Best Nicknames in Major League Baseball History
Baseball has a rich history of nicknames. Some labels arrive due to the way players look. Others get tagged for the way they act. Then there’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, who went without shoes that one time and never heard the end of it.
Imagine a starting pitcher’s rotation that includes The Bird, The Big Unit and Thor. What if your team also has The Human Vacuum Cleaner and The Blade in the infield, The Secretary of Defense and The Splendid Splinter in the outfield?
From The Penguin and Turkey to The Big Hurt and Big Papi, check out this list of baseball players’ nicknames for the ages.
'Babe' George Herman Ruth
For decades, his 714 career home runs were the MLB record. George Herman Ruth has been recognized with a number of nicknames for his long-ball prowess, including “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat.” But baseball’s biggest, most charismatic superstar is best known as “Babe.”
Before playing briefly with the Boston Red Sox and legendarily with the New York Yankees, Ruth was signed as a teenager by Baltimore Orioles owner Jack Dunn, who also became Ruth’s legal guardian. Having never really seen the world outside a Baltimore trade school, Ruth followed Dunn around ever so closely.
That led one observer to note, “There’s Jack’s newest babe.”
'Big Papi' David Ortiz
The Boston Red Sox slugger is an outgoing individual who enjoys saying hello to everybody he meets. Trouble is, he meets a lot of people and doesn’t have a photographic memory.
David Ortiz has the failsafe habit of calling most people Papi.
Over time — including 20 years in MLB — that became the Dominican-American’s own nickname. Tied together with his oversized frame, he will be forever immortalized as Big Papi.
Ortiz lived up the nickname. In his 20-year career, he was a 10-time All-Star and played on three World Series-winning teams.
'Boomer' David Wells
David Wells earned his nickname as a kid for the sheer loudness of his voice. He was a standout lefty pitcher at Point Loma High School in San Diego, Calif., where he threw a perfect game his senior year. Without changing the volume of his voice, Wells is now the head baseball coach at his alma mater.
Who else graduated from Point Loma High? New York Yankees great Don Larsen, who tossed the first perfect game in World Series history in 1956.
In 1998, it was Boomer’s turn to toss a regular-season perfect game for the Yankees — a feat he says he accomplished while hungover.
'Catfish' Jim Hunter
In 1964, the Oakland Athletics signed 19-year-old pitcher Jim Hunter.
At the time, they had an owner named Charles Finley. The feisty owner felt his young hurler needed a unique nickname — so he made one up.
The media was fed the notion that as a child, one day, Hunter went fishing on his own and came back with an impressive string of catfish. Catchy, but untrue.
What is true: The Hall of Famer won 224 games playing for three teams from 1965 to 1979.
'Charlie Hustle' Pete Rose
New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle meant it as an insult. He saw a very young Pete Rose running around as if he’d just pounded a four-pack of Red Bull and called him Charlie Hustle.
Truly, Rose played the game like an Energizer Bunny. The Cincinnati Reds first/third baseman sometimes sprinted to first base after getting a walk, dove headfirst into bases for no apparent reason, and smashed into the catcher at home during an All-Star Game.
The all-time MLB leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,576) and at-bats (14,053), he is currently banned from induction into the Hall of Fame for gambling on baseball.
'Cool Papa' James Thomas Bell
James Thomas Bell was one of the greatest players ever in the Negro Leagues, and was once ranked as 66th on a list of greatest baseball players ever by The Sporting News. His calling card was speed — both in the field and on the basepaths. If he reached first base it was a near guarantee that he’d steal second and third.
"Cool Papa" is a great nickname — but the story behind it is fairly ordinary. In his first Negro League season, Bell was a pitcher. When he struck out one of the stars of the day, he was called Cool. Papa was added because it sounded cooler.
'Crime Dog' Fred McGriff
There was a 1980s TV commercial that featured “McGruff the Crime Dog,” whose catchphrase was “Let’s take a bite out of crime.”
ESPN commentator Chris Berman noticed that McGruff sounded like McGriff, and a nickname was born.
From 1986 to 2004, Crime Dog played for six MLB teams. He was a five-time All-Star and finished his career with 493 home runs (tied with the legendary Lou Gehrig).
