Getty Images
Getty Images

Shoeless, Yogi & Catfish? The Stories Behind 16 Athlete Nicknames

Getty Images
Getty Images

Floss editor extraordinaire Jason English recently found an interesting fact: Reggie Jackson's famous "Mr. October" nickname was originally a derisive jab from teammate Thurman Munson when Jackson was struggling his way through the 1977 playoffs. Soon after Munson coined the mocking nickname, Jackson started hitting like his normal awesome self, and the name stuck as a testament to Reggie's slugging prowess.

What about the famous or unusual nicknames of other athletes? Here are the back-stories on a few notable ones:

1. Pelé

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

History's greatest soccer star got his nickname when he couldn't pronounce the name of local soccer team Vasco da Gama's goalkeeper Bilé. Friends teased the young soccer player about getting tongue-tied, and soon the mispronunciation became his lifelong mononym.

2. "Oil Can" Boyd

WikimediaCommons// Public Domain

The longtime MLB starting pitcher took his odd nickname from his hometown of Meridian, Mississppi. In Meridian some folks refer to beer as "oil," and apparently as a young man Dennis Ray Boyd enjoyed a tipple or two, hence the nickname.

3. Chili Davis

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-2.0

The first Jamaican ever to play in the big leagues got his unique nickname from a terrible childhood haircut that prompted a friend to question whether the barber had used a chili bowl to guide his clippers.

4. "Three Finger" Brown

Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's nickname doubled as an accurate description of his pitching hand. As a young man Brown accidentally fed his hand into the family farm's feed chopper, which mangled the digits and lopped off most of his index finger. Although the remaining mangled digits disqualified Brown from working as a hand model, they helped him put a ridiculous amount of spin on his pitches, which turned him into a groundball machine.

5. "Hot Rod" Williams

Everyone's favorite longtime Cleveland Cavaliers big man "“ sorry, Brad Daugherty "“ got his famous nickname as a baby. Young John Williams would crawl backwards around the house while making motor-like noises, so his family started calling him Hot Rod.

6. Night Train Lane

The Hall of Fame cornerback took his famous nickname from a Buddy Morrow song of the same name. Dick Lane enjoyed the "Night Train" record his Los Angeles Rams teammate Tom Fears liked to spin, and soon his teammates started calling the hard-hitting DB "Night Train." The song itself isn't quite as intimidating as Lane was:

7. Deacon Jones

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of history's most legendary pass rushers wasn't actually a Deacon, and there's no real back-story with the nickname, either. David Jones simply started calling himself "Deacon" one day because he thought "nobody would ever remember a player named David Jones."

8. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

The Hall of Fame return man got his nickname in high school. Johnson was whitewashing a fence when some of the paint spilled on his shoes. His friends and family teased him for making the mess, and the name never wore off.

9. Robert "The Chief" Parish

via Getty Images

The man in the middle for the 1980s Celtics owes Ken Kesey some credit for his famous nickname. Teammate Cedric Maxwell dubbed Parish "The Chief" because the looming, quiet center reminded him of the similarly stoic Chief Bromden character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

10. Digger Phelps

via Getty Images

The longtime college hoops coach, analyst, and highlighter enthusiast takes his unusual nickname from time spent around his undertaker father when Phelps was a boy in Beacon, N.Y.

11. Muggsy Bogues

via Getty Images

The diminutive point guard got his famous nickname when he was growing up in Baltimore's housing projects. Going up against Tyrone Bogues' scrappy, aggressive style on the court reminded fellow ballplayers of being in a mugging, so they started calling him Muggsy.

12. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson

via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions' quickly rising star wideout received his nickname from former teammate Roy Williams, who thought Johnson's giant hands were similar to the famous Decepticon leader's mitts.

13. Yogi Berra

via Getty Images

The always quotable catcher received his nickname from a buddy who said that Berra's serene posture before at-bats and while sitting on the bench reminded him of a Hindu yogi they had seen in a movie. Yogi's real name is Lawrence Peter Berra.

14. Jim "Catfish" Hunter

Longtime Kansas City/Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley loved the potential when he signed a young pitcher named Jim Hunter, but he hated the hurler's bland name. Ever on the lookout for a new promotional opportunity, Finley then informed Jim Hunter that his new name was "Catfish." Finley even created a back-story for the newly fabricated nickname: Hunter was to tell reporters that he had run away from home as a child, and by the time his father found him, he'd already caught five large catfish. You have to admit that "Catfish" is much more memorable than "Jim."

15. Satchel Paige

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

It's not clear exactly how Negro Leagues legend Leroy Paige got his famous nickname, but it definitely stems from a childhood job of carrying passengers' bags at the local rail depot for a little extra money. According to Paige, he got the nickname because he could carry so many bags at once. A friend who worked this beat with Paige, however, said he gave the pitcher the nickname after the young Paige was caught trying to swipe a bag he was carrying.

16. Shoeless Joe Jackson

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Jackson, he got his famous nickname well before he reached the Major Leagues. He was playing in a game as a teenager when a new pair of cleats began giving him a blister. Rather than suffer through the rest of the game in ill-fitting shoes, Jackson simply went barefoot. Opposing fans heckled him for being shoeless, and the name followed Jackson.

Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.


Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.


Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.


Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.


In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.


A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.


Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.


For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)


While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.


More from mental floss studios