With the rise of Shohei Ohtani and his historic feats during the 2021 season, a well-known tweet went viral unleashing “Tungsten Arm” O’Doyle into the baseball lexicon. While Tungsten Arm wasn’t a real player, it was an example of an excellent baseball nickname. These types of nicknames get stuck in your mind and the best of these nicknames become a part of history.
Tungsten Arm was descriptive and memorable – you could picture him in a black and white photo with a floppy cap sitting crookedly on his head. The great O’Doyle, a long-forgotten ace who piled up an astounding number of innings while living a hardscrabble life during the early 20th century. Perhaps the reason Tungsten Arm seemed so realistic is that there was an actual “Rubber Arm” – Gus Weyhing, who in 1887 pitched an astounding 466 innings, going 26 – 28 with a 4.27 ERA. Another inspiration for Tungsten may be Old Hoss Radbourn. Radbourn made Rubber Arm seem pedestrian as he went 60-12 in 1884 with a 1.38 ERA while pitching a total of 678.2 innings (not a misprint). He practically pitched half a season by himself.
Due to its rich history and the sheer number of players that have played over the years, baseball has a long tradition of nicknames. This article will highlight some of the best from over the years and maybe even introduce some you didn’t know existed.
The most unique nicknames come from the olden days when the likes of Grasshopper Jim Whitney, Fightin’ Harry Wolverton, and Silent John Whitehead graced the field.
There was not just one, but two “Wagon Tongues” – Joe Adams in 1902, and Bill Keister (1896-1903), the superior of the Wagon Tongues (Tongi?), who accumulated 400 career RBI and 131 stolen bases over seven seasons. His best season came in 1901 when he led the American League in triples with 21 and hit .328/.365/.482 with an absurd stat line of two home runs and 93 RBI for the Baltimore Orioles.
You would think the Wagon Tongues may have created friction in the clubhouse with Silent John Whitehead had they ever played together but history seems to be divided if Bill was a loud mouth (wagging tongue) or used a long slender bat (similar looking to a wagon tongue). Either way, he looks like a guy not to be messed with. For a modern comparison – some definite Mad Max vibes.
Some nicknames described a player’s origins such as Lon Warneke a.k.a. “The Arkansas Hummingbird” or Herman Long who was known simply as “Germany.” Other times it was a player’s physical attributes, such as Fred Walters, who at 6’1” and 210 pounds had the unfortunate nickname of “Whale.” There was Jimmy “Big Jim” Wiggs, a 6’4” pitcher and Little Phil Geier who at 5’7” and 145 pounds had two career home runs in 1315 at-bats.
Occasionally, the nicknames gave us a peak at our mortality such as “Old Aches and Pains” Luke Appling, Pete “Old Pete” Alexander, and “Old Shufflefoot” Lou Boudreau. At the other end of the spectrum, we had “The Tabasco Kid” Kid Elberfeld, Charley “Baby” Jones, and even Joe “The Immortal” Azcue.
The simplest way to earn a nickname is to be a great player and play for a single franchise for your entire career to earn the “Mr. (Insert Team)” nickname. We have “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks, “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline, “Mr. Padre” Tony Gywnn, and more recently “Mr. National” Ryan Zimmerman.
Let’s review some of the other most iconic nicknames in baseball history. For these purposes, I’ve grouped players into a few different nickname tiers.
All-Time Yankee Greats
Love them or hate them, there is no denying the New York Yankees are the greatest franchise in not just Major League Baseball, but perhaps all major professional sports. The pinstripes, the history, the 27 World Series championships…..and the nicknames. Their best players were so talented they had multiple nicknames.
Babe Ruth – Numerous Nicknames
The man who cursed a franchise for a century and was fueled by a diet of hot dogs and beer: George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The most famous and arguably the best player of all time. He was widely known by most people, excluding Scotty Smalls, by several different nicknames: The Great Bambino, The Sultan of Swat, The Colossus of Clout. His nicknames add another chapter to the mythic lore associated with his career and life.
