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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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42 Facts About Jackie Robinson
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On April 15, 1947—71 years ago—Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line and became the first African American to play on a major sports team. Here are 42 facts to celebrate the legendary athlete.

1. Jack "Jackie" Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. Shortly after his birth, his family moved and settled in Pasadena, California.

2. President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Robinson was born, was the inspiration for his middle name.

3. He was the youngest of five children—Edgar, Frank, Matthew “Mack,” and Willa Mae—and grew up in relative poverty in a well-off community in Pasadena.

4. Robinson attended John Muir High School, where he was placed on the Pomona Annual Baseball Tournament All-Star Team with fellow future Baseball Hall of Famers Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians.

5. He was also an accomplished tennis player, winning the junior boys singles championship in the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.

6. Jackie’s brother Mack was an adept athlete and a splendid sprinter. He won a Silver Medal in the 200 meters behind Jesse Owens during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.


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7. In 1942, Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to a segregated Army Cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas.

8. While in the Army, Robinson became friends with boxing champion Joe Louis when the heavyweight, who was stationed at Fort Riley at the time, used his celebrity to protest the delayed entry of black soldiers in an Office Candidate School (OCS). As a result, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943.

9. After an incident where he refused to sit in the back of an unsegregated bus, military police arrested Robinson at the request of a duty officer, who later requested Robinson be court-martialed. At the time of the proceedings, Robinson was prohibited from being deployed overseas to the World War II battlefronts. He never saw combat during the war.

10. Robinson was acquitted and then assigned to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, where he worked as an Army athletics coach until he was given an honorable discharge in 1944. During his time at the camp, Robinson was encouraged to tryout for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

11. In 1945, Robinson signed a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was paid $400 a month (about $5100 today) to play shortstop and eventually was placed in the Negro League All-Star Game that year.

12. Robinson married Rachel Islum—who he had met in 1941 during his senior year at UCLA—in 1946. They had their first son, Jackie Robinson Jr., that November. The Robinsons had two more children: a daughter, Sharon, and another son, David.


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13. Robinson played Minor League Baseball for the Montreal Royals in 1946, until he was called up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Major Leagues in 1947.

14. He made his Major League Baseball debut on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York. He became the first African-American baseball player in Major League history.

15. He also won Rookie of the Year in 1947 with a batting average of .297, 175 hits, 12 home runs, and 48 runs batted in.

16. Jackie Robinson had a close friendship with Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, who was the first African-American baseball player in the American League. The two men broke the color barrier in baseball in the same year and would talk to each other on the telephone to share their experiences with racism during the season.

17. Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese defended Robinson against violent and nasty racial slurs during his rookie season. Reese famously put his arm around him and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them,” as a response to fans shouting racial slurs at Robinson.

18. On August 29, 1948, in a 12-7 win against the St. Louis Cardinals, Robinson “hit for the cycle” with a home run, a triple, a double, and then a single in the same game.

19. Robinson was the National League Batting and Stolen Bases Champion with a batting average of .342 and 37 stolen bases in 1949.

20. He was also a six time All-Star between the years 1949 to 1954.


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21. In 1949, Robinson was called to testify before the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He was subpoenaed because of comments made about him by prominent African-American actor Paul Robson. At first, Robinson was hesitant to testify, but then was ultimately compelled to do so because he feared not doing so would hurt his baseball career.

22. The National League’s Most Valuable Player Award went to Robinson in 1949, after his first appearance in the MLB All-Star Game. Robinson later took his team to the World Series, but would lose against the New York Yankees.

23. Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, a biopic about his life released in 1950. Academy Award-nominated female actor Ruby Dee played Robinson’s wife Rachel “Rae” Isum Robinson.

24. During the off-season, Robinson went on a vaudeville and speaking tour of the South, where he would answer pre-set questions about his life. He actually made more money on these tours than he did on his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

25. Robinson played in six World Series, but only won one in 1955 against the New York Yankees in a seven game series. Robinson didn’t play in 49 games that season and missed Game 7; Don Hoak played third base in Robinson’s place.

26. At 37, Robinson retired from Major League Baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956 due to the visible effects of diabetes. Unbeknownst to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson took a position with the American coffee company Chock Full O’ Nuts and agreed to quit baseball.

27. From 1957 to 1964, Jackie Robinson served as the vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee. He was the first African-American vice president of a major American corporation.