'Daffy' Paul Dean
Paul Dean was a pitcher who played in the majors from 1934 to 1943. For several years, he was a teammate with his better-known brother Jay “Dizzy” Dean, who earned his nickname for his colorful personality. Paul was considered quiet and serious and got his moniker from the press.
In 1934, Daffy threw a no-hitter as a 21-year-old rookie and went 19-11. That same year, he and Dizzy combined for 49 wins in the regular season, and the brothers won two games apiece in the postseason to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title.
'Disco Dan' Darnell Ford
Darnell Ford was a solid player who roamed the outfield from 1975 to 1985 for the Minnesota Twins, California Angels and Baltimore Orioles. He was a bit of a flashy player, but history recalls him as not always being the most attentive.
Flash back to the disco era, circa 1978. Ford rounded third after Jose Morales delivered a base hit for the Twins. But then Ford slowed down and appeared to do a slow-paced dance before touching the plate. Then, another baserunner passed him and, by rule, was declared out.
Ford reportedly “boogied” back to the dugout, to the utter dismay of manager Gene Mauch. And thus, "Disco Dan" was born.
'Dizzy' Jay Dean
Colorful and eccentric — and owning a second-grade education — Dizzy Dean was a favorite of the press because he’d say whatever was on his mind. He wasn’t shy, and often claimed, "If ya done it, it ain’t braggin’!"
Dean had plenty to crow about. He won 30 games in one season with a 2.66 ERA in 1934, when he and the “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series.
When Dean retired due to an injury, he moved into the announcing booth. An English teacher wrote to tell him not to use the word “ain’t” on the air, and he replied: “A lot of folks who ain’t sayin’ ain’t, ain't eatin’. So, Teach, you learn ’em English and I’ll learn ’em baseball.”
'Doc' Dwight Gooden
As a 19-year-old rookie with the New York Mets, Gooden made the All-Star team and led the league in strikeouts. The next year, 1985, he won the pitching Triple Crown, with a 24-4 record, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts (not to mention 16 complete games). He played from 1984 to 2000, minus the year he sat out for failing a drug test.
As Gooden describes it, when he was a Little Leaguer and in high school, his father’s friend was a doctor. He’d come to Gooden’s games after a couple drinks and cheer, "C’mon, Doc ... operate on him, Doc ... you have another patient, Doc!"
'Goose' Richard Michael Gossage
Did you have to pause to recall that Rich Gossage’s first name wasn’t the omnipresent "Goose"? The nickname was affixed by a friend who didn’t like "Goss." It also helped make the case that when Gossage stood on the pitcher’s mound and extended his neck to read the catcher’s signs he looked a bit like a Goose.
Gossage was a relief pitcher who played for nine teams over a 22-year career, but he flew the highest with the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres. He was one of the first “closer” prototypes and was an eight-time All-Star.
'Human Vacuum Cleaner' Brooks Robinson
Widely believed to be the greatest defensive third baseman in MLB history, Brooks Robinson’s nickname is a reference to the way he cleanly scooped up nearly every batted ball that came his way at the hot corner.
The "Human Vacuum Cleaner," aka "Mr. Hoover," won 16 consecutive Golden Glove Awards — tied for the most for any player at any position — during his 23-year career with the Baltimore Orioles from 1955 to 1977.
'Le Grand Orange' Daniel 'Rusty' Staub
Staub’s English nickname was "Rusty," a natural because of his red hair. But when he was traded to the Montreal Expos, the Canadians took to him — in large part because he bothered to learn to speak French — and dubbed him Le Grand Orange.
His early years with the Houston Astros were good. He was named to the All-Star team in 1967 and ’68.
When he was traded to the Expos, he became the expansion team’s first star, and even though he only played three years in Montreal, his jersey number (10) was retired by the organization.
He also played for the New York Mets, Tigers and Rangers.
'Oil Can' Dennis Boyd
Whatever the lubricant, Boyd’s nickname derived from his drinking days in his hometown of Meridian, Miss. It was oft-reported that oil was slang for beer. He later indicated that his sauce of choice was rot-gut whiskey.
