Sunday, May 3, 2009

In Search of Birds, Catfish & Baby Bulls

Back in elementary school, I developed much of my reading skills through books about baseball. I’d pick up stories about old ballplayers, read them cover to cover, and in the meantime find myself becoming more and more literate. When I was home sick for a few months during second grade, I had to select an independent-reading book for home instruction. I chose the autobiography of Orlando Cepeda. Good read, if I recall correctly. That summer, I picked up Ron Guidry’s book. After that, my parents bought me a subscription to The Sporting News.

This was 1979, a time just before cable television was to enter our homes. If you loved baseball like I did, you could watch the Yankees and Mets on local TV, but then you had the chance to see the rest of the league on just three occasions each week: “Monday Night Baseball” on ABC, the Saturday afternoon “Game of the Week” on NBC, and the delicious weekly show “This Week in Baseball.” These three treats gave me a chance to see how George Brett or Jack Morris or Steve Carlton was doing. But if I wanted anything beyond these programs, I had to pick up a book, magazine or newspaper, and read.

I was thinking about this as I reflected on the recent, tragic death of Mark Fidrych. During his explosive rookie season in 1976, there were times when the Detroit Tiger pitcher could be seen on national TV. But not many. If you lived outside the greater Detroit area and wanted to learn about Fidrych, you had to read about him. And for Fidrych, as with so many great ballplayers before him, the newspaper reporters were more than happy to use their descriptive-writing skills to paint a picture for us. But they wouldn’t stop with the imagery; they’d also add a dazzling sobriquet – in Fidrych’s case, it was “The Bird” in honor of his physical likeness to Big Bird of “Sesame Street.”

Indeed, the nicknames that filled the first century of professional baseball were among the most fascinating feats in American sports journalism. For those of us who wanted to feel closer to a player, the nickname made that much more possible.

And so we had Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Jay “Dizzy” Dean. Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig. Joe “Ducky” Medwick. And yes, even Orlando “Baby Bull” Cepeda.

That is not even scratching the surface. That’s not even getting to Gabby “Old Tomato Face” Hartnett, or the brothers Waner – Paul “Big Poison” and Lloyd “Little Poison.”

There is always a tradeoff when you exchange a literary medium for a visual one. I can tell you much more about Albert Pujols’ swing now because I can see it every day on “Baseball Tonight.” But as I see him more, I – and the journalists who cover him – feel more inclined to go with an easy moniker like “Prince Albert” and then let the video tell the rest of the story. For a while, when Chris Berman was hosting ESPN’s “SportsCenter” every night during the 1980s, he honored the rich history of baseball nicknames by adding new ones every night. He’s moved on to football now, but every once in awhile, they’ll let Berman loose on the diamond and he’ll toss in some more new creations of his own – such as Albert “Winnie the” Pujols.

But for the most part, baseball fans now focus on watching the long home runs, and checking their fantasy baseball stats. We don’t read descriptions of these guys so much anymore. We don’t need those wonderful images that Red Smith and company used to feed us decades ago. And we’re poorer for it.

When Mark Fidrych stood on the mound 33 years ago, he wasn’t the only guy out there with a great nickname. Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was out there, too. So was Mike “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove. You might sit down for a game and watch Bill “Space Man” Lee pitch against Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Over in southern Ohio, Pete “Charlie Hustle” Rose was legging out a triple.

It’s enough to make you pine for “Monday Night Baseball,” and a Sporting News profile of this rookie pitcher who talked to the baseball and threw it past everyone. Who’s this guy they call “The Bird”? Let me read all about it.