The Tigers’ all-time nickname team

Richie Hebner earned his nickname due to his deadly off-season occupation.

Richie Hebner earned his nickname due to his deadly off-season occupation.

I love the language. I guess that’s only natural for someone who happens to be a writer. For a baseball writer like myself, the opportunity to tell stories is far more satisfying than reciting the chapter and verse of statistics. Similarly, I love the nicknames that connect themselves to the game. The nicknames add color, inform us about the players, and remind us that even major league ballplayers remain children at heart.

Given my affinity for nicknames, I thought it was high time that I compiled an all-time nickname team for the proud Tigers franchise. These aren’t necessarily the best Tigers at each position, but the Tigers who have the most creative and illuminating nicknames. So let’s give it a whirl, position by position, with the full knowledge that we may be overlooking some worthy candidates.

Catcher: Mickey “Black Mike” Cochrane
The Hall of Fame catcher had a hot-tempered personality and a booming bat, so the nickname of Black Mike fit on two different counts. After tough losses, Cochrane was known to toss gloves, bats, and just about anything else not nailed to the clubhouse floor. Simply put, he was competitive to the extreme, one of the characteristics that made him a catcher worthy of Cooperstown. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers’ first World Series title came after Cochrane arrived on the scene.

Yet, there was more to him than just fire and brimstone. For someone with decent power, Cochrane possessed remarkable bat control. Though he was winding down his career with the Tigers in the mid-1930s, he put up some remarkable walk-to-strikeout ratios. In his first year with Detroit, he drew 78 walks and struck out only 26 times. In his second season, he did even better, walking 96 times and compiling only 15 times. Eye-popping. And even in his final big league season, he put up a .941 OPS in the limited duty of 27 games.

First Base: Richie “The Gravedigger” Hebner
Hebner played only three seasons in Detroit, and he was past his prime by then, but his Gravedigger nickname is too good to pass up.

There was a time, believe it or not, when many ballplayers made so little money during the season that they had to take jobs during the winter. That practice was still in full force in the seventies and even into the 1980s. Perhaps no one had a more unusual wintertime calling than Hebner, a Tiger from 1980 to 1982. Hebner made no bones (no pun intended) about his offseason occupation: digging graves.

During his early days with the Pirates, Hebner told a reporter that he made $35 per grave while working at a cemetery in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The job came to him courtesy of his father, the cemetery’s superintendent. Later in his career, Hebner bragged to a reporter about his Hall of Fame skill level in digging graves. “I’m good at this,” said The Gravedigger. “In 10 years, no one’s ever dug themselves out of one of my graves yet.” A truer statement had never been made.

Second Base: Charlie “The Mechanical Man” Gehringer
A quiet player who lacked flash and flair, Gehringer received his nickname courtesy of flaky Yankees southpaw Lefty Gomez, who admired his robotic consistency. Gehringer’s routine steadiness made him an All-Star, but also an easy player to overlook.

The Mechanical Man nickname sounded like something out of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it also underscored Gehringer’s underrated status. Whenever all-time teams are voted upon, the second base debate usually centers on Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan. Perhaps Gehringer should be more involved in the conversation.

After all, he was a lifetime .320 hitter who had better-than-average power and an ability to control the strike zone almost as well as Black Mike Cochrane. For his career, Gehringer walked 1,186 times, compared to 372 strikeouts. That’s a phenomenal ratio of better than three to one, a testament to the talent and intelligence of The Mechanical Man.

Shortstop: Eddie “Wimpy” Brinkman
The subject of a recent article in this space, the pencil-thin Brinkman had a long neck, wore glasses, and batted out of an awkward stance, all of which made the name Wimpy a perfect fit for this seeming non-athlete. But he had quick feet, lockjaw hands, and a cannon like throwing arm, making him one of the three greatest defensive Tiger shortstops I’ve ever seen. Who are the other two? Adam Everett, and the current guy, the brilliant little fellow named Jose Iglesias.

Third Base: Don “Coyote” Wert
During the spring of 1964, Tigers manager Charlie Dressen informed Wert that he wanted more chatter out of his third baseman while on the infield. Wert took up the challenge and then some, making such a loud yipping noise from his position that he sounded like a wild coyote. Teammate Don Demeter dubbed Wert Coyote, and the name stuck.