Over a 10-year career in the major leagues (with the Boston Red Sox, Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers), he came out on top with a 78-77 record. Blood clots in his pitching arm ended his career in 1991.
'Pops' Willie Stargell
The affable Hall of Famer played his entire 21-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, batting .282 with 2,232 hits and 475 home runs. During his playing time, the Pirates won two World Series, in 1971 and 1979.
The "Pops" title came later in his career — when he was still belting long home runs despite his weight bulging to 235 pounds.
Pops was certainly a father figure to the team, especially during the 1979 campaign when the Pirates had "We Are Family" as a theme song.
'Rapid Robert' Bob Feller
It’s easy to figure out the origin of Bob Feller’s nicknames (including "Bullet Bob" and "The Heater From Van Meter") — he was the fastest pitcher of his era. In a time where radar guns were primitive, he once was clocked at 107.6 miles per hour in 1946.
From 1936 to 1956, Feller played 18 seasons in the bigs, minus a stint in the Navy during World War II. The Hall of Famer posted a 266-162 record with 279 complete games. He struck out 2,581 batters and tossed three no-hitters, as well as a dozen one-hitters.
'Scrabble' Marc Rzepczynski
Phonetically, it’s pronounced zep-CHIN-skee. If you were playing a game of Scrabble and totaled up the value of all the letters in his name, you’d have 31 points (not counting double or triple letter or word bonuses).
"Scrabble" is a journeyman lefty-handed pitcher now in the Seattle Mariners organization. He’s played with nine other teams in an 11-year career, meaning that many fans and announcers have had to learn how to spell and pronounce his name, which is of Polish descent.
'Say Hey Kid' Willie Mays
Willie Mays is one of the best-known players in the history of the game, getting his start in the Negro Leagues before playing 22 seasons with the New York/San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets.
In 1951, a sports scribe wrote how he overheard Mays utter, “Say who, say what, say where, say hey!” And like David Ortiz, Mays had a singular habit of greeting people whose name he hadn’t memorized with “Say hey!”
Well, hey, Mays hit 660 career home runs and won 12 Gold Gloves during his storied career.
'Scooter' Phil Rizzuto
When he was playing in the minor leagues, a teammate observed that when the 5-foot-6 Phil Rizzuto was on the basepaths, his short legs made it look like he was wasn’t running, but scooting.
By any measure, Rizzuto had a remarkable career in the major leagues. During 13 years with the New York Yankees (1941-56), he was part of 10 American League titles and seven World Series winners.
Holy cow! Following his playing career, Scooter went on to have a 40-year run as an idiosyncratic radio and TV announcer for the Yanks.
'Secretary of Defense' Garry Maddox
A great center fielder has the ability to quickly get to batted balls that are headed into the right- and left-field gaps. Garry Maddox earned the nickname "Secretary of Defense" (also "Minister of Defense") because of the way he did just that.
Sportscaster Harry Kalas once paid tribute to Maddox saying, “Two thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.”
Maddox played from 1972 to 1986 with the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies and won eight Gold Gloves in a row.
'Shoeless' Joe Jackson
Boy, you do something one time and get saddled with a nickname for life.
When Joe Jackson was playing for the minor league Greenville Spinners in South Carolina, he took off his new cleats because they gave him blisters. He got on base and a heckler called him a “shoeless son of a gun.”
The nickname followed him to the major leagues.
His MLB career lasted from 1908 to 1920 and ended in infamy when he was banned for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to fix the World Series (despite getting a record 12 base hits in the Series.)
'Spaceman' Bill Lee
When asked about his views on mandatory drug testing, Bill Lee quipped: “I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make it mandatory.”
He made the cover of High Times.
Called into the baseball commissioner’s office, he claimed he didn’t smoke pot. Rather, he just put it on his pancakes.
In between comments to the press on biting off an umpire’s ear and defending Maoist China, Lee won 119 games from 1969 to 1982 as an off-speed, left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos.
'Stan The Man Unusual' Don Stanhouse
A giant mop of curly hair and pregame antics that included primal screams echoing around Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium earned Don Stanhouse his nickname. Incidentally, chain-smoking Orioles manager Earl Weaver called Stanhouse "Fullpack," because of the number of cigarettes he puffed while Stanhouse walked batters he didn’t want to face.