28. Robinson was a political independent, but had very conservative views on the Vietnam War. He also supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election against John F. Kennedy, although Robinson admired Kennedy’s stance on civil rights once he was elected. He was later dismayed with Republicans for not supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and soon after became a Democrat.

29. In 1962, Jackie Robinson was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. He was the first African American inducted at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame and Museum.

30. Jackie Robinson was always seen as a large figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said Robinson was “a legend and symbol in his own time” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.”

Jackie Robinson with his son at the Civil Rights March on Washington DC in 1963
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31. In 1964, Robinson co-founded the Freedom National Bank—a black owned and operated bank in Harlem, New York—with businessman Dunbar McLaurin. Robinson was the commercial bank’s first Chairman of the Board. His wife later served as Chairman until 1990 when the bank closed.

32. Robinson was also the first African-American TV sports analyst. He broadcasted for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts in 1965. Robinson later worked as a part-time commentator for the Montreal Expos in 1972.

33. On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42, as well as Sandy Koufax’s number 32 and Roy Campanella’s number 39.

34. Robinson died of a heart attack on October 24, 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut, at age 53.

35. In 1973, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a non-profit organization that gives college scholarships to minorities. The Foundation also preserves the legacy of Jackie Robinson as a baseball player and a civil rights pioneer.

36. The house in Brooklyn, New York, where Jackie Robinson lived while he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1976.

37. On March 1, 1981, American astronomer Schelte John “Bobby” Bus discovered an asteroid at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. Bus named the asteroid “4319 Jackierobinson,” after his favorite baseball player.

38. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Jackie Robinson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award given to a civilian for their contributions to world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors—on March 26, 1984.

39. You won't see any baseball players wearing the number 42: In 1997, Robinson’s number was retired throughout Major League Baseball. This was the first and only time a jersey number had been retired throughout an entire professional sports league.

40. In 1999, Robinson was added to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team along with Cal Ripken Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb. Fans chose the final selections from a list compiled of the 100 greatest Major League Baseball players from the past century.

41. April 15, 2004, became Jackie Robinson Day and all uniformed players in Major League Baseball were required to wear number 42 on their jerseys to honor Robinson’s memory and legacy to the sport.

42. More than 20 years after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President George W. Bush also posthumously awarded Jackie Robinson with the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor the legislative branch can bestow on a civilian and must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of members in the House and the Senate—for his contributions to American history. He became the second baseball player to receive this accolade after Pittsburgh Pirates Right-Fielder Roberto Clemente in 1973.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

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10 Larger-Than-Life Facts About André the Giant
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Business Wire/WWE

Although a number of professional wrestlers have transcended the squared circle to become worldwide stars—Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and Jesse Ventura among them—few have captivated the public quite like André the Giant. Born André Roussimoff in Grenoble, France on May 19, 1946, the towering grappler stood nearly 7 feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds shortly before his death in 1993 due to heart failure.

It’s fitting that André’s mythological proportions have led to a number of myths surrounding his life, from an exaggerated height (he was often billed as 7 feet, 4 inches) to his alleged propensity for drinking hundreds of beers. HBO's new documentary, which just premiered, may resolve some of those urban legends. In the meantime, we’ve sifted through some of the more sensational stories to separate fact from fiction. As it turns out, the Giant’s life needed no embellishment.

1. SAMUEL BECKETT DROVE HIM TO SCHOOL.

In the 1950s, playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett took up residence in Ussy-sur-Marne in France and commissioned local laborers to construct a cottage. The property was just a few hundred yards from the Roussimoff residence and along a stretch of road where Andre and other school children started their walk to class. (There was no bus.) Like many of the kids, Andre would sometimes accept Beckett's invitation to hop on the back of his pick-up truck to get a ride to school. Over the years, the story has been exaggerated to the point where Beckett and Andre are the only occupants in the truck, though it's unlikely Beckett paid him any particular attention. Still, the unlikely pairing has inspired several plays, including the recent Sam & Dede, Or My Dinner with André the Giant.

