Flash McCaffery



Strange. But name a man and you make him what he is. Of course, he can develop. And in ways you don’t expect. . . . But the basic stuff is already there. In the name. Or rather: in the naming.—Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association

Back in the spring of 1951 the word coming out of St. Petersburg, Florida. where the Yankees trained, was that a young, fleet‑footed outfielder named Mickey Mantle was going to make it big as the next Yankee center fielder. What made this obvious to real baseball insiders was not so much his speed, powerful throwing arm, or ability to hit baseballs out of sight from either side of the plate. No, what made this youngster a sure-fire bet to take over Joe DiMaggio's spot was, quite simply, his name: Mickey Mantle—a center fielder's name, if ever there was one. Even better than the Dodgers' Duke Snider or the Giants' own rookie phenom, Willie Mays. Oh, a few purists suggested that Mantle’s name sounded a little more like a shortstop's than a center fielder's (that's easy to explain, suggested some old-timers—he was a shortstop in the minors before the Yankees realized the full mythic potential of his name). 

There has always been something magical and evocative about baseball players' names. Of course, a player would occasionally come along in another sport with a catchy name or nickname: basketball has its Jungle Jim Loscutoff, Slater Martin, and Pistol Pete Maravich; football its Mean Joe Greene, Crazy Legs Hirsch, and Too Tall Jones; golf its Tiger Woods, Slammin' Sammy Snead and Bantam Ben Hogan. Boxing probably has come closest to baseball in providing sports fans with memorable names (Jersey Joe Walcott, Primo Carnera, Max Schmeling, Rocky Marciano, Cassius Clay). But let's face it, no other sport can match baseball when it comes to names. From its earliest, mythic period right up to the present, baseball fans have been filling in their scorecards with such hilarious, impossible, and exactly appropriate names as Eli Grba, Schoolboy Rowe, Dizzy Dean, John “Blue Moon” Odom, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Sal "The Barber" Maglie, Dazzy Vance, Ossee Schrenkengost, Winkleman Gonzales, Urban Shocker, and Heinie Manush. 

The original quality of baseball names is of two distinct types. Most fans are familiar with the zany vitality of baseball nicknames, which is why baseball scouts and sportswriters are always on the lookout for players named Lefty, Babe, PeeWee, or Whitey. But, more subtly, there’s a more mysterious quality that simply involves a name "sounding right." I used to play a game with my wife Sinda (who loved baseball but knew little about real major league players) in which I would name a player and she would guess the position he played. On the average she could guess well over fifty percent of them and when she was on a roll, her accuracy was often uncanny. Her ability wasn't really as magical as it seemed, since a lot of names were easy to spot. Christy Mathewson and Robin Roberts were obviously pitchers; Walt Dropo must be a first baseman; Gabby Hartnett had to be a catcher, and so on. But let's take a closer look at this process, position by position.

Pitchers have powerful, impressive-sounding names that can sometimes be confused with those of center fielders and shortstops (often, of course, pitchers also played shortstop or center field for their little league teams). Usually, though, there’s an aristocratic ring to their names which makes them distinctive‑‑Grover Cleveland Alexander, Fernando Valenzeula, Sterling Hitchcock, Sandy Koufax, Bartolo Colon, Christy Mathewson, etc. Left-handed pitchers can often have unusual nicknames, most of which end in “y” (Lefty, of course, but also Dizzy, Dazzy, Whitey, and Sandy). Pitcher’s first names also almost never end in a diminutive form (i.e., if their name is William, they will be called Bill, not Billy; if Thomas, it will be Tom, not Tommy). Despite some exceptions (Tommy John, Billy Pierce), this rule is pretty rigid and probably derives from the pitcher's position of authority. 

First basemen have big, lumbering-sounding names: Moose Skowron, Ted Kluszewski, Boog Powell, Bull Durham. Most Polish names belong to first basemen, though they occasionally play left-field (as with Greg Luzinski, who started out at first base) or at third base (e.g., Jabo Jablonski); and like pitchers, most first baseman don’t have diminutive endings to their names. A handy exclusionary rule here: if the name is Polish, it can’t be a pitcher, catcher, shortstop, or second baseman. 

Catchers are a tough group to identify because they are so often confused with third basemen and first baseman (many catchers actually try their hand at these other two positions—think of Gil Hodges or the Padres late 70s experiments with Gene Tenace, Dave Roberts, and Mike Ivie). Of course, anyone named “Gabby” is going to be a catcher, but also look for powerful, squat-sounding names: Pudge Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Smokey Burgess, Ernie Lombardi. 

The names of shortstops and second basemen are usually easy to spot. Nicknames abound here, along with names that sound short, wiry, quick, and alliterative. If a name sounds really flashy, it’s probably a shortstop’s especially if it sounds vaguely foreign: Hans Wagner, Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, Ozzie Smith, Chico Carrasquel, Peanuts Lowrey, Rabbit Maranville, Luis Aparicio, Pee Wee Reese. If they don’t go by a nickname, most shortstops and second baseman use diminutives of their names: Billy, Tommy, Eddie (all Eddies are infielders). Not to belabor the point, but remember: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Walter Johnson are pitchers; Tommy Seaver, Stevie Carlton, and Wally Johnson would all be infielders. 

Third basemen may have the toughest of all names to pick out, probably because their names seem to blend aspects of both the infield and outfield. The key here may be their first names, which often seem unusual: Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, Pie Traynor, Jabo Jablonski, Graig (“Don’t call me ‘Greg’”) Nettles, Buddy Bell. 

A good rule for outfielders is that if the name is flashy but doesn't sound like a pitcher or a shortstop, the player probably plays center field (Daryl Strawberry, Brett Butler, Heinie Manush, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Caesar Geronimo, Chili Davis). Basically, if you can't put a player's name into any other category, try left or right field; if the name has any flair to it at all, try right field unless file name sounds bulky-‑Babe Ruth, Rocky Colavito, and Jackie Jensen are right fielders' names, while Greg Luzinski, Hack Wilson, Zack Wheat, Carl Yastrzemski, and Gus Zernial are obviously left fielders. 

Incidentally, baseball players themselves are certainly aware of how crucial the naming process is in determining the nature of the their careers. Late one night back in the 1977, I recall bumping into a promising young Padre left-handed pitcher named Bob Owchinko who was glumly sipping a beer in a sports bar I frequented. I could feel his pain—earlier that evening I had sat in left field at Jack Murphy Stadium and watched Owchinko take a perfect game into the 8th inning against the Dodgers (our hated rivals) before Steve Garvey laid down a one-out bunt single (btw, as of 2020 the Padres STILL have never had a pitcher throw a no-hitter!). At any rate, after buying Owchinko a beer and commiserating with him about what a chickenshit Garvey was, I recall gently suggesting that if he wanted to turn his career around, he might consider changing his name to something like Damon Rutherford. I pointed out that there were precedents for this soft of name transplant: Pete Jablonowski, for example, was only a mediocre relief pitcher for the Yankees and various other clubs until he disappeared for a couple of years into minor league obscurity, changed his name to Pete Appleton, and came back to win fourteen games as a starter for the 1936 Senators. Unfortunately for Bob (and the Padres), Owchinko never changed his name and—inevitably—his once-promising career was soon over. 

And people really say a name doesn't matter? 

Here is my own all‑time favorite name lineup (alternative choices are listed in parentheses): 


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