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Baseball Names – How They Came To Be

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.
With the 2017 edition of spring training to beging and another season to follow, a brief sampler follows of some of the singular baseball names follow: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 pounds.

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.

“B0O” 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 switched back to his regular jersey after one game.

“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 .634.

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.


Coming this fall from your favorite author: (Pre-order)

Dr. Harvey Frommer, a professor at Dartmouth College in the MALS program, is in his 4ist year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, he is the author of 43 sports books including the classics: best-selling “New York City Baseball, 1947-1957″ and best-selling Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,as well as his acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park. His highly praised When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl was published last fall.

Harvey Frommer
I'm the author of 10 books. If you're looking for autographed copies just go to my Twitter @Sportsology and DM me.

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