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From Hippo Vaughn to Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Origins of 17 Classic Baseball Nicknames

Baseball's regular season is winding down, and this year's tight pennant races are sure to generate quite a bit of excitement. There's not question, thought, that they'd be just a tiny bit more exciting if today's players had the same kind of great nicknames old-time players did. Here are the stories behind a few great nicknames from baseball's early days:

Hippo Vaughn

Vaughn is best remembered for two things: being the losing pitcher in baseball's only "double no-hitter," a 1917 game in which Vaughn pitched nine hitless innings for the Chicago Cubs only to be matched by Reds hurler Fred Toney and eventually lose by giving up a run in the top of the 10th inning. Few historians can forget the lumbering 6'4", 215-pound frame that earned him the nickname "Hippo."

Mysterious Walker

Frederick Mitchell Walker was surely one of the best athletes of the early 20th century. He starred in baseball, basketball, and football at the University of Chicago before starting to pitch for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1910. He left off his last name when identifying himself in San Francisco, so fans only knew him as Frederick Mitchell.

When he pitched extremely well in his 11 appearances with the club that season, fans became quite interested in the origins of their ace. Reporters started calling him "Mysterious Mitchell," and even after he revealed his true last name, they simply repurposed the nickname and called him "Mysterious Walker."

Death to Flying Things Ferguson

Bob Ferguson first caught baseball fans' attention in the late 1860s with the Brooklyn Atlantics. Although he only batted .271 for his career and only had one real standout season (1878 with the Chicago Cubs), he earned the nickname "Death to Flying Things" for his unprecedented prowess as a fielder.

Bald Billy Barnie

Aside from being a lovely piece of alliteration, this one accurately described the dome of the player of the 1870s and manager of the 1880s and '90s.

Egyptian Healy

John J. Healy pitched from 1885 until 1892, but his nickname is more memorable than anything he did on the diamond. It came from the simple fact that he hailed from Cairo, IL.

Brewery Jack Taylor

Brewery Jack Taylor pitched for several teams throughout the 1890s, most notably six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. He is best remembered for vociferously arguing with umpires and for throwing back lots of suds between games. Hence his nickname.

Shoeless Joe Jackson

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 around the bases in his stocking feet. Opposing fans heckled him for being "a shoeless son of a gun," and the name followed Jackson.

Kiki Cuyler

"Kiki" may not seem like a very tough nickname for one of the venerable outfielders of the 1920s and '30s, but it's decidedly more intimidating than his real name, Hazen Shirley Cuyler. Cuyler supposedly got the nickname early in his career when he stuttered pronouncing his own last name, and the moniker stuck.

Lip Pike

Pike became a national sensation when he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866; he had both blazing speed and astounding power. In fact, Pike was so good that he was later revealed to be arguably the first professional baseball player—the Athletics paid him a princely $20 a week for his services. "Lip" isn't a traditional nickname, either. It's short for his first name, Lipman.

Silk O'Loughlin

Francis O'Loughlin was an American League umpire from 1902 to 1918, but his nickname didn't come from his smooth and consistent strike zone. Rather, he picked up the nickname "Silk" as a child because he had particularly fine hair.

Fatty Briody

Here's one that's easy to believe: a guy named "Fatty" played catcher. The 5'8", 190-pound Briody earned renown as an ace defensive catcher throughout the 1880s.

Chicken Wolf

The right fielder for the Louisville Eclipse and Louisville Colonels of the 1880s allegedly got his nickname from teammate Pete Browning when they were playing semi-pro ball. Even though a manager had told the boys not to eat much before the first pitch, Jimmy Wolf gorged himself on stewed chicken before a game, then played terribly in the field. Browning taunted him by calling him "Chicken," and the unflattering nickname stuck.

Turkey Mike Donlin

Donlin racked up five seasons with a batting average over .300 and won a World Series with the Giants in 1905. Apparently he had a red neck and an odd walk, though, so teammates gave him a nickname he loathed: Turkey Mike.

Brickyard Kennedy

Brickyard Kennedy won 187 games in the Majors, but at the turn of the 20th century, even the best players needed second jobs in the offseason. William Park Kennedy worked at a brickyard, so a nickname wasn't too tough to find.

Pickles Dillhoefer

Maybe this one is obvious to you, but it took me a minute to figure it out. The catcher, who spent time with the Cubs, Phillies, and Cardinals between 1917 and 1921, got his nickname as a twist on the "Dill" in his last name.

Piano Legs Hickman

Slugger Charlie Hickman was also known as "Cheerful Charlie" for his demeanor, but most historians remember him as Piano Legs Hickman, a name that described the thick legs he needed to move his 215-pound frame around the bases.

Iron Man McGinnity

Joseph Jerome McGinnity pitched his way into the Hall of Fame by winning 246 games between 1899 and 1908. Many people mistakenly think that McGinnity got his "Iron Man" moniker from his tendency to pitch both games of a doubleheader, but, like Brickyard Kennedy, the nickname came from his offseason job: McGinnity worked in a foundry.

And some other greats for which we can't find explanations...

Chime in on the comments if you know any of their origins!
- Cannonball Titcomb (He threw a no-hitter in 1890!)
- Cinders O'Brien
- Live Oak Taylor
- Wimpy Quinn
- Icicle Reeder
- Pop-boy Smith

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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