Joe DiMaggio – Yankee Clipper/Joltin’ Joe
The owner of the longest hitting streak in MLB history (56 games), DiMaggio also had a 61-game hitting streak with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League before playing for the Yankees. In 1937, at 22 years old and in his second season in New York, DiMaggio hit .346/.412/.673 with 46 home runs and 167 RBI and led baseball with 151 runs. Two years later, he hit .381 and captured the first of three career MVP awards.
Lou Gehrig – the Iron Horse
Gehrig is known as the “Iron Horse” for his remarkable durability, playing in 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees. This record stood until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. In 1931, Gehrig hit .341 with 46 home runs and a cartoonish 185 RBI. He had six other seasons where he hit 150 or more RBI and earned two MVP awards. He tragically passed away at age 37 from the disease now known as ALS. His farewell speech at Yankee Stadium is one of the most memorable images in baseball history.
Other All-Time Greats (non-Yankee Division)
Some real legends in this grouping, featuring the most consistent and pure hitters of all time. Did they get great nicknames because they were great? Or were they great because of their nicknames?
James Bell – Cool Papa
Born James Thomas Bell, he earned the name “Cool Papa” due to his relaxed demeanor. He was also known for his blazing speed and is remembered in baseball lore due to a famous story told by Satchel Paige who said Bell was so fast he could turn the light switch off and be in bed before it was dark. Paige also once said, “Let me tell you about Cool Papa Bell. One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his rear end as he slid into second.” A great story and the coolest nickname on this list.
Ted Williams – Splendid Splinter/Teddy Ballgame/The Kid
Another legend with multiple nicknames. Many people consider Williams to be the best hitter to ever play and for good reason: he famously hit .406 in 1941 and is the career leader in on-base percentage with a .482 mark. Williams hit .344 for his career and would have collected 3,000 career hits if not for the three years he missed due to military service.
Albert Pujols – The Machine
Pujols’ statistics from his first 10 seasons look like they belong in another era and are comparable to some of the names that have already appeared in this article, and indeed Baseball Reference lists each of his first five seasons as most similar to Joe DiMaggio’s first five seasons. At other points in his career, he is matched to Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. Pujols had machine-like consistency as he pumped out .300/30/100 seasons like an assembly line. In total, he collected three MVP awards and finished in the top five of MVP voting six other times. Due to his remarkable longevity, he also amassed some monster career numbers, finishing his career with 703 home runs (fourth all-time) and 2218 RBI (second all-time). His resurgence last season and chase for 700 home runs was the cherry on top of a one-of-a-kind career.
Modern Era Tier
Two out of three are Hall of Famers here, but each one has a Hall of Fame nickname.
Frank Taveras – Pittsburgh Stealer
Taveras is the least-known player in this grouping, but earns high marks for his play on words Pittsburgh Steelers moniker. He played shortstop for the Pirates in the 1970s and amassed 300 career steals, with a single-season career high of 70 in 1977.
Ozzie Smith – Wizard of Oz
A master with his glove, Smith was a 15-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner for the Cardinals. He received the nickname “Wizard of Oz” for his magical defensive skills and was known for his signature backflips. Smith was swift on the base paths as well, amassing 580 career stolen bases. He was the 1982 NLCS MVP, and won a World Series ring that year with St. Louis.
Fred McGriff – Crime Dog
McGriff earned his nickname “Crime Dog” due to the similarity of his last name to Scruff McGruff, the educational canine and mascot of the National Crime Prevention Council. If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, you definitely still remember Scruff’s zip code. McGriff was a 5-time All-Star who played for the Blue Jays, Padres, and Braves and was one of the original players for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. McGriff finished his career with 493 career home runs and was recently elected to the Hall of Fame.
1990s – 2000s Steroid Tier
A lot of physical specimens in this group from one of the most fun eras in baseball history.
Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco – Bash Brothers
The most cartoonish sluggers of all, and remembered just as much for their steroid use as their play on the field, McGwire and Canseco formed a fearsome duo known as the Bash Brothers that led the Oakland A’s to back-to-back World Series in the late 1980s, capturing the title in 1989. They invented an awesome home run celebration and more recently have been lampooned by The Lonely Island.
