Colorful nicknames in baseball are mostly a thing of the past so it’s a treat to see four players in the playoffs with nicknames that evoke memories of a time when monikers like Duke, Pee Wee and Country were household names.
Nobody is going to confuse Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler or Mike “Moose” Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals with Country Slaughter or Moose Skowron or Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants and Matt “Big City” Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals with Pee Wee Reese or Duke Snider. But their nicknames are equally catchy and endearing, creating a special bond with fans that has been missing since the game became just another big business.
Some nicknames are timeless and etched in our minds. After reading the lineups for the all-star game in 1970, Ed Cunningham wrote the following poem:
Why is Hodges sidelined
With a clipboard in his hands?
What is Bobby Feller doing
Sitting in the stands?
Where have all my heroes gone?
Where’s Big Johnny Mize?
Where’s The Splinter?
Where’s The Man?
Who are all these guys?
The Man, of course, refers to Stan “The Man” Musial and Ted Williams was called “The Splendid Splinter” as well as “Teddy Ballgame.”
For most fans, a Google search is required to find out the given names for Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Rip Repulski, Preacher Roe, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, Whitey Ford, and Vinegar Bend Mizell.
Many of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels had nicknames. Super-sub Lorenzo “Piper” Davis was widely known as Piper, the name of his hometown in Alabama. Veteran pitchers Marino Pieretti and Dwight Adams answered to the nicknames of Chick and Red. The initials K.C. for Kendall Cole led to Casey, the nickname for shortstop Casey Wise. Gale Wade, the Angels’ outspoken centerfielder, was called Windy and right-fielder Jim Bolger’s not-so-sunny disposition prompted one L.A. sportswriter to dub him Sunny Jim.
Pitcher Darius Dutton Hillman went by Dave, a name given to him by a boyhood friend after a concert by a popular banjo player, Dave Macon. Pitcher Bob Thorpe didn’t say much so he became known as The Quiet Man while Gene Fodge was nicknamed Suds by fellow pitcher Johnny Briggs “because we liked to sip our beer.” Second-baseman Gene Mauch was called Skip as a player and, then, Little General as a major league manager
Angel manager Bob Scheffing was nicknamed Grump because he was known to tell his players, “When the game is close, don’t be over near me because I’ll be grumpin’ and groanin’ about everything.” Joe Garagiola and Scheffing were teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals and became best friends. “You have to understand that Scheffing is a very happy man inside,” Joe said. “He just hasn’t told his face about it.”
As you might expect, Steve Bilko led the team in nicknames. Stout Steve evolved into Stout Steve the Slugging Seraph. Sergeant Bilko was inspired by the television character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers. This led to Sergeant of Swat and other nicknames based on his strength and home run-hitting power: Angel Atlas, Mr. Biceps, Boom Boom and the Ambulant Atomic Energy Plant from Southern California.
Wade called Bilko “Hump” because of his batting stance. “He kind of hovered over the plate, hunching his shoulders into a hump,” Windy explained.
“I called him, “Mr. Bilko,” said Bob Speake, the Angels’ left-fielder.
“I said, ‘Yes, sir, to him,’” Hillman added.
For sheer color and entertainment, few can match The Mad Russian, the nickname for Lou Novikoff, a socking, singing outfielder who joined the Angels near the end of the 1939 season and batted a whopping .452 in 36 games. He continued his torrid hitting in 1940 with a .363 average and 41 home runs. On Lou Novikoff Day in June 1940, he rapped four hits, including two homers, and, then afterwards, stepped to the microphone to announce, “I will now sing that old Russian ballad, ‘My Wild Irish Rose.’” Thirteen thousand fans clamored for an encore so Novikoff wowed them with a baritone rendition of “Down by the Old Mill Stream.”
Novikoff went on to hit a respectable .282 in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. But he never fulfilled the promise showed in winning four minor-league batting titles. “No wonder they call you the Mad Russian,” one opposing manager heckled Novikoff. “If I couldn’t hit any better than that, I’d be mad, too.”
Benched for not being physically fit, Novikoff complained, “I’m only 17 pounds overweight.” After misplaying a few balls in the outfield, he said, “I can’t play in Wrigley Field because the left field foul line isn’t straight like in the other parks…it’s crooked.”
None of this mattered to Cub fans. They loved the Mad Russian and his eccentric ways.
When Cub manager Jim Wilson pinch-hit for him, fans howled their disapproval. “That razz nearly bowled me over,” Wilson said. “Twenty thousand fans can’t be wrong. Novikoff is a regular from now on. Never since Dizzy Dean have I seen the fans go so goo-goo over a guy as they have the Russian.”
The Mad Russian’s charm didn’t stop with the fans. “He’s given me a lot of laughs and I can’t stay mad at him,” Wilson said. “One night in Pittsburgh I saw him go to bed at 11 o’clock. At midnight someone told me he had left the hotel. Where do you suppose I found him? In one of those small night clubs, sitting on top of the piano singing at the top of his voice. How he loves to sing. If he could only hit as well as he sings, he’d be a .350 slugger.”
And he’d be in the Hall of Fame where anybody nicknamed The Mad Russian belongs.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
- Rowman & Littlefield
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