Wert wasn’t much of a hitter, but he drew his share of walks and played a dandy third base, exhibiting sure hands and good range. He emerged as one of the subtle contributors to the Tigers’ world championship of 1968.

Left Field: William “Gates” Brown
The reasoning behind Brown’s nickname remains a mystery; he never knew why his mother dubbed him Gates. But he admitted that he liked the name, which made him far more memorable than someone who would have been known as Billy or William Brown. His Tiger teammates liked to call him “Gator,” which was simply a derivation of Gates and had nothing to do with actual alligators.

One of the most colorful characters in Tigers history, Brown liked to eat and liked to swing the bat. He emerged as one of the American League’s best pinch-hitters in the 1960s before becoming the first designated hitter in Tigers history.

Center Field: Ty “The Georgia Peach” Cobb
An iconic player should have an indelible nickname, and Cobb does not disappoint. As with many players from the early 20th century, the credit for creating the nickname goes to one of the colorful baseball writers of the era. After watching Cobb play a Sally League game for a team in Augusta, famed writer Grantland Rice dubbed the future Hall of Famer The Georgia Peach. Other writers caught on, referring to Cobb in the same way or with the abbreviated appellation of “Peach.”

The name made sense because of Cobb’s birthplace. He hailed from a tiny gathering of cabins known as The Narrows in the state of Georgia, which was known for producing high caliber peaches. For his part, Cobb loved the nickname, which he bore proudly for the rest of his life.

Right Fielder: “Wahoo” Sam Crawford
This Hall of Famer didn’t like to yell “Wahoo,” but he was from Wahoo, Nebraska, so the name still fit perfectly. Playing in the Deadball Era, Crawford didn’t hit many home runs, but he had did hit a major league record 309 triples, which was what sluggers did in that era when homers were scarce for many reasons. He also collected plenty of doubles, stole bases 367 bases, and was a strong enough defender to flip-flop with Cobb in center field at times. Crawford was one of the best players of that era. Crawford and Cobb didn’t get along, but that never seemed to matter when they played next to each other in the Tiger outfield.

Designated Hitter: Darrell “Howdy Doody” Evans
In this case, the explanation is simple. Evans’ paunchy face bore a resemblance to Howdy Doody, the puppet character that became a legendary fixture on TV throughout the late 1940s and fifties. When Evans played for the Braves in the mid-1970s, he actually wore the word “Howdy” on the back of his jersey, as part of Ted Turner’s nickname craze.

Still one of the game’s most underrated players, Evans never hit for much of an average, but made up for that deficiency with 414 home runs, a ton of walks, and excellent defense at third base. Though he rarely played the field in Detroit, he was a dangerous designated hitter and an integral part of the 1984 world championship team. The following year, he put up 40 home runs and 85 walks, phenomenal numbers for a 38-year-old slugger who was supposedly past his prime.

Left-handed pitcher: Don “The Sphinx” Mossi
The Sphinx had a highly unusual appearance, which mostly explains his wonderful nickname. I haven’t been able to discern exactly who came up with the name of The Sphinx, but I think it’s safe to say that Mossi’s large ears reminded someone of the large, flapping headdress worn by the mythological Egyptian creature. For those who didn’t process that image fully in their minds, the more direct nickname of “Ears” probably did the trick.

Mossi’s facial features, which included some of the darkest eyebrows known to man, make it easy to overlook how good a pitcher he was during his career. He enjoyed some of his best years from 1959 to 1963, when he pitched in the Tigers’ rotation and exhibited pinpoint control, never walking more than 49 batters a season. By then he had lost much of his velocity, but kept hitters off balance with a very slow but deceptive curveball.

Right-handed pitcher: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych
This was the easiest selection to make. How could an all-nickname team for the Tigers’ franchise not include The Bird, one of the most beloved baseball figures of the past 40 years? Tall and gangly, full of animated machinations on the mound, and topped off by a big, curly head of hair, Fidrych looked every bit like the “Big Bird” character of Sesame Street fame. All that was missing was a full set of yellow feathers.

Few phenomenon have taken hold of the game the way that Fidrych did in 1976. His delightful habits of talking to the ball, patting the dirt, and dancing off the mound were always fun and never intended to show up the opposition. He backed up the style with the substance of a league-leading ERA of 2.34 and a total of 19 wins, which made him the winner of the Rookie of the Year and the runner-up in the Cy Young competition. The success didn’t last long for the injury-plagued Fidrych, but it didn’t have to; in one sweet summer, he transformed the game.

