Last week we started a countdown of the best nicknames in Tigers history. Today, we'll finish it. I promise the fake back-stories are just as bad for this group as they were for the last one.
Here's a reminder of the rules: 1) a player had to play for the Detroit Tigers at some point, 2) only "official" nicknames that are listed on a player's Baseball Reference page were considered, 3) the information in the "Background" sections is probably not true, and 3) send your complaints to Kurt Mensching or, better yet, tell him in person the next time you visit Russia or whatever. Enjoy.
#5. "The Yankee Killer" - Frank Lary
Background: In Lary's small hometown in central Alabama there was a friendly and eccentric old man who went by the name of "Moses." Moses was known for his prize-winning moonshine and his skill with a blues harmonica. Some say Moses experienced a bad electrical shock while tinkering with a light socket as a younger man, rendering his entire body permanently hairless and his speech permanently slurred. Others say he slurred because he regularly sampled his aforementioned spirits.
Moses had a Boston Terrier he named "Yankee" (due to the origin of the breed) that was blind in one eye from a scuffle with Mrs. Foster's rooster. Yankee was a bit of rambler; he'd wander the town and all the townsfolk knew his name and would give him some table scraps when he came by. He became almost a community pet after a few years, not so much owned by Moses as the entire town. Everyone loved Yankee.
Then one day Frank Lary accidentally ran Yankee over with his dad's Packard. He never lived it down.
Real Story: He dominated the dominant Yankees teams of the time. He posted a career 27-10 record against them, and was 7-1 against them in 1958. He really was born and raised in rural Alabama, and a writer once said, "As far as Frank Lary is concerned, the war between the states never did end. There merely was an 89-year interlude between Lee's surrender at Appomattox in 1865 and Lary's arrival in the major leagues in 1954. The objective has remained the same: rout the Yankees."
Frank Lary had amazing nicknames. "Taters" and "The Yankee Killer" are among the best nicknames around, and he also went by "Mule," a solid moniker in it's own right.
#4. "Win" - Win Mercer
Background: Short for "Winchester." Mercer was a skilled marksman and he traveled the country competing in shooting contests. His moniker came from his trusty Model 1890, the only gun he ever competed with. Rumor has it Mercer could throw a handful of silver dollars up in the air and shoot a hole through each before they fell to the ground, which is especially impressive considering he used a slide-action rifle to perform the stunt. Other reports claim he once shot a squirrel through the eye at 600 yards, though that rumor has not been proven.
Real Story: You know a nickname officially stuck when it's listed as the player's first name at the top of their Baseball Reference page rather than in parentheses slightly below. Win was born George Mercer, but he became known simply as "Winner" as a teenager because of how well he pitched for his home town's pottery factory teams. The nickname was soon shortened to "Win" and it eventually became so common that by the time he reached the majors many sportswriters assumed his full name was actually Winifred. This real story is way cooler than the fake one. The guy was so good that they just changed his name to Win. Max Scherzer is so jealous.
Don't be ashamed if you've never heard of Win Mercer. He only played one season for the Tigers, and it was quite a long time ago. After he posted a 3.04 ERA over 282 innings in 1902 the organization named him as the player-manager for the upcoming season. However, Mercer would never carry out the role - he committed suicide before the 1903 season began.
#3. "The Bird" - Mark Fidrych
Background: Fidrych was always the first player to arrive at the stadium before a game. But one night in 1976 a handful of players stayed up drinking in the clubhouse and decided to play a prank on young Mark. When they saw Fidrych's car pull into the Tiger Stadium parking lot, Tom Veryzer and Vern Ruhle hid in his locker and waited for his arrival. The frightened squawk and flailing, flapping motion Fidrych released when they jumped out at him reminded them so much of a huge bird that they referred to him as 'The Bird" from then on.
The Real Story: Fidrych's tall, lanky build and curly mop of hair earned him the nickname, as many saw a resemblance to the Sesame Street character Big Bird. Fidrych even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Big Bird in 1977. His mannerisms and overall demeanor supported the resemblance, as he was known to be extremely outgoing and friendly. Rusty Staub once said, "There’s an electricity that he brings out in everyone, the players and the fans. He’s different."
