February 14, 2011
I was not a big superhero/comic book kid growing up. If you had asked a ten-year-old me in 1990 who were the big superheroes, my response probably would not have been very deep. There would've been the cartoon superheroes I grew up on (He-Man, Thundercats, Voltron, Transformers, etc.) and the old staples (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man). I probably wouldn't have even been able to tell you who Wolverine and Professor X and the rest of the X-Men were at the time.
Thankfully, that all changed somewhat as I grew up. I still can't tell you all of the intricacies of the thirty-five current Batman or Spider-Man universes, or even what the deal is with this summer's superhero-du-jour Thor, but I at least have a strong familiarity with many heroes.
It recently occurred to me that, over the past decades, these comic book superheroes have slowly crept into our beloved game of baseball - in the form of nicknames. We aren't exactly to the point of seeing entire lineups of superheroes - you won't ever see DC's Justice League take on Marvel's Fantastic Four in a single game - but there are quite a few superheroes spread throughout the baseball encyclopedia. Below is a rundown of the ones that I could find using the nicknames found at Baseball Reference. I hope everyone here can help me think of a few others.
Let's start with the most obvious one. Cal Ripken, Jr., was my hero growing up, so it's only fitting that he gets such a great nickname. Of course, in my superhero-ignorant youth, I would never have known about Tony Stark and his Iron Man alter-ego. Today you probably couldn't even find a kid who doesn't know who Iron Man is. How things change.
The Incredible Hulk
I certainly remember Brian Downing. He was putting up decent numbers for the Angels into the late-1980s before retiring after the 1992 season. He gained the "The Incredible Hulk" nickname as early as 1979, when he went on an offseason workout regimen that few in baseball had ever seen before. It probably helped that "The Incredible Hulk", starring Lou Ferrigno, was just getting popular at the time.
According to Baseball Reference, there are no less than six players in history with the nickname "Iron Man". There is no doubt, though, that the name belongs to Ripken. In that same vein, Baseball Reference tells me that there are at least eight players with the nickname "Flash". Maybe I'm showing my age, but Flash Gordon will always be Tom Gordon to me. And it was especially fitting once he became a reliever for good. "Flash" is exactly the type of nickname you want for your closer.
And here's where the vagaries of Baseball Reference's nicknames database comes into play. Is Torii Hunter really known as "Spider-Man" to more than, say, fifty people in the Twin Cities? I admit, it's a compelling nickname for a man known for his defense, but I'm not sure I've ever heard it used. Anyone?
Again, I couldn't tell you much about Matt Mantei, but he was apparently known as "The Ice Man" to a certain group of fans. And though I would bet that the nickname stems more from "Top Gun" than the Marvel universe, it still works here. Plus, Iceman is too basic of a superhero to ignore.
Dr. Henry McCoy, the X-Men known as "Beast", was introduced to the world in 1963. The fact, then, that Jimmie Foxx, who retired in 1945, was nicknamed "Beast" is merely a coincidence. Still, if we're cataloging the superhero names found in baseball, "Beast" fits the bill.
Considering the wordplay involved, it seems obvious that someone, somewhere would be known as "Batman". But, from what I can tell, this has never been the case. Instead, we have the 1940s minor league player Gilbert Batman joining the ranks of the costumed heroes. Sadly, Batman never made it to the big leagues, so we don't have too much information on him. I am forced to assume, then, that Batman's wealthy parents were murdered in front of him at a young age, thus driving Batman into a life of vigilantism. His time in the minor leagues was merely a ruse in an ongoing battle with one of his many enemies.
Those are the superhero nicknames that I can find. A pretty decent lot, if I do say so myself. I'm certain, though, that I've missed quite a few in my search, or that I've misjudged a nickname or two. For example, should Mariano Rivera and his "Super Mariano" nickname be included? What about his "Sandman" nickname (anyone whose read Neil Gaiman's Sandmanseries would know what I mean)? Or about Frank Howard and his "Capital Punisher" nickname? Casey Fossum and "The Blade"? Willie McCovey and "Stretch"?
Or what about the missing nicknames that no one has yet claimed? Doesn't it seem like someone would have "Captain America" as a nickname by now? Or "Professor X"? "Dr. Doom"?
I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on these superhero nicknames, or any others. It's a field just ripe for ideas.