Baseball Names - and How They Got That Way! (Part 1)
The words and phrases are spoken and written day after day, year after
year - generally without any wonderment as to how they became part of
the language. All have a history, a story.
A brief sampler follows with more to come . . .
AMAZIN' METS The first run they ever scored came in on a balk. They lost
the first nine games they ever played. They finished last their first
four seasons. Once they were losing a game, 12-1, and there were two
outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. A fan held up a sign that said
"PRAY!" There was a walk, and ever hopeful, thousands of voices chanted,
"Let's go Mets." They were 100-l underdogs to win the pennant in 1969
and incredibly came on to finish the year as World Champions. They
picked the name of the best pitcher in their history (Tom Seaver) out of
a hat on April Fools' Day. They were supposed to be the replacement for
the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. They could have been the
New York Continentals or Burros or Skyliners or Skyscrapers or Bees or
Rebels or NYB's or Avengers or even Jets (all runner-up names in a
contest to tab the National League New York team that began playing ball
in 1962). They've never been anything to their fans but amazing-the
Amazin' New York Mets.
BIG POISON and LITTLE POISON Paul Waner's rookie year with the
Pittsburgh Pirates was 1926, when he batted .336 and led the league in
triples. In one game he cracked out six hits using six different bats.
In 1927 the second Waner arrived, brother Lloyd. For 14 years, the
Waners formed a potent brother combination in the Pittsburgh lineup.
Paul was 5'8l/2'' and weighed 153 pounds. Lloyd was 5'9" and weighed 150
Paul was dubbed Big Poison even though he was smaller than Lloyd, who
was called Little Poison. An older brother even then had privileges. But
both players were pure poison for National League pitchers. Slashing
left-handed line-drive hitters, the Waners collected 5,611 hits between
them. Paul's lifetime batting average was .333, and he recorded three
batting titles. Lloyd posted a career average of .316. They played a
combined total of 38 years in the major leagues.
BONEHEAD MERKLE The phrase "pulling a bonehead play," or "pulling a
boner," is not only part of the language of baseball, but of all sports
and in fact, of the language in general. Its most dramatic derivation
goes back to September 9, 1908. Frederick Charles Merkle, a.k.a. George
Merkle, was playing his first full game at first base for the New York
Giants. It was his second season in the majors; the year before, he had
appeared in 15 games. The Giants were in first place and the Cubs were
challenging them. The two teams were tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the
ninth inning. With two outs, the Giants' Moose McCormick was on third
base and Merkle was on first. Al Bridwell slashed a single to center
field, and McCormick crossed the plate with what was apparently the
winning run. Merkle, eager to avoid the Polo Grounds crowd that surged
onto the playing field, raced directly to the clubhouse instead of
following through on the play and touching second base. Amid the
pandemonium, Johnny Evers of the Cubs screamed for the baseball,
obtained it somehow, stepped on second base, and claimed a forceout on
Merkle. When things subsided, umpire Hank O'Day agreed with Evers. The
National League upheld O'Day, Evers and the Cubs, so the run was
nullified and the game not counted. Both teams played out their
schedules and completed the season tied for first place with 98 wins
and 55 losses. A replay of the game was scheduled, and Christy Mathewson,
seeking his 38th victory of the season, lost, 4-2, to Three-Finger Brown
(q.v.). The Cubs won the pennant. Although Merkle played 16 years in the
majors and had a lifetime batting average of .273, he will forever be
rooted in sports lore as the man who made the "bonehead" play that lost
the 1908 pennant for the Giants, for had he touched second base there
would have been no replayed game and the Giants would have won the
pennant by one game.
"Boo" Name for a day in 1979 of Giants shortstop Johnnie LeMaster, who
heard the boo-birds in San Fran. He took his field position wearing
"Boo" on his back. LeMaster switches back to his regular jersey after
"CHILI" When he was about 12 years old, Charles Davis was given a not
too attractive haircut which led to his getting the nickname "Chili
Bowl," later shortened to "Chili" as the boy became the man and the
baseball player "Chili" Davis.
GIANTS One sultry summer's day in 1885, Jim Mutrie, the
saber-mustached manager of the New York Gothams, was enjoying himself
watching his team winning an important game. Mutrie screamed out with
affection, "My big fellows, my giants." Many of his players were big
fellows, and they came to be Giants. For that was how the nickname
Giants came to be. And when the New York team left for San Francisco in
1958, Giants, Mutrie's endearing nickname, went along with it.
SPLENDID SPLINTER He was also nicknamed the Thumper, because of the
power with which he hit the ball, and the Kid, because of his
tempestuous attitude-but his main nickname was perhaps the most
appropriate. Ted Williams was one of the most splendid players who ever
lived, and he could really "splinter" the ball. The handsome slugger
compiled a lifetime batting average of .344 and a slugging percentage of
Williams blasted 521 career home runs, scored nearly 1,800 runs, and
drove in over 1,800 runs. So keen was his batting eye that he walked
over 2,000 times while striking out only 709 times. In 1941 he batted
.406 - the last time any player hit .400 or better. One of the most
celebrated moments in the career of the Boston Red Sox slugger took
place in the 1946 All-Star Game. Williams came to bat against Rip Sewell
and his celebrated "eephus" (blooper) pitch. Williams had already walked
in the game and hit a home run. Sewell's pitch came to the plate in a
high arc, and Williams actually trotted out to the pitch, bashing it
into the right-field bullpen for a home run. "That was the first homer
ever hit off the pitch," Sewell said later.
"The ball came to the plate in a twenty-foot arc," recalled Williams. "I
didn't know whether I'd be able to get enough power into that kind of a
pitch for a home run." There was no kind of pitch Williams couldn't hit
for a home run.
# # #
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Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
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