"Stan The Man Unusual" pitched for five major league teams from 1972 to 1982, shuffling back and forth between being a starter and a reliever. He was a full-time reliever in 1979 under Weaver, when the Orioles made it to the World Series and lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
'The Big Hurt' Frank Thomas
Some players just hit the ball into play. Many have the pop to knock it over the fence. Frank Thomas had a propensity to crush balls with his high-impact swing.
Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson took note and is credited with coming up with "The Big Hurt" nickname.
Thomas played from 1990 to 2008 and finished his career with an impressive .301 batting average. The five-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger award winner is active today as a studio analyst for MLB on Fox.
'The Big Train' Walter Johnson
In 1911, when railroad trains were the fastest thing around, sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed Johnson "The Big Train." That nickname stuck — though he also had been referred to as "Big Swede," "Sir Walter," "Old Barney" and "Gentle Johnson."
In 1936, Big Train became one of the “first five” inaugural members of the Hall of Fame. And rightly so.
In a 21-year pitching career with the Washington Senators (1907-27), he complied an amazing 417-279 record, with 3,508 strikeouts and a 2.17 ERA.
'The Big Unit' Randy Johnson
At 6-foot-10-inches, Randy Johnson is a man most players looked up to. During batting practice in 1988, the unusually tall pitcher collided head-first with teammate Tim Raines, who proclaimed, “You’re a big unit!”
The shaggy-haired, Hall of Fame hurler also put up a lot of big numbers during a career that spanned from 1988 to 2009. The 10-time All-Star’s 4,875 strikeouts are the second-most in MLB history.
Johnson won the Cy Young Award five times and is one of five pitchers to throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues.
'The Bird' Mark Fidrych
His career only spanned from 1976 to 1980, but Mark Fidrych made a lasting impact with his idiosyncratic ways and devil-may-care attitude. The nickname came due to his long curly locks that many compared to Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”
Pitching for the Detroit Tigers his entire career, his record was just 29-19.
"The Bird" used to strut around the mound after every out, talk to the baseball, manicure the field with his hands and throw back balls that he insisted “had hits in them.”
A fan favorite among “Bird Watchers” at Tiger Stadium, he caused attendance to double whenever he was scheduled to pitch.
'The Blade' Mark Belanger
Mark Belanger was 6-foot-1, but weighed just 170 pounds, and teammates said he resembled a giant blade of grass.
"The Blade" played from 1965 to 1982, all of that except the last year as shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles.
He was an exceptional fielder, winning eight Gold Glove Awards from 1969 to 1978, and retired with the highest fielding average (.977) by an American League shortstop.
Good thing he was such a defensive standout. The Blade had a lifetime batting average of .228, and hit just 20 home runs in his 18 seasons.
'The Bull' Greg Luzinski
While you wouldn’t want him hanging out in a china shop, "The Bull" was the clutch hitter any manager would want with the game on the line. At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, Luzinski was big and beefy, like his horned namesake.
Luzinsku starred for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1970 to 1980, and finished out his career in 1984 with the Chicago White Sox. The four-time All-Star (who made the team for his bat, not his glove) had two game-winning hits in the 1980 National League Championship Series that got the Phillies to the World Series, and a championship.
'The Human Rain Delay' Mike Hargrove
Mike Hargrove played for the Cleveland Indians from 1974 to 1985 and was the team’s manager from 1991 to 1999.
As a player, Hargrove infuriated opposing teams with an obsessive and long routine when up to the plate After every pitch he’d step out of the batter’s box, adjust his helmet and both batting gloves, pull up each sleeve, wipe each hand on his uniform pants ... there’s more, but suffice it to say, he took so long it was like he was a human rain delay.
As a player, he was the AL Rookie of the Year and finished with a lifetime .290 batting average.
As a manager, he took the Indians to the World Series in 1995 and 1997, but his teams lost both of them.
'The Iron Horse' Lou Gehrig
On June 1, 1925, Lou Gehrig entered the game as a pinch hitter for the New York Yankees. The next day, he started at first base in place of Wally Pipp. Fourteen years later, Gehrig played in a then-record 2,130 consecutive games. "The Iron Horse."
