervasive than baseball." Receiving a nickname is immortalizing in many aspects, lending the players a larger than life heft to their persona. The ritual of distributing nicknames amongst baseball players is as old as the sport itself, and it's easy to see how Skipper got sucked in to analyzing them. Skipper wrote a number of fantastic articles for SABR regarding nicknames in baseball, and his culminating work, Baseball Nicknames, is an astonishing compilation of over 3,600 monikers. Skipper's work is a treasure trove; a stunning look into baseball's long history and rich vernacular.
Skipper referenced the 1969 edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia, and estimated that out of 10,112 baseball players, over a quarter of them had monikers besides their birth names. The heyday of nicknames was at the turn of the century, when there was on average 3 players on every team with a nickname in professional baseball. Skipper's was most comprehensive when delving into the origins of those nicknames. The amount of research he performed for Baseball Nicknames is astonishing. Nearly every entry has a genesis for the nickname, which was obtained from friends, family, teammates or the players themselves.
There are over 138 documented players with the nickname "Red" in major league history, making it one of the most common nickname in baseball history.
We often take player nicknames for granted without considering why the moniker was given. Particularly fascinating is Skipper's categorization of nicknames by what they were a reference to, including special baseball-related skills, prior occupations, favorite foods, and physical characteristics. Particularly surprising is the large number of players named after particular foods, including gems like "Pea Soup" Dumont and "Peach Pie" O'Conner. Skipper also catalogged the most frequently seen nicknames, with "Lefty" clocking in at over 153 instances, and "Red" in a close second at 120.
A new edition of Baseball Nicknames was released in October 2011, and it belongs in the collection of any fan interested in the sport's history. The book is over 300 pages of nicknames and their origin stories. The book branches beyond players to include umpires and managers. Hearing the personal stories of how each person received their monikers is riveting. Regarding John McGraw's "Little Napoleon" nickname, one of the most recognizable in history, Skipper references Douglas Wallop: "...The nickname is well founded in terms of both his autocratic methods and the impression he gave as he directed his team from the third base coach's box-a short, stumpy figure assuming an attitude that seemed always to be the same as the years passed, even when the potbelly became more pronounced and the hair turned gray and then white, the face became grizzled and the small eyes seemed to grow even smaller as they became hemmed in with wrinkles."
There have been three players with the nickname "Catfish", most famously Catfish Hunter, a pitcher for the Yankees.
A well given nickname can capture the essence of a player and expand on his personal legend. In the entry for August "Rubber-Winged Gus" Weyhing, Skipper writes, "Gus got his nickname from his practice of always soaking his arms in hot water and never letting a trainer touch it. He said it kept his wing loose. This habit enabled him to pitch for 14 years with great success without ever suffering a sore arm. During that period, he pitched over 4,324 innings, winning 264 games and losing 234." You will learn more about the backgrounds of the players and the colorful cultures they came from.
The wide variety of nicknames are just another layer of color and history that enriches the baseball watching experience. It's such a wonderful honor to these men, influential and not, to have these intimate details and stories codified for fans to reference. If you are interested in the history, traditions and interpersonal stories of the game, this bok is a must own.