Ever since some sportswriter from the 1880s christened Chicago White Stockings superstar Mike “King” Kelly with his royal moniker, nicknames have been entrenched in the baseball lexicon. Following are ten memorable nicknames from the big leagues.
Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson
Yes, this nickname is a tad wordy, but as nicknames go, you’ll rarely find one more evocative. Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson played for a number of teams, including the Troy Trojans, from 1876 to 1884. Baseball historians credit him with being the first switch hitter ever to appear in a major-league box score, though his plate work won him little fame.
You would think someone came up with Ferguson’s sobriquet as a tribute to his fielding prowess. Ferguson was, by all accounts, a slick glove, but he spent most of his career manning second base, a position that rarely required him to chase down difficult fly balls.
Teammates hung the moniker on Ferguson after observing his deadly proficiency for swatting houseflies in a hotel lobby. Houseflies weren’t all he swatted. After retiring as a player, Ferguson became a professional umpire and once settled an on-field dispute by breaking a player’s arm with a baseball bat. That incident and several other confrontations won him another nickname: “Fighting Bob.”
Walter “The Big Train” Johnson
The Washington Senators signed this Hall of Fame pitcher after a traveling salesman sent them a letter lauding Walter Johnson’s power and control. “He knows where he’s throwing,” the peddler supposedly wrote, “because if he didn’t, there’d be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.” From 1907 to 1927, “The Big Train” won 417 games, notched 3,509 strikeouts, and recorded big-league record 110 shutouts.
The right-hander might also hold the Major-League record for most nicknames. Sportswriter Grantland Rice tagged him “The Big Train,” when he heard a batter describe Johnson’s fastball as “roaring like an express train as it passes by.”
After Johnson treated some teammates to a few hair-raising spins in his new automobile, they took to calling their ace “Barney,” as homage to legendary racecar driver Barney Oldfield. Umpires paid tribute to Johnson’s integrity and sportsmanship by referring to him as “Sir Walter” and “The White Knight.”
And sportswriters who watched Johnson pitch during his semi-pro career knew him as “The Coffeyville Express” (he called Coffeyville home for several years), “The Kansas Cyclone,” and “The Humboldt Thunderbolt” (Humboldt, Kansas being his birthplace).
Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky
The closer for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1970s, Al Hrabosky, known as “The Mad Hungarian” would stalk in from the bullpen wearing a sinister Fu Manchu mustache, wild shoulder-length hair worthy of Rasputin, and an ornate silver ring he called The Gypsy Rose of Death (which he once described as “a family heirloom from Dracula”).
Before throwing his first pitch, Hrabosky would stomp off the mound toward second base, turn his back to the hitter at home plate, and work himself into a rage. As soon as he was ready, the left-hander would pound his glove, whirl around, and toe the pitching rubber with lava seeping out of his ears. Then, more times than not, he’d pour a white-hot fastball past the hitter. The theatrics were meant to intimidate opposing players, who were never quite sure just how crazy Hrabosky really was.
Mickey “The Commerce Comet” Mantle
When Mickey Mantle joined the New York Yankees for rookie camp in 1951, several coaches asked him to participate in a footrace. As teammate Tom Sturdivant once said, “It was a joke for anyone to race against him; the guy could outrun Kentucky Derby racehorses. Why, he made us look like we were standing still. I’m not kidding. Mickey beat us by so much, the coaches were positive he was leaving early. So they had us race again. Same result. Okay, we’re going to go one more time. Man, they would have had us out there all day. I was running next to Mick and I finally told them, ‘He’s not jumping the gun. Mickey’s leaving when we’re on the first step. It’s just that he’s a half a block away on the second step.’ They didn’t have stopwatches fast enough to time him. I think that’s when they hung the nickname ‘The Commerce Comet’ on him, except he was faster than a comet. Fastest thing I ever saw.”
Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn
Jim Wynn was tagged “The Toy Cannon” because he generated so much power for his size (5-foot, ten-inch, 160-pound frame). Jim played with the Astros from 1963 to 1971. Pound-for-pound, he may have been the greatest slugger ever. Jim had hands as strong as any blacksmith’s. Though he swung a relatively heavy piece of lumber (36 ounces), he was able to snap it through the strike zone rather than push it. The ball exploded off his bat.
