Tagged: Nicknames

Card Corner: Gene Michael

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Michael.jpg

Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.

 

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.

 

At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.

 

It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.

 

The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.

 

Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.

 

With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82.  Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.

 

After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.

 

Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.

 

When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.

 

With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.

 

Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.


The Nickname Game: The Road Runner

Garr.jpg

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Several
players of 1970s vintage were known as “Roadrunner,” including Pirates
teammates Gene Clines and Manny Sanguillen, but only one man became the true “Roadrunner”
(or “Road Runner,” to be completely accurate).

 

That
honor belongs to former Braves, White Sox, and Angels outfielder Ralph “The
Road Runner” Garr. For those who saw Garr play, the name made obvious sense.
Garr, a slashing line drive batter who hit to all fields, could flat-out fly
around the bases. Of all his contemporaries, only one may have been faster.
That was Mickey Rivers, who actually began his pro career in the Braves’
organization at virtually the same time as Garr. Rivers was traded to the
Angels as part of the Hoyt Wilhelm deal, but Garr remained with the Braves long
enough to win the 1974 National League batting title–with a remarkable average of .354

 

Garr
became almost as well known for the “Road Runner” nickname as the original
Looney Tunes cartoon figure created by Chuck Jones. The Braves’ public
relations department gave Garr the nickname after he arrived in the big
leagues; in fact, the Braves so wanted to market Garr that they wrote to Warner
Brothers, Inc. to receive official permission to use the nickname and the catch
phrase “Beep! Beep!” in promotional efforts.

 

Warner
Brothers, through its agent, Licensing Corporation of America (LCA), came to a
history-making agreement with the Braves. “Our contract with the Braves makes
Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world,” said
Jay Emment, who was the chairman of LCA at the time. The unusual agreement also
made it illegal for any other athlete to use the nickname. (That agreement was
probably unenforceable in reality, but Clines’ “Roadrunner” appellation did
seem to fade into disuse.) Curiously, Garr’s officially certified nickname was
never once included in any of his entries in the Baseball Register from 1969 to 1981.

 

The
Baseball Register might not have recognized it, but just about everybody else
remembers Ralph Garr as the “Road
Runner.”

The Nickname Game: Bee Bee, Sugar Bear, and Stick

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Three shortstops from the 1970s continue to stick in my
mind. None of them were standout players–in fact, two of them had little
tangible impact during their major league careers–but they all had nicknames
that were more memorable than their playing ability. Their careers also
happened to coincide with my formative years as a baseball fan.

 

 

Larvell “Sugar Bear”
Blanks
: I had always assumed that the former Braves and Indians shortstop
derived his nickname from the cartoon character “Sugar Bear,” who was featured
on the Sugar Crisp cereal commercials of that era. I learned differently when I
read John Skipper’s comprehensive book, Baseball
Nicknames
. Blanks informed Skipper that he received the moniker in either
August or September of 1970, while playing for the Braves’ entry in the Arizona
Instructional League. At the same time, The Archies happened to release their
song, “Sugar, Sugar,” which promptly became a hit single on the radio airwaves.
Two of Blanks’ Instructional League teammates, Darrell Evans and Ralph Garr,
took note of the young shortstop’s aggressive batting style and began
serenading him as “Sugar Bear.” The name stuck with Blanks, remaining with him
even after the Braves traded him to the Indians. Perhaps the most memorable
incident of Blanks’ career occurred in Cleveland.
Furious with manager Frank Robinson, Sugar Bear ripped off his Indians uniform,
threw it into a barrel of trash, and then set it on fire.

 

 

Gene “Stick” Michael:
The most accomplished of the three shortstops profiled here, Michael epitomized
the good-field, no-hit shortstops that populated the game in the late sixties
and early seventies. Before he began a major league career that included stints
with the Pirates, Dodgers, Yankees, and Tigers, Michael starred as a college
basketball player at Kent
State University.
At six-feet, two inches and a rail-like 180 pounds, Michael had a sticklike
appearance on the basketball court, hence the nickname became a natural fit.
The label stuck with him in baseball, where he established a reputation as one
of the game’s smartest players. “Stick” became the master of the hidden ball
trick, pulling it off at least five times in his career. After his retirement,
Michael became a coach, manager, scout, and general manager, and continues to work
as an advisor in the front office of the Yankees.

