Baseball nicknames aren't what they used to be. A few players these days have pretty good aliases - I'm partial to "King Felix" and "Country Breakfast" myself - but for the most part nickname usage is down, and the quality is terrible. We don't see anything like the Sultan of Swat, the Say Hey Kid, or the Commerce Comet anymore. And that's a shame. Back in the day almost every player was given a nickname, and it seems like the best players always had the best nicknames. Today the Tigers have a few of the best players in the world, yet none have any form of nickname.
Earlier this season the Tigers released Alex Gonzalez whose nickname - according to his Baseball Reference page - is Sea Bass. I still can't decide whether I think that's awful or awesome, but I know it's better than the majority of modern monikers that are mostly just shorthand versions of a player's actual name. We see way too many "A-Rod" ripoffs. The Tigers are as guilty as anyone, with an A-Jax and a V-Mart on the team to go with a Miggy and an Iggy. Former Tigers Polly and Grandy Man agree - these nicknames are lame.
So I made a list. We'll be reviewing the ten best nicknames in Tigers history. This list was compiled using objective criteria like advanced statistics and focus groups. That's a lie, this list is completely subjective and you're guaranteed to disagree with it. I took the liberty of providing an interesting backstory for each nickname, which may be partially or entirely fabricated (hint: they're entirely fabricated).
Oh, and there are two rules: 1) a player had to play for the Detroit Tigers at some point, and 2) only "official" nicknames that are listed on a player's Baseball Reference page were considered. So "Country Strong" isn't here, unfortunately.
#10. "The Bull" - George Uhle
Background: George Uhle was an actual bull. An uncastrated male bovine. So it's not really a very creative nickname. I couldn't uncover how he was able to pitch - what with the hooves and all - probably because he played in the 30's and Americans had more important things to worry about than documenting the mechanics of baseball playing cattle.
Real Story: Uhle earned this nickname because of his remarkable ability to stay healthy and eat innings. Much the same way we would describe a pitcher as a workhorse today, Uhle was described as a bull. He led the American League in games started, complete games, and innings pitched twice, with a third season in which he led in games started and shutouts. He twirled a 20-inning shutout in his rookie season of 1919.
Although, for those who believe pitchers today are babied in comparison to The Bull's time, even someone renowned for his ability to stay healthy wasn't immune to the effects over overuse. After posting a 3.84 ERA over 1,820 innings through age 27, Uhle experienced a "sore arm" and was only able to post a sub-4 ERA twice after that.
Side note: Here is the defintion of "bull" when used as an adjective: "a part of the body (especially the neck) resembling the corresponding part of a male bovine animal in build and strength." This is my official nomination for Andy Dirks to inherit "The Bull."
#9. "Flit" - Doc Cramer
Background: "Flit" was the name of a popular insecticide (that contained DDT) during Cramer's playing days, and his defensive prowess in the outfield was such that his peers said he was "death to flies" much like the product they named him after.
Real Story: No, seriously, that's the real story. About the insecticide. You think I could make that up? It's pretty awesome. I would suggest we should start calling Austin Jackson "Raid" for the same reason, but I think I'll hold off on that nickname for now.
Another fun fact; "Doc" itself is a nickname as well that was earned when Roger Cramer was young. The town doctor was a close friend and mentor of his, and patients began calling them both "Doc."
#8. "Señor Smoke" - Aurelio Lopez
Background: One time Lopez accidentally light his hair on fire while smoking a cigar, and the result was a foul smell and a new nickname. Rumor has it this is where the producers of Seinfeld got the idea for Kramer to do the same thing in an episode a few years later. That's gold.
Real Story: He was a Mexican flamethrowing reliever. "Señor" matches the Mexican part and "Smoke" matches the flamethrowing part. Plus, mashing Spanish words and English words together in the same phrase is a time-honored American tradition, and as much of a pastime as baseball. So it just seemed appropriate. The moniker was later stolen by Twins fans and applied to former Tiger Juan Berenguer. In Minnesota, Berenguer was "Señor Smoke" on his good days and "El Gasolino" on his bad days, which is another fantastic nickname. I can't believe no one ever used it during Jose Valverde's slow collapse.
#7. "Taters" - Frank Lary
Background: In the summer of 1960 Lary was obsessed with a new western television series called Tate. The show centered around a bounty hunter named Tate (played by David McLean, a.k.a. The Marlboro Man) who lost the use of his left arm during the Civil War. Because of how much Lary talked about the show (and because, as a right-handed pitcher he didn't have much use for his left arm either) teammates began calling him "Tate," which morphed into "Tater" and eventually "Taters."
The television series was cancelled after one season.
Real Story: He was a southern farm boy who once wrote "taters" instead of "potatoes" on a dining car order. His teammates found it hilarious and Lary found that he'd earned himself a nickname. In his own defense, Lary explained that he did know what the vegetable was actually called, but he didn't have enough room to write the whole word.
Lary liked to have fun off the mound. One story goes that Taters claimed to be "Stormin' Norman" Cash to a photographer who was looking for a few shots of the slugger. Lary grabbed a bat and posed with it while the photographer snapped away. After the man was satisfied, though, Lary felt obligated to identify himself because he didn't want the man to get in trouble for photographing the wrong person.
#6. "Ears" - Don Mossi
Real Story: No need to invent a funny backstory for this one. Mossi had enormous, prominent, protruding ears. In his 1970 book Ball Four, Jim Bouton said Mossi "looked like a cab going down the street with its doors open." In The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book, Mossi is described as having "loving-cup ears and the dark hulking presence of one newly dead or resurrected." Bill James (yes, that Bill James) had this to say about poor Ears Mossi:
Mossi was the complete, five-tool ugly player. He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure...man, you never saw a player who was uglier in the clutch... Mossi’s ears looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger species, and reattached without proper supervision. His nose was crooked, his eyes were in the wrong place, and though he was skinny he had no neck to speak of, just a series of chins that melted into his chest. An Adam’s apple poked out of the third chin, and there was always a stubble of beard because you can’t shave a face like that. He looked like Gary Gaetti escaping from Devil’s Island.
Well that's all we have time for today, boys and girls. As you've seen, baseball nicknames certainly aren't what they used to be, and we're only halfway through the list. Tune in next week when we take a look at the five best nicknames in Tigers history, plus bonus content!