Gehrig played his entire career with the Yankees, and amassed amazing career numbers: .340 batting average, 2,721 hits, 493 home runs and 1,995 RBI.
He was a member of six World Series championship teams and was the first major league baseball player to have his jersey number (4) retired.
'The Mad Hungarian' Al Hrabosky
Fans loved his act. Opposing batters, not so much. Between each pitch, Al Hrabosky would turn his back to the batter, walk toward the outfield, rub the ball, breath deeply and pound his glove. To enhance the "Mad Hungarian" look, early in his career, the southpaw grew his hair long and wore a Fu Manchu mustache.
He pitched in the major league from 1970 to 1982 for the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves.
In 1975, he led the National League with 22 saves to win the NL Fireman of the Year award.
'The Penguin' Ron Cey
While playing third base at Washington State University, Ron Cey’s coach took note of his slow, waddling running gait and nicknamed him "The Penguin." No, Batman had nothing to do with the backstory.
Cey was part of an All-Star infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1970s that also included Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell.
The Penguin hit 316 lifetime home runs and was the World Series MVP for the Dodgers in 1981.
'The Splendid Splinter' Ted Williams
One of the greatest players of all time, Ted Williams collected several nicknames, including “The Kid,” Thumper,” and “Teddy Ballgame.” But the moniker that stuck was "The Splendid Splinter" — because he was tall and slender like a splinter and his swing was, well, you get it.
Williams played for 19 years as the left fielder for the Boston Red Sox. He was a 19-time All-Star in a career that was interrupted for duty in World War II and the Korean War.
The two-time Triple Crown Winner finished his career in 1960 with 521 home runs and an amazing .344 batting average.
'Thor' Noah Syndergaard
Noah Syndergaard has long, flowing blond locks like the mythical superhero, but the nickname really stuck after he shared a photo of himself working out while dressed as "Thor."
The 6-foot-6-inch pitcher stitches the nickname into his gloves, which may account for his fastball regularly hammering in toward the plate at 100 miles per hour.
Thor made his major league debut with the New York Mets in 2015, was named an All-Star in 2016 and was the Mets Opening Day starter in 2017 and 2018.
'Three Fingers' Mordecai Brown
You might be relieved to get a nickname if your given name is Mordecai — but losing parts of two fingers as a kid during a farm-machinery accident is not exactly the way you want to acquire one.
With just three fingers on his right (pitching) hand, Mordecai Brown learned how to grip a baseball in a way that resulted in a tough-to-hit curveball. That bender helped him to a Hall of Fame career (1903-1916) that was built on a 239-130 record, 1,375 strikeouts and a 2.06 ERA.
'Tom Terrific' Tom Seaver
He pitched for four teams from 1967 to 1986, but was especially terrific during the 1969 world championship run by the New York Mets (where he also earned the nickname "The Franchise").
"Tom Terrific" was an obvious pick for the Hall of Fame, with his career 311 wins. 3,640 strikeouts and 2.86 ERA. In 1992, he received (at the time) the highest percentage of votes ever for entry into the Hall (98.84 percent).
'Turkey' Norman Stearnes
Even though Norman Stearnes batted over .400 three times, you may have never heard of him.
He played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1940 and quietly may have been one of the best to ever take the field. He was fast on the basepaths — despite an awkward running style that featured his arms flapping like a turkey outrunning a farmer.
Enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000, "Turkey" gobbled up opposing pitching and hit more home runs (176) than anybody else in the Negro Leagues.
'Wee Willie' William Keeler
When you stand 5-foot-4 (and a half inch), weigh just 140 pounds and are one of the smallest players in the history of major league baseball, well, that cements your nickname.
"Wee Willie" was short in stature, but he put up big numbers. His lifetime batting average was .341, and he had 2,932 hits, playing from 1892 to 1910. During that time, he batted over .300 16 times. “Hit ’em where they ain’t” was his motto. He was so good at fouling off borderline pitches that the rule that you’re out if you bunt a foul ball with two strikes was created because of Keeler.