The importance of being Ernie, not Ernest, or, How nicknames make legends

Everyone needs a good nickname – at least, any athlete who aspires to greatness.

Think back to that great baseball movie of my childhood (you, gentle reader, may not be the same age as I), The Sandlot. Hamilton Porter is doing his best impression of The Great Bambino, when the loveable Smalls intimates that he didn’t know who said Bambino was.

Squints: You’ve never heard of the sultan of swat?
Kenny: The titan of terror.
Timmy: The colossus of clout!
Tommy: The colossus of clout!
Benny Rodriguez: The king of crash, man.

What’s key to this whole scene is that the boys never once refer to the player by his “real” name, Babe Ruth. Which, of course, is in itself simply a lesser nickname. And of course the whole refusal to call the Babe by his name sets up a fabulous turn of events at the end of the movie

Squints: Where did your old man get that ball?
Smalls: I don’t know. Some lady gave it to him. She even signed her name on it… Ruth. Baby Ruth.

wherein the mysterious owner of the dog, The Beast, that has terrorized the boys, reveals himself to have been a friend of the legend, whom he calls….GEORGE!

Deep breath.

The whole issue of names as signifiers, and perhaps even as predictors of personhood is perhaps more academic territory than I am qualified or willing to cover. But let’s delve in anyway.


I like the way she thinks. Also Ty Cobb. I love Ty Cobb. The Georgia Peach, they called him.

What if names, nicknames, signifiers (chair, table, couch) don’t simply attach a series of sounds to make it easier to communicate, but actually somehow denote and in turn FORM the essence of the thing they’re pointing to?

Not so radical, right? The word “couch” would always signify that lovely leather number parked alongside the fireplace, and would also somehow inherently refer to the object’s intrinsic “couch-ness.”

Now, what if nicknames worked the same way? What if, the day Dale Earnhardt became “The Intimidator,” he was both assigned a mission – named what he should become – and was somehow changed by that naming?

It’s cyclical. It’s the very cliché of the self-fulfilling prophesy.

Now think again of the legends (another wonderful trope of The Sandlot, by the way – when the Babe emerges from a closet to christen Benny a legend and tells him that heroes get remembered but legends never die.)

Now think of their names – their nicknames, infinitely more powerful and weighted with meaning than their given names.

The Great One. The Intimidator. The Great Bambino.

Now think of the names of the men who hope to be legends, or who played hard enough to perhaps, one day, be a footnote to legendary days:

The Perfect Storm. The Answer. Little Ball of Hate. King James. Prince Albert.

Now think of the great athletes of our time, and how devoid they are of excellent, aspirational names: Miggy. Manny. A-Rod. K-Rod. And so on and so forth.

None of these men will ever be great men (here I am reminded of the absurd song from Gang of Four) so long as their names offer no direction, nothing to become (an intimidator, a bearer of greatness) and begin no prophetic cycle of legend.

Their nicknames, even, lack the sound and the fury – and still signify nothing.

What, then, should we be calling these men?

10 Responses to “The importance of being Ernie, not Ernest, or, How nicknames make legends”
  1. Gavin Craig says:

    Should the Commissioner of MLB take nicknames under its domain? It seems that the marketing department at least has a vested interest in good, memorable, powerful nicknames.

    Then again, it’s the sportswriters that normally come up with the nicknames, right? Is it modern sportswriters who are falling down on the job?


    • AVGW says:

      I think the genius of a quality nickname is that it DOESN’T come from a marketing department. When it does, you can tell (hence, all the Maggs / Cabs / Shanny / Drapes, etc). I’d need to do some research, but my intuition tells me that sportswriters bestow the names, and that they’re abdicating their duty as of late. (Tho something ELSE tells me perhaps Allen Iverson game himself the nickname, The answer.)

  2. ana says:

    i think maybe the issue with sports heroes is that we all live in celebrity culture now and the nature of celebrity has changed. once upon a time, celebrity was a far away thing, but now any idiot can be on tv or make a myspace page for their crappy band. a-rod sounds like j’lo or lilo, doesn’t it? and he dates those chicks every other week, no? none of the new heroes feel like the giants of yore to me. maybe we’re all looking for the right now and not as interested in the forever?

    babe-eee…ruuuuth-eeeeee? oh how i love that movie.

    • Gavin Craig says:

      Ana, I think you’re on to something. The old nicknames are titles. “Joltin’ Joe.” “The Great One.” “The Bambino.” Some of them are almost royal. They’re supposed to be figures that are big enough that everyone can look up to see them. The image of being in everyone’s living room is tied to a unified physical presence–the only way for everyone to be able to see you is to be big enough for everyone to see you.

      Out contemporary media atmosphere is different. A-Rod is the kind of nickname you would call someone you know, someone you hang out with. Our contemporary celebrities have to be approachable, knowable. They don’t need titles. They need Twitter handles.