2. HE GREW SO FAST HIS OWN PARENTS DIDN’T RECOGNIZE HIM.

Andre the Giant is interviewed ringside by Vince McMahon
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When Andre turned 14, he left home to seek employment and opportunities outside the boundaries of his rural farm community in France. At 19, he visited his parents for the first time, having already broken into the professional wrestling business. According to a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile, André had grown so dramatically in the interim, stretching to nearly 7 feet tall, that his parents did not recognize the stranger who knocked on their door. As André explained his career choice, they realized they had even seen him wrestle on television under his alias, Jean Ferré, without ever knowing they had been watching their own son.

3. HE ENJOYED MOVING CARS AS A PRANK.

André’s dimensions were the result of acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland that causes uninhibited growth hormone secretion. Because his body was so generous in its strength, André rarely (if ever) lifted weights for additional power. His resistance training seemed to come in the form of moving his friends' cars around during nights he was out drinking with friends. The smaller vehicles could be easily slid over to tight spaces or turned to face the opposite direction.

4. HIS FINGERS PRESENTED UNIQUE PROBLEMS.

While André’s height and girth proved to be problematic when it came to traveling—most vehicles made for uncomfortable rides that required him to slouch—his hands and fingers posed special challenges. Said to have fingers so large that silver dollars could pass through his rings, André could never use a conventional rotary phone without sticking a pencil in the dial; learning to play the piano was also out of the question, since one finger would strike three keys at once.

5. HE HAD FUN FARTING ON OPPONENTS.

Andre the Giant poses with several models
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By most accounts, André was a jovial giant, content to play cards, socialize, and enjoy all the food and drink his success afforded him. During matches, he amused himself by stepping on an opponent’s long hair or wringing the sweat from his singlet into their face. In one bout, Jake “The Snake” Roberts recalled that André waited until Roberts was on the mat before he squatted down and unleashed his flatulence. “This went on for like 30 seconds,” Roberts said. "Giants fart for extremely long periods of time."

6. HE LOVED QVC.

When he wasn’t traveling for his wrestling engagements, André largely kept to himself in his North Carolina ranch home, which featured a tree growing through the middle of each of its three stories. Because shopping could be a cumbersome experience, Andre grew fond of QVC, the home shopping channel that had launched in 1986. His friends recalled that André bought several steam cleaners and lots of porcelain butterflies from the channel.

7. RELATIVELY SPEAKING, HE WAS NOT AN EXCESSIVE DRINKER.

Nothing pours fuel on an André story quite like alcohol, with the Giant allegedly consuming over 100 beers in a single sitting. But most of his colleagues report that alcohol had surprisingly little effect on him, with no hangovers or slurred speech affecting his wrestling duties. There were only a handful of exceptions. According to Cary Elwes, his co-star in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, André once drank enough to pass out in a hotel lobby. Since it was impossible to move him, hotel employees arranged a velvet rope around his slumbering frame so he wouldn’t be disturbed. 

8. HE WORE A BACK BRACE UNDER HIS SINGLET.

Andre the Giant poses for a publicity photo in his singlet
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As years of wrestling and his acromegaly condition conspired to affect his health, André underwent spinal surgery in late 1986. When he returned to wrestling, his signature black singlet helped hide a back brace that provided support for his ailing frame. His physical condition was reportedly so diminished at this point that André spent his remaining years in wrestling in pain and able to perform only basic maneuvers. According to his peers, some of Andre's most famous matches—like the bout with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III in 1987—were nowhere near what he had been able to do earlier in his career.

9. BABY OIL REALLY ANNOYED HIM.

For reasons known only to André, his genial demeanor didn’t apply to opponents in the ring who would use baby oil to make their muscles stand out more. André reportedly despised baby oil, and extended that enmity to “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who was disliked by the Giant simply because he used a lot of the stuff while wrestling. “André hated baby oil," Randy’s brother, Larry Poffo, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017. “But Randy wouldn't stop wearing it. He stubbornly said 'André's gimmick is being a giant and mine is baby oil.' He never backed down from André and they never got along because of it."

10. HE PROBABLY WASN’T AS TALL AS YOU THINK.

Because wrestling is prone to exaggerating size, ability, and accomplishments, it didn’t take much for promoters to latch on to the idea of promoting André as the largest athlete on the planet. From his earliest matches in Montreal, he was billed as being 7 feet, 4 inches tall, enough to exceed the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by two inches. But when André’s height was measured at the age of 24 in 1970, he stood exactly 6 feet, 9 and ¾ inches.

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