 

 

Lee “Bee Bee” Richard:
This former White Sox’ shortstop also influenced a wrong assumption on the part
of this author. For years, I had thought that Richard, a very fast runner and
prolific basestealer in the minor leagues, was called “Bee Bee” because of his
blazing footspeed. Not so. Richard’s nickname originated in high school, where
he starred as a pitcher. Richard threw so hard as an amateur that his fastball
had the imaginary appearance of a BB pellet, released from a gun. Perhaps the
switch-hitting Richard should have remained a pitcher; he hit only .209 and
made far too many errors over five seasons, frustrating a White Sox front
office that considered him the shortstop of the future. According to White Sox
legend, Richard often beat the catcher’s throw to second base on stolen base
attempts, only to be tagged out for sliding past the bag!

The Nickname Game: Hank Aaron

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On Saturday, Hank Aaron will appear at the Hall of Fame here
in Cooperstown to commemorate the opening of a
new exhibit about his life and career. “Chasing the Dream” will be a full room honoring Aaron and chronicling his accomplishments. It will become only the second room
dedicated to one man at the Hall of Fame; the other belongs to a fellow named
George Herman Ruth.

 

Given Aaron’s impending presence in Cooperstown,
it seems fitting to honor him with this week’s installment of “The Nickname
Game.” Aaron had several nicknames during his long career with the Braves and
Brewers, though all derived from the use of a single word–“hammer.” Aaron’s
nicknames–at first “Hammerin’ Henry” and then the less formal “Hammerin’
Hank”–originated at the typewriters of sportswriters, who saw a chance to make
an alliterative play on his first name while also paying tribute to Aaron’s
thunderous bat. The nickname was later shortened to “Hammer,” which was easier
to say and fit more easily into smaller headline space.

 

Unlike other superstar players with unique nicknames (Willie
“The Say Hey Kid” Mays, Stan “The Man” Musial, and Babe “The Bambino” Ruth),
Aaron’s nickname did not remain in his sole possession. Instead, it influenced
players from later generations.  Slugging
John Milner, who made his big league debut with the Mets in 1971, or 17 years
after Aaron debuted in Milwaukee,
also became “The Hammer,” largely because he considered Aaron his boyhood idol.
While Milner never came close to matching Aaron’s greatness, he did become part
of the Pirates’ team that won the world championship in 1979. He also accomplished
far more than perennial Oakland
A’s prospect Bobby Brooks, an athletic outfielder who earned the moniker for
his hard-hitting style in the minor leagues. Brooks played only briefly for the
“Swingin’ A’s,” who had a number of talented outfielders ahead of him,
including Reggie Jackson, Billy North, and Joe Rudi.

 

Perhaps the most interesting “Hammer” to emerge in the 1970s
also came from the A’s, but from the front office. As a member of the skeleton
crew employed by Charlie Finley, Stanley Burrell worked as a glorified go-fer.
Burrell received the “hammer” label from Jackson,
the team’s All-Star right fielder and future Hall of Famer. Burrell couldn’t hit
like Aaron (or like Reggie for that matter), but did carry an uncanny facial
resemblance to Hammerin’ Hank. Burrell never gained much fame working in
baseball, but would later turn his singing and rapping talents into a musical
career as “M.C Hammer.”

 

And to think, it all started with Hank Aaron.
Congratulations, Hammer, on your new room at the Hall of Fame.

The Nickname Game: Team Names

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Beginning this week and continuing most Thursdays throughout the season, we present a new feature at Cooperstown Confidential. Though they have become somewhat of a dying art in the major leagues, nicknames are one of my favorite pastimes. They tell us more about teams and players, while adding some color to the game. In this week’s lidlifter, let’s examine some of the best secondary nicknames that have been given to some memorable teams over the last 100-plus years.


While
all current-day teams have official nicknames, there’s always been a tendency
to give some clubs more colorful names, as a way of paying tribute to unique
characteristics or personalities within the teams’ dynamics. Here are 12 of the
most intriguing names that have been given to teams over the years, either by
fans, the media, or by the players themselves.


“Hitless Wonders”: 1906 Chicago White Sox

Epitomizing
the depths of offensive frustration in the Deadball Era, the White Sox batted
.230 with a grand total of seven home runs in the regular season, yet still
claimed the American League pennant. The Sox might not have hit much, but they
drew a ton of walks and played little ball to the hilt, finishing fourth in the
league in runs scored. The White Sox then pulled off an ever larger upset in
the World Series, downing the crosstown Cubs of Tinker-to-Evans-to-Chance fame,
four games to two.