      • AVGW says:

        I think you’re both right. The magic of the game is eroding for the casual viewer, but for watchers like me the legend, the fog, the mystery and wonder — it’s all still there. It’s just not showcased by royal nicknames and an honored reverence for unwritten rules and tradition anymore.

        What Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Jake Peavy, Roy Halliday can do is beyond the wildest dreams of The Babe and Mickey Mantle. They need the royal surnames to prove it. A friend said he and his father (a noted baseball author) took to calling Cabrera something like The Venezuelan Smasher or something equally awesome. That’s what we need, because, sweet sassy molassy, these boys are the real deal. Their swings are like chamber music and their power like a wrecking ball, and that’s at least as good as what The Babe was doing.

      • Tim Carmody says:

        There are plenty of old nicknames that are downright teasing. Some of the best pitchers of the early baseball era were nicknamed “Rube.” By the twenties, “Rube” actually just became a nickname for a really good pitcher — Rube Marquard was from Cleveland, not a Rube at all.

        Let’s think about great nicknames from earlier in our lifetime. Basketball: Air Jordan, Larry Legend, Magic Johnson, Karl “the Mailman” Malone, John “Spider” Salley, Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson. Baseball… It’s really hard! There’s “Big Unit,” Randy Johnson, and Cal Ripken had a few nicknames (“Silent Cal,” “Iron Man”).

        I have two theories. First — the statistical revolution convinced most hard-core baseball fans that what they saw didn’t matter. These people don’t see a guy’s size or swing or how he runs or fields or throws; they see OBP, OPS, shares of wins.

        Second — this ceded the sensational plays and behavior to cable sports and tabloid newspapers, who eschewed monikers for retarded acronyms. ESPN has been turning nicknames into jokes since at least Chris Berman, and the New York Post has always tried to find shorter ways to refer to celebrities so it can write headlines in giant type. “A-Rod” is just another version of “Brangelina.”

        Finally, some of my favorite nicknames are nicknames for things nobody talks about any more, big industrial or agriculture events that raised the same kind of wonder these legendary baseball players did. Lou Gehrig was “the Iron Horse.” That sounds like some kind of robot, or maybe some kind of armored knight, now. It meant a train. A train was an Iron Horse, and Lou Gehrig was a train. That was a nickname for radio. It was the kind of nickname Ernie Harwell might use.

        Besides Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson — if you remember, it was because he could heat up in a hurry — our technology and our baseball players don’t fill us with the same kind of mechanical awe. They’re just bits of data on a screen.

  3. Gavin Craig says:


    I agree with you wholeheartedly about Pujols. He’s a magical player, and it’s unforgivable that he can get ignored in American League towns. A-Rod? Screw A-Rod. Hell, screw everyone on the Yankees except Jeter who’s actually played his whole career there, and maybe screw him too. The Yankees are where good players go to die, but Pujols can hurt you every at-bat, even when you walk him. You can feel the pitcher’s fear all the way from the stands.

  4. AVGW says:

    Tim, I think the stats revolution had a part in the loss of baseball’s magic veil, but I don’t think hardcore fans are prone to seeing players as nothing more than data bits.

    For example, Brandon Inge. If you look at his stats, you’d see a guy who is perennially not impressive as a set of numbers. But the Tigers are undeniably better with him at third base, and the hardcore fans know this. It’s the casual fans who check the numbers but neglect the actual watching of the games. For them, A-Rod is the guy because he performs well in the numbers game — which is a lot like measuring someone’s actual intelligence or value as a brain by giving them the MEAP test every year.

    The reason a guy like Inge is in the lineup despite his inability to hit for power, or average, is that he changes the game. You can’t hit the ball to his side of the field. Anything near him is an out. He takes hits away before a better even swings, and he makes pitchers better.

    There’s one of those on every MLB team. And real fans (here I will say, people who watch the games, not people who treat the live game as though it is just a statistical model, like fantasy baseball) value that. Which is why real fans, I would think, would like if someone like Inge had a fabulous nickname — a decidedly not Chris Berman nickname — that would be part of that wonderful tradition of passing a bit about each player on thru stories, of which “they used to call him x, because x” was a most integral part.

    Gav, I think you’re observation about Pujols is perfect. He needs a nickname that evokes an earthquake.

  5. David says:

    I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s playing a board game which I would really recommend called APBA Baseball, and while we had the set of players from the 90’s, we always drifted back to my older brother-in-laws set of cards from 1978. Even back then all the players had nicknames printed right on their cards………”sweet Lou”,…… Leon “bip” Roberts……..Chester “juice” Lemon……..The Goose, Senior Smoke, seems like J.R Richard and Luis Tiant had them, almost everyone in our lineups had their unique nickname, and the ones that didn’t, we gave them names. My leadoff man was always Rod “guess who” Carew, and just me saying “guess who” instilled fear into my brothers’ veins. Great times, love being able to talk baseball.

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