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March 8, 2011
What's In A Name?
Like many of you, I spent time this past weekend preparing for a fantasy draft or auction, typing lists of player names into spreadsheets, ranking them, and assembling a draft strategy. A large number of factors come into play when ranking players—age, long-term vs. short-term value, positional need, injury risk, ceiling vs. likelihood of meeting it, and whether the player is on a team you’re comfortable rooting for. However, there’s one final tiebreaker for me that can come into play: whether or not I like the player’s name. All else being equal, I’ll take the player whose moniker is more enjoyable for me to say, type, or think about.
Now, admittedly, it’s rare when all other things are so equal that I would let a player’s name be the final arbiter—but it’s not unheard of. My most memorable example was when I couldn’t decide between two young shortstop prospects for my AL-only Strat league: B.J. Upton and Hanley Ramirez. They were so inseparable in my mind that I went with Hanley (immediately ahead of my main rival, who drafted B.J. with the next pick) only because I thought I’d enjoy hearing his name more in my internal game-day monologue. I picked right, of course—or at least I would have been right, if Hanley hadn’t been shipped to the NL to help Boston win a title before he could help me win one.
Names can be important—ask anyone who markets a new product—so it’s surprising to me that more players, with millions of dollars at stake, haven’t changed their names to make them more appealing or memorable to organizations or fans or sponsors. If your name is Adrian Williams, people may or may not remember you; if your name is Terwilliger Justice, or Doritos Jones, or Romanceo Sir Tasty Maxibillion, they likely will. When I entered BP Idol, I actually wondered whether to publish as Ken Funck, or Kenneth Funck, or K. Arthur Funck (yes, it was actually the Ken part I considered ditching), before finally settling on my current nom de plume, “Nate Silver.”
A great name certainly makes you more memorable. There are two types of players I remember from my early childhood: those with great talent (e.g., Jimmy Wynn) and those with great names (e.g., Chico Salmon). Some players retain their fame for a specific event, like Steve Blass Disease, Tommy John Surgery, or the Brock-for-Broglio trade. Other names, however, are just so different, so appropriate (or not), or so interesting that they stay with you long after you hear them. Below are some of my favorite player names—some of them great players, many of them not—that have stuck with me over the years for different reasons. They’re mostly pitchers, due to a recent memory-stoking stroll through my indispensable copy of The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers. I’d love to hear some of yours.
NOT OF THEIR TIME: Player names that seem incongruous to the era in which they played.
Nick Altrock (1898-1933): Alt-rock as a musical genre was nowhere to be found in the first few decades of the twentieth century, but it’s appropriate that Nick Altrock spent more time as an entertainer than a pitcher. After injuries derailed his promising White Sox career after the 1906 season, Altrock spent the next few decades as a coach for the Washington Senators, making infrequent mound appearances and pinch-hitting as publicity stunts, culminating in a Minoso-esque plate appearance in 1933 when he was 57 years old. Altrock was also noted for the comic antics he performed while coaching third base, including a hilarious one-man wrestling routine that, unfortunately, was probably not the inspiration for Graham Chapman’s similar bit. If you consider grunge to be alt-rock, perhaps he was baseball’s one-man Jim Rose Circus of the early twentieth century.
Urban Shocker (1916-1928): Gun to my head, I’d probably choose this as my favorite baseball name of all time. Shocker pitched on the legendary 1927 Yankees, but his name seems more befitting of a New York Post headline from the seventies than a player from the Roaring Twenties.
Red Ames (1903-1919): How could this guy not have pitched in the early 1950s, since his name is seemingly ripped straight from one of Joe McCarthy’s Senate floor tirades? Surprisingly, he wasn’t a lefty.
Oil Can Boyd (1982-1991): Sure, his nickname was an affectation and an homage to his Negro League father, but it’s a great name. How many of you would remember Dennis Boyd’s career so clearly?
Catfish Hunter (1965-1979): While you can’t blame Jim Hunter for his nickname—it came from Charlie Finley—it is fairly incongruous, both with regard to the era in which he pitched and with the entire method usually employed to capture catfish. You “fish” for catfish—one common, if sometimes demeaned, method is “jug fishing,” which involves dangling a bunch of baited hooks under a floating plastic jug while drinking Bud Light—but you don’t “hunt” them. There’s no such thing as a catfish hunter.
Mudcat Grant (1958-1971): Similarly, if there ever was such a thing as a mudcat grant, awarded to researchers to fund the study of what we here in Wisconsin call a “bullhead,” former senator Bill Proxmire would surely have awarded it a Golden Fleece Award. You can’t blame Jim Grant for keeping the name, however, since it was bestowed on him by Larry Doby.
OF THEIR TIME: Player names that fit perfectly in their era.
Jack Chesbro (1899-1909): Happy Jack is in the Hall of Fame and was the first Yankees pitcher to ever, well, be a Yankees pitcher, starting their first game (as the Highlanders) in 1903. To me, though, his name has always sounded like the ultimate turn-of-the-century moniker. There’s no reason for this, other than it just sounds right to me. Whenever I read about, say, Teddy Roosevelt shaking hands with 8,513 people at an event in 1907, I assume that 8,320 of them are named Jack Chesbro. Most Spanish-American War veterans were named Jack Chesbro, as were about half of the cavalrymen that took part in the Wounded Knee Massacre—the rest were all named William Hendershot.