Jim played most of his career in the Astrodome when it was the worst home-run hitters park in the majors. Had he played on any other home field, he would have hit 40 or more homers every year. In 1967, Henry Aaron nipped Jimmie for the National League home-run title by only two dingers. Afterwards, the ever-gracious Aaron said, “As far as I’m concerned, Jim Wynn is the home-run champion this season because of the place he plays in.”
Tony “Doggie” Perez
Tony Perez was one of the finest clutch hitters. The Big Red Machine players called him “Doggie” or “Big Dog” because any time he came to the plate with runners on base, you expected him to take a large bite out of the pitcher. He was able to do that because, unlike some sluggers, he understood what he faced in any given situation.
With the bases loaded, if the pitcher gave him something to pull, Tony jacked it hard to the left, often for extra bases. But throw him a difficult outside pitch under the same circumstances, and Doggie would slash it to right field for a two-run base hit. He drove in 100 or more runs seven times and had five other seasons of 90 or more RBIs.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee
Before games with the Boston Red Sox, this wacky left-handed pitcher, Bill Lee, hit fungos (fly balls hit for fielding practice by a player tossing a ball in the air and hitting it as it comes down) to himself in the outfield. Lee once publicly admitted to throwing two spitballs to Tony Taylor, one of which Taylor belted for a homer. When a reporter asked him how a singles hitter like Taylor could jerk out a spitter, Bill replied, “I guess he hit the dry side.” If you asked him why he threw a certain pitch, Bill would do five minutes on Einstein’s theory of curved space.
Lee earned his nickname when a visitor to the Red Sox clubhouse asked his teammate, utility infielder John Kennedy, if he had seen a NASA launch that afternoon. Pointing to Bill’s locker, Kennedy replied, “We don’t need to look at anyone going up in rockets on TV; we have our own spaceman right here.” Lee was a character, but he knew how to pitch. He had a funky moving sinker, a good slow curve, and pinpoint control.
Rusty “Le Grande Orange” Staub
Rusty Staub played with the Houston Astros. Rusty’s dedication to hard work made him a star. He wasn’t a good hitter when Houston first signed him; he was just a big guy who could handle only the high fastball. But he studied the pitchers and spent hundreds of hours in the batting cage honing his swing. Rusty became such a formidable player that he made the All-Star team six times.
In 1967, his best season, he batted .333 to finish fifth in the NL batting race and had a league-leading 44 doubles. Almost every pitch he made contact with — including the outs — was hit hard. The six-foot-three, 210-pounder earned the nickname “Le Grande Orange” (meaning, of course, the big redhead) when the Astros traded him to the Montreal Expos in 1969. With his star presence and booming bat, Rusty became an instant fan favorite as he brought the expansion franchise some much needed on-field credibility.
Frank “The Washington Monument” Howard
When Frank Howard starred with the Washington Senators, the six-foot-seven, 255-pound player was called “The Washington Monument” not only because he appeared to be as big as that landmark, but because he also looked as if he could hit a baseball over it.
Frank was one of the strongest men ever to play the game. After Ted Williams became manager for the Senators in 1969, he told Frank that he had seen only three men who could hit the ball harder than he could: Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Mickey Mantle.
Because Ruth once reportedly hit a ball 600 feet in an exhibition game and the Mick still holds the record for the longest regular season home run (565 feet), Frank’s in mighty august company. Nearly every pitcher who faced him was terrified that he might hit a line drive back through the box.
Dick “The Monster” Radatz
Facing Dick Radatz was a real horror show for a lot of batters. He was the original Terminator. When this six-foot-five, 250-pound behemoth stomped in from the Boston Red Sox bullpen, hitters started considering early retirement. He threw close to 100 miles per hour, and whenever he took his warm-up tosses, he’d throw the first pitch all the way to the backstop.
The idea that a guy who threw pitches you can barely see might be a little wild that day got the hitter’s attention in a hurry. When Radatz pitched in the early 1960s, most relievers alternated good and bad years. “The Monster” was a rarity because he strung together four seasons of all-star quality (1962–1965). During that period, he registered 49 wins and 100 saves (when saves were much harder to come by than they are today) for Red Sox teams that never topped .500.