Thursday, February 4, 2010
(Above: the Flying Tomato)
The Winter Olympics are almost here, and I'm rooting for American snowboarder Shaun White.
Not that I care about the sport; I just like his nickname - "The Flying Tomato," a tribute to his flaming red hair.
It's a throwback to the good old days, when nicknames actually told you something about the guy's personality. Heck, you could make an all-star team with just former Raiders, such as Jack "The Assassin" Tatum, Kenny "The Snake" Stabler and Lester "The Molester" Hayes.
But nowadays, nicknames are merely corny puns on the players' names, and it's all ESPN anchor Chris Berman's fault.
He's the guy who invented such cringe-worthy monikers as Bert "Be Home" Blyleven, Julio "Won't You Let Me Take You On A Sea" Cruz, Roberto "Remember The" Alomar, and Curtis "My Favorite" Martin.
Ironically, Berman has a decent nickname of his own: "Boomer," which pretty well describes his blustery on-air delivery.
Athletes don't always like their nicknames. Wilt Chamberlain hated "Wilt The Stilt" and asked people to call him "The Big Dipper," instead. Deion Sanders hated "Neon Deion," preferring the less invidious "Prime Time."
On the other hand, Joe DiMaggio beamed when people called him "Clipper," a shorter version of "The Yankee Clipper." And his great rival, Ted Williams, liked being called "The Splendid Splinter," a reference to his 6-foot-3, 180-lb. frame.
But he fell out with the sportswriters, and after a notorious incident when he spat in the direction of the press box, they renamed him "The Splendid Spitter."
Nobody had more nicknames than George Herman Ruth, who was named "Babe" after Baby Ruth, the young daughter of former President Grover Cleveland. (The candy bar was named after her, too.)
But the Bambino was so phenomenal, the writers kept inventing new names to describe him, including "the Sultan of Swat," "the Maharajah of Mash," "the Caliph of Clout," "the Behemoth of Blast" and "the Wazir of Wham."
The Sultan of Swat had many imitators, including slugger Mose Solomon, aka "The Rabbi of Swat," who played for the Giants in 1922.
Not all the nicknames of yesteryear were golden. Many were racist, and some were downright cruel. (For years, it seemed like every bald guy was called Curly, and every fat guy was called Skinny.)
My favorite recent nickname is one that Shaquille O'Neal gave himself. After someone told him about the ancient Greek philosophers, Shaq decided he had a lot in common with them, so he dubbed himself "The Big Aristotle."
Back in the early '80s, the San Francisco Examiner ran a contest to choose a nickname for Joe Montana.
The winner was "Big Sky," which, of course, was a total flop despite the Examiner's best efforts to plug it. Finally, someone pointed out that a name like Joe Montana doesn't need improvement. It's perfect as is.
Anyway, here are my Top 10 greatest sports nicknames of all time:
10. Dick "Night Train" Lane.
9. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch.
8. Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb.
7. Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra.
6. Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster.
5. Walter "Sweetness" Payton.
4. Bill "The Big Tuna" Parcells (apparently, that's what he looks like in the shower).
3. Sal "The Barber" Maglie (because his high-and-inside pitches gave hitters such a close shave).
2. Mark "The Bird" Fydrich.
1. Doug "The Fydrich" Bird.