For two years, in 1915 and 1916, Wilbur Rodgers earned a check in Major League Baseball. He saw action in 102 games, mostly as a back-up second baseman, though once, while playing for the Cincinnati Reds, the team stashed him in right field. He made it through the game without having to field a hit.
In his two pro seasons, Rodgers whacked 15 doubles, stole 11 bases, and then returned to the minors for 22 years, working double time as a player and manager. While there, he also got a new name: Rawmeat Bill. Rodgers was devoted to a diet of uncooked flesh, believing it boosted his strength, and he insisted that his players follow the same routine.
Rodgers carved out a lengthy career in a profession that has a notoriously short shelf life, especially for those that toil on the fringes, and raw meat, he was sure, was at least part of the reason why. It’s debatable whether or not his diet added any longevity to his career but it did earn him a notable name, and, in baseball, a sport that is rich with naming traditions, being a part of that history means something. Even the best records can be broken, but a name endures, unchanged, unchallenged and ultimately remembered.
In Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, former MLB infielder Mark Grudzielanek explains that earning a nickname is part of arriving. "If you are worth giving a name to, it means your teammates think you're OK and that you're going to be around for a while,” he says. Nicknames are judgments, and often critical, but in athletics they can be endearing; even names that poke at a weakness can seem sweet.
Consider Harry “The Hat” Walker, who, when batting, removed his cap after every pitch, or Luke “Old Aches and Pains” Appling, who frequently griped to his teammates about minor injuries but retired the all-time leader for most games played by a major league shortstop (a record since broken), or Doug “Eye-chart” Gwosdz, whose unique last name caused his teammates to equate reading his jersey with a visit to the optometrist. Earning a nickname in sports, even one born in jest, often connotes camaraderie and acceptance.
Nicknames are also verdictive: they judge and assess, they tell us something about the player. They can be based on ability, appearance, or geography, and an athlete's name can become an adjective. There are also different names for different social groups.
To his teammates, George Herman Ruth was Babe; to the fans, he was, among other things, the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, and the Great Bambino. The longer nicknames are purposeful, used by fans and media as part of the narrative surrounding the player.
Robert Kennedy, who lectures in the department of linguistics at the University of California–Santa Barbara, describes these types of names as Homeric, as they are similar to how Homer established character trains in the Iliad and Odyssey. “Fans and writers tend to like these a lot because of the potential for creativity and originality, and seem to value wordplay that links the form of someone's name with some other valued personal trait,” he says.
Among themselves, though, athletes often refer to each other with initials or short-form variations of their names. Kennedy calls these names hypocoristic. They aren't for constructing narratives, he says, but instead serve as convenient indicators of familiarity. In some cases, fans will begin to use these short names as well. Shaquille O’Neal became widely known as Shaq, for example, and, often, for fans, referring to an athlete's short name is a way of expressing knowledge of the game and it players. It is rare, though, that the fans allow the athletes to name themselves.
One of the best storylines of the current NBA season is the emergence of New York Knicks rookie, Kristaps Porzingis. The 7’3” 20-year-old Latvian has been a fixture in league highlights, often using his giant frame to soar over opponents and crush high-arcing rebounds back into the net. As such, there’s been a rush to bestow him with a nickname. Suggestions have included “Zinger,” “ScoreZingis,” “Young Lurch,” “PorzinGod,” and, alternatively, “GodZingis.”
When confronted with these choices, Porzingis replied that he preferred his initials, KP, or, in reference to his jersey number, KP6. On social media, these choices were met with near universal derision. At NBA Reddit, a discussion about naming Porzingis garnered nearly 600 comments, and the top voted response was, “this is why people don’t get to pick their own nicknames.”
Michael Adams, an English professor at the Indiana University–Bloomington and the editor of the journal American Speech, says that, as fans, we use nicknames because we are the ones calling the social shots. “We’re the ones who want to describe the narrative as it’s going on, with terms that are familiar with us,” he says.
“When he (Porzingis) favors his initials, or his number, those are things that matter to him, those are identifiers that he thinks of relating to him somehow,” Adams says. “But they are far too tame for an American audience and also it just doesn't satisfy fans not to be control of the sports narrative.”
The players might have a different name that they share in the locker room or over dinner, but when it comes to game action, we have “announcers, sportscasters, talking heads on the television, telling us what the games are all about regardless of what the players think,” Adams says. “Those commentators make up nicknames for the players without any regard for what the players want.”
For Kennedy, he says it’s understandable that fans would prefer a name like “Zinger” to “KP” as it has some extra semantic content, “but these nicknames aren't going to come from the athletes themselves, and they'll prefer the nicknames that their actual peers give them.”
Wilbur Rodgers died in 1978, at the age of 91. That same year, 17 future Hall of Famers played in the All-Star Game. There was Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson, Johnny “Little General” Bench, Phil “Knucksie” Niekro—players that earned names that are now enshrined next to them in Cooperstown.
It’s nice to imagine that Rawmeat Bill, a career .243 hitter, was somewhere out there watching that game. If he was, he would have seen that, on a field filled with legends, when it comes to all-time great names, his own moniker still stood out.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.