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What's in a Name?

Last night, after Varsity Letters [1], a few of us blogger types were sitting around drinking beer and talking baseball, and the conversation came around to baseball names. And the one that I found myself groping for was Stubby Clapp [2] — not for anything fabulous he did (5 for 25 as a 2001 St. Louis Cardinal), but for having the greatest baseball name in at least a generation.
I remember Stubby Clapp (you have to say or type his entire name every time, just because you can) coming to bat at Shea and hearing the rather strange sound of half a stadium laughing. Not in derision, but in appreciation. You knew before you even looked that Stubby Clapp would be squat and not hugely talented but full of grit and fire, that he was one of those guys they'd have to tear the uniform off of, that 20 years from now he'd be a roving instructor or coaching first base in the Appy League. Stubby Clapp sounds like a guy who would have raised hell in a roadster barnstorming with Ty Cobb and Rabbit Maranville, or maybe won a batting title in Altoona before the war interrupted his career. After Class D ball and Dubya Dubya Two I did a stint in the merchant marine, kid, running cargoes from Java to Peking. Lemme tell ya, them port girls were wild, but they'd kill ya soon as look at ya. Woke up once in this flophouse in Formosa with this tattoo…don't tell the missus, but those were some times. Stubby Clapp. He'd have gnarled fingers and hate doctors and refuse to wear reading glasses and wait up all night for his grown children to arrive safe for Christmas but never tell them he loved them. (It's OK. They'd know.) Stubby Clapp. Close your eyes and you can see him clear as day, can't you? (He's actually Canadian, which is just so…disappointing. I say we all pretend he isn't.)
Baseball has always been a wonderful source of names, from American classics (Smokey Burgess) to primally minimalist (Ty Cobb) to gleefully silly (Hank “Bow Wow” Arft) to evocatively mysterious (Greg's recently mentioned Van Lingle Mungo) to not-so-evocatively mysterious (Sibby Sisti). As relatively recent arrivals, the Mets have missed out on some of the fun — sportswriters had abandoned much of the purple-prosed mythmaking that bred great nicknames by 1962. But there's still plenty to love in four and a half decades of Met names.
With some exceptions (Stubby Clapp), names inevitably pick up characteristics from the players who bore them. The pleasure of Nolan Ryan's name comes from its deceptive mildness, but take away 5,600 strikeouts and it would just be mild. Gary Carter and David Wright's gee-whiz, can-do spirits are perfectly reflected in their utterly ordinary names. Ron Darling's name sounds smart and a bit fancy, but has a certain “Boy Named Sue” quality that a fiery competitor could build upon — a not-bad description of Ron Darling. Edgardo Alfonzo's name is at once faintly exotic (at least to whitebread Americans), sensibly balanced and musical without being showy about it — which sure sounds like Fonzie to me. In hindsight, the name Gregg Jefferies is self-absorbed and too complicated (you can easily misspell both ends). That's a match.
A good name needs balance — it's the double repeated consonants that make Todd Pratt, Eddie Murray and Bobby Bonilla good baseball names. (Not to mention Stubby Clapp.) But too much balance and a name feels fussy. To switch to that other team in town, the repeated M makes Mickey Mantle a good baseball name, but it's the way the vowels and sounds keep changing that makes it a great one. Leaving aside his vaguely girly first name (which isn't his fault), Derek Jeter isn't a great baseball name for all kinds of reasons — it only has one vowel, that one vowel appears twice in each name in the same exact places, and the first and last name have the same number of letters and sound the same. It's the baseball-name equivalent of a matchy-matchy outfit.
Baseball names rely on nicknames — Danny Staub, Clarence Coleman and Steve Wendell are all crummy baseball names. (As is Richard Clapp.) Baseball names sometimes need middle names to pinch-hit, as Lynn Ryan, George Seaver and Cornelius Floyd could tell you. And then they need a certain, hard-to-pin down something — a certain quality that makes you want to tuck your chin and try for the timbre of a PA announcer. “Now batting….” I envy my co-blogger's perfectly respectable baseball name; I knew I was doomed as a big-league player because there was no way my name would ever sound cool echoing around a stadium. (Well, that and hitting .080 as a Little Leaguer.)
