There is something wildly fantastic about finding a card where the player is referred to by his nickname, like Peanuts Lowery or Chili Davis (and can you imagine if Yogi Berra played today? He would definitely have had a lousier nickname, or may have just gone by ‘Larry’, and the guys at ESPN would’ve had to come up with something, which would have been a disaster, as most nicknames that originate out of the mouth of Stuart Scott are generally bad news. And think of the implications: Yogi Bear would’ve probably existed, but under the name Harmon Killebear the Talking and Bear-Killing Bear. Boo-Boo may have just been called Error (or Dick Stuart (whose own, real-life nickname was ‘Dr. Strangeglove,’ one of the better nicknames in the last fifty years)), and without Yogi Berra in the major leagues in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties—hell, forever--I would bet you that means no Larsen perfect game, no Yankee Dynasty, and most importantly, no Dale Berra drug scandal in the Eighties, because, let’s face it, Dale wouldn’t have been in the majors, nor been born for that matter.
But baseball card nicknames also feel kind of arbitrary, like the chief card editor gathered others in the office one cold and gray Friday afternoon and said “Ladies and gentlemen, after much deliberation, I’ve decided to give role player Bill Barnes a new nickname. We feel it would drum up national interest in the Tigers if someone on the team had a nickname—in a fun-loving, nostalgic way, ’cause that’s what we’re here for, right? To spread some goddamn fun-loving nostalgia [and yes, I did picture the chief card editor in suspenders, a toupee and chomping a unlit cigar]. So we drew names out of a hat and Barnes came up. Now, I’m going to read a list of potential nicknames and we’ll vote by a show of hands. Okay, here we go…’Red.’ Uh huh, okay, no votes. ‘Doc.’ O-kay, no votes. ‘Stretch.’ Maybe a little too Willie McCovey, but c’mon people, we gotta give the poor bastard something. No votes, huh? Fine, ‘Stretch’ is out.”
And it would go on like that until the chief card editor would leave for the weekend, and the next morning he would wake up early, walk the dog and after a quick once around the block, collapse in front of the TV and flip channels, eventually landing on Muppet Babies, and as he falls asleep, the name ‘Skeeter’ repeats in his mind, plays prominently in his dreams and is on the tip of his tongue when he enters the office on Monday morning. “Okay, people, I’ve got it: ‘Skeeter.’ What you think?” Everyone would raise their hand, just to get their crazy boss off their backs about coming up with some dumb nickname for a role player who’ll never play his way off the bench anyway.
But the editor will be right about one thing: the poor sap who gets Skeeter Barnes in his or her pack will—for a moment, however brief—feel a little closer to the ideal image of baseball they carry somewhere inside of them, one where players are named Preacher Roe, Three-Finger Brown and Skeeter Barnes.
But just one final note about nicknames (for now anyway, because, really, a discussion about nicknames should never have to end, especially without pointing out that Cookie Lavagetto sounds like a venereal disease). Who ever referred to Tim Raines as ‘Rock’? Was I completely out of the loop? Doc Gooden I get; Fleer referred to Dwight as ‘Doc’ on a card in its 1987 set. Doc Medich I get; his name calls for it, it’s obvious. But ‘Rock’? Was that a drug-related nickname that someone at Topps misinterpreted, thinking it had to do with his body type? So many unanswered questions…Also, I think it's terrific that Mookie Wilson became the 1980s poster child for fun-loving, nostalgic nicknames that are neither nostalgic (who else was ever named Mookie? (besides Mookie Blaylock)) nor may be rooted in fun-loving origins.