Baseball is a small town. In 144 years, fewer than 18,100 men have played in the big leagues, roughly the population of Germantown, Wis. If all those men lived together in a single municipality—call it Maranville—the postman would have to distinguish Mel Stottlemyre from Merle Settlemire, Bruce Bochy from Bruce Bochte, Wilbur Wood from Wilbur Good.
This is an article from the July 1, 2013 issue
Baseball names aren't all alike, but many share a mystical quality. The game's phone book begins with Aardsma and ends with Zwilling—it's a pity Zack Zwissing tapped out in the minors—and in between are some of the most marvelous names in American history, from Bevo LeBourveau to Rip Vowinkel to the immortal Van Lingle Mungo.
Matt Batts and Matt Capps may soon be joined by Matt Ball, a righthander drafted by the White Sox this month. The Red Sox took a lefty named Trey Ball, but for the moment, the major leagues still have employed only four Balls (Art, Jeff, Jim and Neal), resulting in one Walk (Bob).
And so we ask: What's the best baseball name of all time? Is it Champ Summers? Clyde Kluttz? Razor Shines? Scipio Spinks? Sibby Sisti? Creepy Crespi? Before you answer, consider that Coco Crisp is not even the game's top Coco, an honor retired by Coco Laboy.
Butch Huskey is both butch and husky: Discuss. If you can find a better name than Tigers reliever Al Alburquerque, I will eat Mmahat (Yankees lefthander Kevin Mmahat, who was 0--2 for the Bombers in 1989). You might prefer the blunt-force trauma of a Frank Funk or an Eric Plunk or a Tony Suck—of a Stubby Clapp or a Stan Klopp or an Elmer Klumpp.
Even those, like the best baseball names, have a musical quality. You can hear Vin Scully saying in his silken lilt, "Shig-e-TO-shi Ha-se-GA-wa." Sometimes the name actually evokes music. It's difficult to invoke the current Brewers first baseman without also conjuring the melody to "Camptown Races": "Yu-ni-es-ky Bet-an-court, doo-dah, doo-dah ..."
In The Sound of Music, when the captain sings "Edelweiss," does anyone else hear "Karkovice"? The same question holds for "Okajima" (where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain) and "Mantilla" (say it soft and it's almost like praying).
Some names are easier on the eyes than the ears. Aurelio Rodriguez had all five vowels in his first name and Ed Figueroa had all five vowels in his last name. A Tigers shortstop named Bernie DeViveiros went them one better, pulling off an unassisted Old McDonald, the vowels in his last name reading, in order: e-i-e-i-o.
You can lose yourself gazing into the i's of Larry Biittner. And both the flagrantly voweled—Herold Juul, Jim Kaat, Kirk Saarloos—and the vowel-challenged exude their own rough beauty: Eli Grba, Joe Zdeb and the implausible Doug Gwosdz, whose nickname was Eyechart. After seeing the name on the back of his Brewers jersey, you had to wonder if Joe Kmak was the team's catcher or its flagship radio station.
Baseball seems to have a disproportionate number of self-rhymers (Paul Schaal, Lu Blue, Mark Clark, Dan Duran, Billy Jo Robidoux and the insuperable Hill Billy Bildilli). But it's also rife with homonyms and near homonyms (Scott Servais and Scott Service, Bobby Thomson and Robby Thompson) and a roster full of walking palindromes (Nen, Salas, Harrah, Otto, Kazak), who go both ways whether or not they switch hit.
Some names work better as spoonerisms: Nationals lefthander Ross Detwiler would be a more intimidating mound presence as Dez Rottweiler. But many more are perfect as they are, names destined from birth to be slotted above a locker. Buster Posey, Bombo Rivera and Mickey Mantle could only have been baseball players.
We can't always predict who a newly christened infant will play for—Luis Exposito didn't sign with the Expos, Lenny Metz toiled for the Phillies—but baseball names provide clues to the future, the same as a catcher flashing signs to a pitcher. Indeed, 45 years before the Reds employed a catcher named Johnny Bench they had a pitcher named Johnny Couch.
Sam Leever pitched 13 seasons for the Pirates, but even now, 60 years after his death, there must be 50 ways to love your Leever. Or to further paraphrase Paul Simon: Where have you gone, Jay Loviglio? Coo-coo-ca-choo, Cookie Cuccurullo (and Tony Cuccinello). A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Shin-Soo Choo.
All of baseball is in baseball names: Add a couple of cold ones (Clarence Beers, Bud Weiser) to a patch of green grass—or Jim Greengrass, outfielder for the Reds and the Phillies in the 1950s—and you get bliss: pitcher Elmer Bliss, of the 1903 New York Highlanders.
But then all of life is in baseball names, too, from (Rickey) Cradle to (Danny) Graves. In the end it's impossible to choose the game's greatest appellation. They're all equal in baseball heaven. When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he cares not if you're Wynn or Loes, or even Blasingame.