Ladies and gentlemen, introducing your 1918 Detroit Tigers…
Say who, again?
That would be catcher Oscar “Spinach” Stanage, pitcher Eric “Waffles” Erickson, catcher Joe “Chink” Cobb, pitcher George “Hookie” Dauss, and outfielder Bobby “Puttynose” Veach.
“Strangers with a desire to learn the real names of the Tigers,” sportswriter Harry Bullion observed at the time, “could mingle with them for weeks without getting the information they seek.”
Nicknames have been an integral part of baseball since the first ball was tossed. Moved by the spirit of old-time Tigers like “Wahoo Sam” Crawford (who hailed from Wahoo, Nebraska) and Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickman (bowlegged as a pair of apostrophes), let’s take a representative look at the team’s roster from 1918–a war-shortened season in which the sad-sack Tigers finished seventh–and see what the monikers say about the players saddled with them.
In the best playground tradition, many nicknames were simply a goofy play on words, such as Stanage being “Spinach,” which some players then abbreviated to “Spin.” Bullpen coach Bert Blue, a grizzled 40-year-old former catcher, was “Boy Blue.” Rookie pitcher Rudy Kallio was known as “Calico” or “Calliope,” or, as Bullion noted, “anything that might strike somebody’s fancy.” Others were an obvious reference to a physical characteristic, such as hawk-nosed pitcher Bernie Boland being called “Beak” or fellow twirler Bill James being branded “Long Guy” for his remarkable (for the era) 6-foot-4-inch frame.
Among his teammates, pitcher Harry Coveleski was known as “Crooked Arm,” a reference to the southpaw’s sidewinding delivery and chronic arm woes. This turned out to be no laughing matter as Coveleski pitched his final big-league game in 1918, retiring with what remains the franchise’s lowest lifetime ERA (2.34).
Some nicknames were obvious and uninspired. First baseman Lee Dressen, for example, was known as “Lefty.” (Care to guess which side of the plate he swung from and what hand he threw with?) Others referred to a player’s former or offseason profession. Utility player Bert Ellison, a barber, was called “Razor.” Ellison also was called “Babe,” but any similarity between Ellison, who hit one home run in five partial seasons with Detroit, and the game’s most famous “Babe,” George Herman Ruth (who led the league in slugging as a pitcher-outfielder with Boston in 1918), ended with their nickname.
Political correctness, of course, didn’t exist in 1918, so ethnic stereotypes were common. In addition to squinty-eye Joe Cobb being dubbed “Chink,” third baseman Ossie Vitt was nicknamed “Jew” and Erickson was predictably named “Swede.” Erickson (who was born in Goteburg, Sweden) also went by a pair of less offensive alternative nicknames. “Long Jumper” referenced his height (he was 6-foot-2), while “Waffles” was self-explanatory to anyone who saw him dig into a stack of them.
The most famous Tiger of them all, Ty Cobb, was known in the press as “The Georgia Peach,” but nobody on the diamond actually used the unwieldy moniker. On the field Cobb often was called “Peach,” though out of earshot the world’s most competitive ballplayer – who in 1918 won his eleventh batting title in twelve years – was known by a few unflattering names that can’t be printed here.