 

“Murderers’ Row:” 1927-1928 New York
Yankees

No
team nickname has matched the fame of “Murderers’ Row,” which actually
originated as a 19th century reference to an isolated row of prison
cells featuring some of the worst criminals of the infamous Tombs prison.  The baseball version of Murderers’ Row
included four future Hall of Famers–Earle Combs (batting leadoff), Babe Ruth
(batting third), Lou Gehrig (in the cleanup spot), and Tony Lazzeri (batting
sixth). The ’27 Yankees didn’t receive much punch from the bottom of the order,
where weak links like Jumping Joe Dugan and Pat Collins resided, but the top
six batters in the lineup did the damage of nine full men.

 

“The Gas House Gang:” 1934-1939 St. Louis
Cardinals

This
name originated with a neighborhood on the lower east side of Manhattan, where a violent group of young men
tormented citizens and came to call themselves the “Gashouse Gang.” The
Cardinals’ version of the “Gang” wasn’t quite as vicious as the street thugs,
but they did feature a number of ruffians, including infielders Leo Durocher
and Pepper Martin, outfielder Ducky Medwick, and ace pitcher Dizzy Dean. The
Cardinals of that era played a hard-nosed brand of ball, sliding hard into
bases, knocking over opposing defenders, and rarely backing away from on-field
brawls.

 

“Whiz Kids:” 1950 Philadelphia Phillies:

Coming
out of nowhere to win the National League pennant, Eddie Sawyer’s “Kids”
featured a day-to-day lineup of players almost exclusively under the age of 30.
The oldest regular was 30-year-old first baseman Eddie Waitkus, but the stars
were the 23-year-old Richie Ashburn and the 25-year-old Del Ennis. The starting
rotation was also headlined by two youngsters, Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons,
whose combined total of wins (37) nearly matched their collective age (44).

 

“Big Red Machine:” 1969-1976 Cincinnati
Reds

Some
newspapers and magazines began to refer to Cincinnati’s dynamic offensive team
as the “Big Red Machine” as early as 1969 and ’70, but the name really caught
on when the franchise steamrolled the rest of the majors in winning the ’75 and
’76 World Championships. That mid-1970s run included a four-game World Series annhilation of the Yankees, a series that too often seemed like Thurman Munson battling alone against Cincinnati’s entire 25-man roster. The cast of characters changed significantly from 1969
to 1976, with Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Bobby Tolan eventually giving way to
George Foster, Joe Morgan, and Ken Griffey Sr. The constants were Johnny Bench,
Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, though both Perez and Rose switched positions in
mid-stream; Perez moved from third to first, and Rose went from right field to
left field to third base. Combining power and speed, few teams in history have
matched the offensive potency of “The Machine.”


“Pittsburgh Lumber Company:” 1970-1976 Pittsburgh
Pirates

The Lumber Company name didn’t really take hold until the mid-1970s, but in retrospect, the 1971 world championship team should be included. Using
a free-swinging approach that might not have been fully appreciated by some
Sabermetricians, the Pirates pummeled their way to five division titles, one
pennant, and a World Championship during the first half of the decade. Other than
Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson, the “Lumber Company” didn’t like to take
walks, which they generally regarded as unmanly. Instead, Roberto Clemente, Al
Oliver, and Manny Sanguillen preferred to swing the bat early and often, and
they did it well, banging a parade of singles and doubles in a constant barrage
against opposing pitching staffs.

 

“Mustache Gang:” 1972 Oakland A’s

After
initially balking at Reggie Jackson’s spring training mustache, Oakland owner Charlie
Finley decided that he liked the new facial hair so much that he offered $300
bonuses to each of his players if they followed suit by Father’s Day. All 25
players took up the challenge, what with $300 being a lot of money to a major
leaguer in 1972. Even after the resulting “Mustache Day” promotion, most of the
A’s kept their mustaches; some took the trend a step further by letting their
hair grown long, while adding beards and heavy sideburns to boot. The new look
certainly didn’t hurt the A’s on the field, as Finley’s gang went on to win the
first of three consecutive world championships.