Ken Griffey Jr. – Junior / The Kid
The most popular baseball player of the 1990s, Griffey broke into the big leagues at 19 years old earning the nickname “The Kid”. He was a true 5-tool athlete with a buttery smooth swing, while also racking up 10 Gold Gloves for his highlight reel catches in the field. Griffey hit a total of 630 home runs in his career and would likely be the all-time leader if injuries hadn’t slowed him down later in his career. He was an icon off the field as well, as Griffey’s signature kicks rivaled any basketball star from that era.
Frank Thomas – The Big Hurt
Standing 6′ 5” 240 pounds and looking like he was built from an oak tree, Thomas could have just as easily played professional football. He did play college football and baseball for the Auburn Tigers but it seems he picked the right path with baseball, winning back-to-back AL MVP awards in 1993 and 1994 highlighted by a preposterous on-base percentage of .487 in 1994. Unfortunately for White Sox fans, that was the strike-shortened season, so the Sox finished a great year with a 67-46 record and first place in the AL West, but no playoff appearance.
A mix of “big” time legends and some lesser-known players in this group, but each with an all-star nickname.
Travis Hafner – Pronk
Hafner has a nickname so special it is a word that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the English language. “Pronk” is a combination of two different nicknames he earned early in his playing career: “The Project” and “The Donkey.” He was a big dude, officially listed at 6’3” and 240 pounds, who was a force for a decade with Cleveland. During his peak years (2004 – 2007), he hit an average of 32 home runs and 108 RBI. A North Dakota native, he ended his career as the all-time home run leader (213 home runs) from someone born in that state.
Billy Butler – Country Breakfast
With a nickname straight out of a Perkins breakfast menu, Butler was officially listed as 6′ 0” and 260 lbs. He was a fan favorite for the Royals earning an All-Star selection in 2012 when he .313 with 29 home runs and 107 RBI. Butler finished his career with the Yankees in 2016.
Bartolo Colón – Big Sexy
This is a man that needs no further introduction, an all-time fan favorite who somehow was still throwing major league pitches at 45 years old and hit his only career home run at age 43. Take five minutes to watch these additional highlights. Guaranteed to brighten your day.
MLB Players’ Weekend Tier
“MLB Players’ Weekend” was introduced in 2019 to mixed reactions and allowed players to select which names they wanted to be displayed on their jerseys. This was a definite high mark for nickname enthusiasts. The idea has since been discarded, but the following nicknames live forever on the backs of jerseys.
James Paxton – Big Maple
Paxton hasn’t played consistently since 2019 and is working his way back from Tommy John Surgery that has derailed his last few seasons. A native of Canada, “The Big Maple” went 38-17 with a 3.54 ERA from 2017-2019. He is the first Canadian-born pitcher to throw a no-hitter in Canada.
Nelson Cruz – Boomstick
Cruz will still be playing in 2023 as he recently signed a deal with the Padres. Sitting on 459 career home runs, he probably needs two more solid seasons with the “Boomstick” if he wants to join the 500-home run cub. Amazingly, Cruz only had 77 career home runs in his 20s.
Mike Foltynewicz – High Foltage
Foltynewicz looked like a potential mainstay starter for the Braves after going 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA and earning an All-Star selection in 2018. However, he never again did match that level of success and last pitched in the majors in 2021. However, his nickname was worthy of a top-line starter.
Willie Mays – The Say Hey Kid
Hank Aaron – Hammerin’ Hank
Pete Rose – Charlie Hustle
Randy Johnson – The Big Unit
Carlos Lee – El Caballo
Pete Alonso – Polar Bear
Who will be the next player with a nickname that lives on in baseball history? My two leaders in the clubhouse are Corbin “Barrels” (Corbin Carroll) or Vinnie “Italian Breakfast” Pasquantino, but only (Sho)time will tell.
Composite Photo: Unsplash Photography from the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, Matt Alaniz, Fabian Barral, Rishabh Sharma.
Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller @kurt_player02 on Instagram / @KUwasemiller on Twitter
Pure heresy to leave off Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd.
I forgot about that one!
I’m partial to Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn
That was a great nickname. I forgot about Adam Dunn – a true three-outcome hitter! I just looked him up again – he hit 462 career home runs. I would not have guessed it was that high.