Orval Overall (1905-1913): A star pitcher on the last Cubs team to actually win a championship, Orval Overall sounds like a man that lived up the road from my homesteading Swedish and Norwegian ancestors. Appropriately, Overall was from a town called Farmersville; inappropriately, he was from a wealthy family, attended the University of California, and was president of his freshman class.
Old Hoss Radbourn (1881-1891): Need I say more?
Pat Rapp (1992-2001): The much-traveled fifth starter would have been a bigger star in the nineties if he had improved his flocabulary and learned to freestyle.
SCOUTING REPORTS: Names that may or may not accurately describe the player’s approach.
Chief Bender (1903-1925): Our own Larry Granillo (boy, it feels good to write that) yesterday touched on Bender’s advice to America’s youth, but didn’t mention that the great Ojibwa pitcher did, indeed, possess a wicked curveball.
Johnny Niggeling (1938-1946): A late-blooming knuckleballer, Niggeling was that rarest of pitchers whose name accurately describes the action of his pitches.
John Montefusco (1974-1986): The Count was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1975 and already had a great nickname, but to me his name always sounded like the perfect description of a pitcher that had perfectly befuddled opposing hitters: “He’s kept the Dodgers off-balance and completely Montefusco-ed all day.”
Randy Lerch (1975-1986): Fans of "The Munsters" will understand why this is the perfect name for a pitcher who stood a slender 6’5”.
Mike Fetters (1989-2004): As he stared in with that famous scowl, Fetters was thinking how he was going to tie hitters up inside with his next delivery.
Steve Trachsel (1993-2008): The Human Rain Delay was so deliberate, it should become standard usage to describe any wasted energy on the mound as “trachseling around.” Alternatively, you could say that a pitcher is “bringing the game to a complete contreras.”
Craig Lefferts (1983-1994): If you take the words “crafty lefty” and puree them with an egg and a roll of Certs, this is the pitcher you’d get.
John Rocker (1993-2003): The gift that keeps on giving. First off, when I was in Little League, there was this kid named Sullivan who threw twice as hard as everyone else, while his coach would yell from the dugout “Rockin’ and firin’, Sully. Keep rockin’ and firin’.” As soon as I saw the name John Rocker I expected him to pitch just like Sully did, and I wasn’t disappointed. Next, his full name is John Loy Rocker, which sounds like a name some blonde blues-rocker heisted from John Lee Hooker without giving appropriate credit. Then there’s the question of whether Rocker is a little crazy, and the whole Kenny Power connection. One of the most descriptive player names ever.
Carl Scheib (1943-1954): He can paint that corner for $29.95.
Mike Cuellar (1959-1977): Possessor of one of my all-time favorite baseball names, Cuellar was a past master of the screwball, a queer pitch that’s notoriously difficult and painful to throw.
Curt Schilling (1988-2007): Pitcher, grognard, MMORPG enthusiast, political activist, hosiery stylist, steroid denouncer, and all-around self-promotional genius. Ask not for whom the Curt shills; he shills for he.
Bruce Sutter (1976-1988): Sutter may not have invented the split-fingered fastball, but he certainly mastered it, and when he did it seemed as if no one had ever made major league hitters look so silly. They call it a “splitter” now, but if there were any justice, they’d call that pitch a Sutter.
Dan Quisenberry (1979-1990): When a fireballing closer strikes out the side to earn the save, his opponents say “he buried us.” When a sidearming closer allows two groundball singles and gets three groundball outs, his opponents say “he Quisenberried us.” Unless they’re in the National League, in which case they were “Tekulve-ed.”
Brandon Belt (2011?-????): Great name now that his power has arrived.
Stephen Strasburg (2010-????): For some reason, the first time I heard of Strasburg his name immediately reminded me of Major Strasser, the German official trying to catch Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, and I could never get that particular mnemonic pairing out of my head. Once I saw him cut his swath through the National League with German efficiency, I knew I would never get rid of it. And no, I’m not calling Strasburg a Nazi…
ONOMATOPOEIA: Names that sound like something the player does.
Cuellar: The vibrating sound waves made by a spinning screwball.
Mohorcic: The sound of a sinker hit hard on one hop to the third baseman.
Clontz: A reliever’s first-pitch fastball clanging off the foul pole for a three-run home run.
Goltz: The swallowing noise made by a general manager before explaining to the media why his big offseason free-agent acquisition is tanking.
Twitchell: The nervous tic afflicting managers when a swingman is starting an important game. (Okay, so that’s not onomatopoeia. Deal with it.)
NAMES THAT ARE JUST PLAIN FUN TO SAY: If these were beverages, reviewers would say they have “excellent mouth feel.” Oh, and by the way, forget all that crap about “cellar door.” The most beautiful word in history is “Aberystwyth.”
Kirby Higbe (always sounds like igpay atinlay to me.)
Demetrius Odysseus (last name omitted)
That last guy wasn’t a ballplayer, but a guy I knew at university. He could have gone around insisting everyone call him Odysseus, but instead he went by “Odie.” For someone proudly named Ken Funck, that just seemed like the greatest waste of name resources in history.