“The F-Troop:” 1973-1974 Atlanta Braves

The
Braves’ bench players came to call themselves the “F-Troop,” in reference to
the popular TV show that starred Ken Berry and Forrest Tucker. Although the
Braves finished fifth and third, respectively, in 1973 and ’74, they did have
some productive players in reserve. In 1973, backup catcher-first baseman Dick
Dietz hit .295 while drawing an amazing 49 walks against only 25 strikeouts.
Reserve first baseman Frank Tepedino hit .295 with 29 RBIs. And utilityman
Chuck Goggin batted .289 while showing the versatility to both catch and play
shortstop. Without Dietz and Goggin, the bench wasn’t nearly as productive in
’74, resulting in a quick fadeaway for the F-Troop nickname.


“The Southside Hitmen:” 1977 Chicago White Sox

The
’77 White Sox of Bob Lemon finished no better than third in the American League
West, couldn’t field a lick, and had the third-worst pitching in the league,
but still managed to win 90 games while creating a legacy that makes them one
of the most beloved Sox teams in memory. The hard-hitting, stone-gloved lineup
featured Jorge Orta at second, Eric Soderholm at third, Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr in left,
Richie Zisk in right, and Oscar Gamble at DH, all the while wearing those awful
black and white throwback uniforms that featured collared shirts of the
“untuckable” variety. Finishing second in the league in runs scored, the
“Hitmen” made the summer of ’77 a fun one in the Windy City–and a final legacy to aging owner Bill Veeck.


“The Bronx
Zoo:” 1977-1979 New York Yankees

This
nickname became popular because of the book of the same name written by Sparky
Lyle and Peter Golenbock. “The Bronx Zoo” served as a perfect description of a
team where arguments took place on a daily basis, players fought in the showers
(Cliff Johnson vs. Goose Gossage), the team’s center fielder (Mickey Rivers)
spoke in a language all his own, and Lyle himself routinely sat on birthday
cakes delivered to the clubhouse.  It was
all in a day’s work with the Yankees of the late seventies.

 

“Riders of the Lonesome Pine:” 1981 Detroit Tigers

The
’81 Tigers finished out of the playoff money during the split season and the
bench players really were nothing special, but they deserve credit for coming
up with one of the most colorful nicknames for a backup squad of players. “The
Riders” included the wacky (Johnny Wockenfuss and that wonderful leg-crossing stance), the obscure (Ron Jackson, Mick
Kelleher, and Stan Papi), and the forgotten (Lynn Jones and Ricky Peters).

 

“Harvey’s
Wallbangers:” 1982-1983 Milwaukee Brewers

This
nickname was a natural, given the first name of manager Harvey Kuenn and the
team’s ability to hit home runs at a moment’s notice. Stormin’ Gorman Thomas
led the American League with 39 home runs in 1982, while Cecil Cooper and Ben
Oglivie also cracked the 30-home run barrier. The “Wallbangers” advanced to the
seventh game of the 1982 World Series, but fell back in ’83, finishing fifth in
a stacked American League East. Two future Hall of Famers, Paul Molitor and
Robin Yount, played as regulars for the ’82 Wallbangers, while two others, Don
Sutton and Rollie Fingers, contributed to an underrated pitching staff.

 

The All-Halloween Team

In honor of my favorite holiday, let’s present the All-Halloween Team for 2005. This year’s team includes one current-day player (a certain star for the Anaheim Angels), one player from the 19th century, and one player who didn’t require a nickname to make the club. By the way, I’m still looking for a catcher to round out the monster squad, so if you have any suggestions, let me know.

First Base: William “Peek-A-Boo” Veach (1884-90)

Second Base: Julian “The Phantom” Javier (1960-72)

Shortstop: Leo “Spider” Cardenas (1960-75)

Third Base: Richie “The Gravedigger” Hebner (1968-85)

Left Field: Nick Goulish (1944-45)

Center Field: Jo-Jo “The Gause Ghost” Moore (1930-41)

Right Field: Vladimir “Vlad the Impaler” Guerrero (1996-current)

Starting Pitcher: Larry “The Creeper” Jaster (1965-72)

Starting Pitcher: John “The Count” Montefusco (1974-86)

Relief Pitcher: Pedro “Dracula” Borbon (1969-80)

Relief Pitcher: Dick “The Monster” Radatz (1962-69)

Happy Halloween, everyone.