#2. "Mr. Tiger" - Al Kaline
Background: Kaline was born Albert William Tiger, the son of Ingrid and Burt Tiger, in 1934. He changed his name to Kaline* in 1952 to avoid the constant questions about his strange surname, but to his dismay people continue calling him Mr. Tiger to this day.
* Contrary to popular belief, Kaline was not named after any sort of battery or chemical. He based the name off of the K-line in astronomical spectrometry, once used to measure the angle at which matter enters a black hole, of course.
The Real Story: He played for the Tigers for his entire 22 year career, he was a broadcaster for 27 more, and has been a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski for the last 11 years. He has been involved with the Detroit Tigers organization in some capacity for over 60 years (!). His iconic #6 was retired by the Tigers in 1980, and a statue of his likeness was built in Comerica Park prior to it's grand opening in 2000. You can't get much more Tigers than Mr. Tiger.
The term "nickname" doesn't even do justice to "Mr. Tiger." It's more classy and sophisticated than a nickname. It's more of a sobriquet, if you will. When you hear it you picture Paws wearing a slick tuxedo and being the center of attention at an elegant dinner party. Like one part James Bond, one part guy from the Dos Equis commercials, and two parts vicious jungle cat.
#1. "The Mechanical Man" - Charlie Gehringer
Background: At a young age Gehringer was diagnosed with a debilitating disease that destroys various body tissues. Doctors at the time were experimenting with some radical procedures and Gehringer's progressive parents (his father was a lormer and his mother was a dresser) consented to several risky and innovative operations. Before long, young Charlie had an elaborate network of gears, cranks, pulleys, and springs instead of a skeleton. His heart was replaced with a tiny steam engine, and his liver was removed in favor of an icebox.
Gehringer's operations were an enormous success, and they not only allowed him to live a normal life despite his condition, but also to play baseball professionally. Though much controversy surrounds his career - many believe his modifications artifically enhanced his performance - he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1949.
The Real Story: From age 25 to age 35 Gehringer averaged 148 games per season (remember, seasons were 154 games back then) and only once during that span did he miss more than 10 games. He was also remarkably consistent, batting at least .300, scoring at least 100 runs, compiling at least 200 hits, and knocking at least 40 doubles in six out of those 11 seasons. His incredible durability and consistency earned him the respect of his peers, and a nickname befitting a man that seemingly couldn't break down. Reminds me of a certain current Tigers slugger.
"You wind him up Opening Day and forget him" said teammate Doc "Flit" Cramer. "He hits .350 on Opening Day and stays there all season" praised rival Yankee "Lefty" Gomez (not all old-time nicknames were great). Gehringer was also a quiet man, and player-manager Mickey "Black Mike" Cochrane once joked that "Charlie says `hello' on Opening Day, `goodbye' on closing day, and in between hits .350."
"Dorf" - Eddie Ainsmith
"The Georgia Peach" - Ty Cobb
"Big Daddy" - Cecil Fielder
"Slug" - Harry Heilmann
Chet "The Jet" Lemon
"Rubberlegs" - Roscoe Miller
"Big Wheel" - Lance Parrish
"Old Folks" - Herman Pillette (That's Herman Polycarp Pillette. Why did he need a nickname?)
"Phone Book" - Steve Sparks
"Fruit Loops" - Mickey Tettleton
"Papa Grande (The Big Potato)" - Jose Valverde
"Da Meat Hook" - Dmitri Young
"Zoom Zoom" - Joel Zumaya
BONUS Worst Tigers Nickname Ever: "Squanto" - Squanto Wilson
As you might guess, Wilson earned this nickname because of his Native American heritage - or at least, what was perceived by others as a Native American heritage. The problem is, it's unlikely that George Wilson actually was Native American. He had a dark complexion and some Native American features, which was apparently enough in the 1900's to earn him an extremely stereotypical nickname. Remember kids, racism is bad.