Left-handed Reliever: Jim “Catfish” Crawford
First off, he had an undistinguished career with the Tigers and the Astros during the 1970s. Second, I haven’t been able to figure why he was called Catfish. But how can you not include someone named Catfish Crawford on the all-nickname team? With a beautiful name like that, this big, six-foot, three-inch left-hander simply has to be included.

Right-handed Reliever: Aurelio “Senor Smoke” Lopez
There’s no mystery why the chunky right-hander gained this nickname. A native of Mexico, he could be referred to as a “senor” in his native language. He also threw very hard, hence the name of smoke. Put them together, and a legend was born.

In 1984, Lopez teamed with MVP Willie Hernandez to form one of the game’s great righty-lefty bullpen combinations. Lopez saved games on occasion, 14 to be exact, and set up Hernandez the rest of the time.

Sadly, like Fidrych, Lopez died long before his time. After being elected mayor of his hometown in Mexico, he was involved in a fatal car crash. Senor Smoke was gone at the age of 44.

So those are my selections. My apologies to all of the Tigers who didn’t make the all-nickname team, including “Stormin’ Norman” Cash, Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder, Dick “Mad Dog” McAuliffe, Earl “The Rock” Averill, and Dick “The Monster” Radatz. If there’s any consolation, we’ll tackle those nicknames at a future date to be named later.

Who do you think belongs on the all-nickname team?

19 replies on “The Tigers’ all-time nickname team

  • rings

    Thinking quickly, “La Grande Orange” (Rusty Staub) comes to mind, along with Dan “Peaches” Petry and George “Sparky” Anderson.

  • Chris Guyor

    Good article… but, for the life of me, I don’t remember ever hearing anyone call Darrell Evans “Howdy Doody”…perhaps it was more of a teammate thing. I do think the best nickname for a dh was “Le Grande Orange”, which was what everyone called Rusty Staub in the 70’s. He was called that first in Montreal, because of his bright reddish-orange hair. A much more memorable nickname, in my opinion.

  • Don R Willhite,Jr

    My god,how do you leave Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell,alternately known as “Mr. Sunday” off the list!?

  • Bruce Markusen

    Sweet Lou is an OK nickname, but it’s not original (Lou Piniella had it before him) and doesn’t tell us much about him. I think The Mechanical Man is a much more revealing nickname in the case of Gehringer.

    Paw Paw Maxwell is a very good nickname, but I still like The Gravedigger better at first base.

    I’m planning to do a second-team nickname gang so I’ll definitely consider the suggestions made here.

  • Dan Holmes

    lance Parrish was called “Big Wheel” by teammates, but it was more of a teammate thing.

    I remember Evans being called “Howdy Doody” for sure.

    How about Frank “The Yankee Killer” Lary? Great nickname and well deserved.

    When the U.S. entered World War I, germany Schaefer gave himself the nickname “Liberty,” and insisted on being called that. Only Germany could get away with that.

    Great article.

  • Nate Greene

    Never ever heard Gehringer referenced by a nickname. “Paw-Paw”,”The Bird” and “Stormin’ Norman” are stand-tall nicknames. “Yankee Killer” was quite accurate but shouldn’t qualify as a nickname. “Gravedigger” and “Howdy Doody” had little currency in the Detroit in which I grew up.
    Thanks for the fun!

  • John B

    Great article followed up by some excellent posts. My faves, Charlie “The Mechanical Man” Gehringer, Jim “The Silver Fox” Northrup, and of course, Frank “The Yankee Killer” Lary (love beating those Yankees).

  • Rick

    YA gotta have Stormin Norman and how bout Willie the wonder Horton, dandy Denny McLain, but for sheer class and simplicity ya gotta have “6”! Now THAT says it all!

  • magold

    Charlie Maxwell played left field most of the time, not first base. In addition to “Paw Paw”, he was called “Sunday Punch” for hitting HR’s with such frequency on Sunday (14 of his 31 in 1959). And Ernie Harwell used to call Denny McLain “The Maestro”. How about Larry “Bobo” Osborne? Eddie “The Walking Man” Yost? Wycliffe “Bubba” Morton or John “Bubba” Phillips?

  • J.D. Danielewicz

    We might be the ONLY team in MLB history with 2 “MAD DOGS”: McAuliffe (the original) followed by Madlock.

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