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Chuck Wielgus
October 12, 1987
Sports sobriquets are laced with puns—and daggers
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October 12, 1987

What's In A Nickname?

Sports sobriquets are laced with puns—and daggers

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Consider for a moment what life would be like if Lawrence Peter Berra hadn't gone to the movies with his friends one day. And if that movie house in St. Louis hadn't been showing a film with a scene depicting a squatting Indian fakir. And if those friends hadn't decided that the youthful Lawrence Peter looked an awful lot like that...that...yogi.

For one thing, we might still know him as Lawdie Berra, which was his nickname to that date. This should give us pause. Can you picture Lawdie Berra in pinstripes? Lawdie Berra speaking inscrutably about baseball and life?

No way. It would have been over before it was over, just as no game could go on unless the one southpaw was called Lefty, the one redhead was called Red and every fat kid was called Bubba.


Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds Proves He Can Cut It. One fall evening in 1969, just after his Tennessee football team has lost 38-0 to Ole Miss, Reynolds buys a hacksaw and 12 blades at a K Mart and proceeds to cut a car in half behind the front-door jamb. The task takes eight hours, but Reynolds will get great mileage out of it (the nickname, not the car.)

To begin exploring the subject of nicknames in sports, we could do worse than approach the Dodgers' Ken (K.T.) Landreaux, who gets irritated at having to explain why he goes by K.T, not K.L. "People make up names all the time," he says. "Look at the scientists. Who tells them water is H[2]O?"

Who, indeed? K.T. has a point. People do make up names all the time, and nowhere do they do it as often and as passionately as in sports. This leaves us with no small burden. We must never confuse the Throwin' Samoan with the Throwin' Swannanoan (the first is former Bengal quarterback Jack Thompson of Tutuila, American Samoa; the second, Indians pitcher Sammy Stewart of Swannanoa, N.C.). Or forget the delightful name-nickname combo of Zack (No Slack) Trueblood, a decidedly forgettable basketball player at Monmouth College in New Jersey. Or fail to treat with respect the nickname of Bob (Death to Flying Things) Ferguson, the 19th-century infielder. Or stop thanking goodness that Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish went by Cal (although his nickname is listed in The Baseball Encyclopedia as Buster).

Something to call 'em for short, that's all we want. Throughout the language of sports there's a prevailing spirit of truncation, an ethic of less is more—of MVPs and RBIs, of Sox and Pats and Knicks and Habs. Good nicknames serve this spirit of encoded informality. We all know whom we're referring to when we invoke Magic, the Babe or the Doctor.

In exchange for the honor—sometimes dubious—conferred by a nickname, we want something very specific. It's not denotative accuracy, necessarily. That Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell was born in Leakesville, Miss., rather than in Vinegar Bend, Ala., isn't a matter of particular concern. That we know why Dennis Boyd goes by Oil Can, however, is. There's a story behind that—in this case, an overtold one about "oil," which is what they call beer in the Can's hometown of Meridian, Miss.—and it's the tale behind the nickname that certifies its appeal. (Of course, with nicknames there's often more than one story behind a name, but we just have to do our best to sort them out.)

So then, why Norwood (Pee Wee) Barber? Because, says Florida State coach Pat Kennedy of his former point guard, "If your name were Norwood, you'd want to be called Pee Wee, too."

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