Without further ado, eight classifications of great baseball names (and interesting failures), as typified by New York Mets….
AMERICORN: These are those names that just sound like baseball names. Nicknames help, though they're not everything. Choo Choo Coleman and Vinegar Bend Mizell are obviously names thought up by wise old syndicate writers of 50s serials. Tug McGraw, Rico Brogna, Henry Owens and Mo Vaughn should have razzed each other from Omaha Beach to Berlin, smoking and shooting Germans and balling French girls along the way. Their names ensured Duffy Dyer and Mackey Sasser would be backup catchers the day they were born. You know immediately Turk Wendell is a character. And Buzz Capra gets not only a no-BS nickname (real name=Lee), but also the last name of the director who personifies Americorn.
FUSSY: These sounds like baseball names, but they're a bit complicated, with a whiff of the manor. And as such, they present the bearer with a stark choice: succeed or come in for an extra heaping of scorn. Marv Throneberry is a fussy name redeemed by that plain-as-mud first name. Darryl Strawberry is a fussy name redeemed by towering home runs. (And a well-chosen repeat consonant — Daryl Strawberry doesn't work.) Because Brock Pemberton didn't hit, he sounds like a product of inbreeding and English public schools. Skip Lockwood (real name=Claude) sounds like a guy wearing glasses, which he was. Joel Youngblood's usefulness didn't redeem his comic-book-hero name. The convoluted last names of Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher, in retrospect, spelled trouble. If Lastings Milledge hits .300, his name will be complicated and interesting. If he hits .240, it'll be vain and showy.
DIFFERENCES: OK, this isn't really a category, but it's worth noting that baseball names walk a knife edge between success and utter failure. Gerald Wayne Grote chose wisely in choosing a J instead of a G: Jerry Grote looks satisfyingly plain and direct, while Gerry Grote is effete. Tommie Agee has a grace and glide that Tommy Agee could never aspire to. The simplest subtraction turns run-of-the-mill Mike Hampton into pretty-cool Ike Hampton. Bobby Valentine is a bit too blandly all-American, but Ellis Valentine sounds slightly off and therefore interesting. Elliott Maddox has four vowels, triple repeated consonants and a final X. Very cool. Kelly Stinnett has triple repeated consonants, but weak vowels and a girly first name. Not so cool.
FUN TO SAY: Ron Swoboda's name just begs to be mispronounced Suh-boda. (On the other hand, you fear to mispronounce Philip Humber, and then fret that you added an extra L.) Carlos Delgado arcs off the tongue like a long double headed for the gap. Bartholome Fortunato is a name to be savored. Marco Scutaro's last name sounds like something an agitated third-base coach should yell.
NO-FRILLS KILLERS: These are my favorite baseball names — simple, short, and blunt to the point of brutishness. Names that'll get up out of the dirt after you put one under the chin, then crack a clean single to left. Ron Hunt. Cleon Jones. Amos Otis. Rusty Staub. Hank Webb. Cliff Floyd.
WONDERFUL: Donn Clendenon sounds like rolling drums. Felix Millan sounds brisk and athletic and flashy. Dave Kingman had to be a slugger. Lenny Randle sounds sneaky and speedy and vaguely illicit. Clint Hurdle's name alone should have been worth 200 home runs. You knew Butch Huskey was at least a XXL before he arrived. A great name is no guarantee of anything, as Royce Ring (real name=Roger) could tell you. But it sure doesn't hurt.
WHA?: There really is a Yogi Berra. Nolan Ryan. Bob Apodaca. (Imagine if he'd had a complicated first name. Ambiorix Apodaca? Now that would be something.) Mac Scarce sounds like an invisible private eye, but he existed. (Real name=Guerrant McCurdy Scarce. The nickname was a good choice.) Del Unser. Brent Gaff. Wally Whitehurst. Esix Snead, who sounds more like a Star Wars alien. Xavier Nady. Braden Looper, the closer with the least-threatening name ever.
And yes, someone really did name a child Orel Hershiser.