The history behind Negro Leagues' best nicknames
How cool was Papa Bell?
By: Eric Chesterton | @CF_Larue
The practice of giving nicknames is probably as old as the history of humans forming social groups. Whether you're a member of a sports team or part of the mafia, getting a nickname is a clear sign that you belong, that you're well-liked and part of the in-crowd. Sure, sometimes bullies and other jerks bestow nicknames with the intent to bring people down, but, in general, getting a nickname is a sign of respect and acceptance.
Not all nicknames are created equal, however. Calling someone with the last name Jones "Jonesy" or shortening something like Tom McArthur to "T-Mac" may technically be giving someone a nickname, but it's ultimately a cop-out. A good nickname leaves one's birth name in the dust and makes an effort to fit the person.
As we mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, we also mark one of the greatest eras in the history of nicknames. Nearly a century before Players' Weekend, players in the Negro leagues were bestowing nicknames on their teammates that have held up as some as the greatest of all time.
Here are some of our favorites.
James "Cool Papa" Bell
By all accounts, Bell was the fastest player anyone ever saw on a baseball field. Although the legend that he was so fast that he could turn off the light switch in his bedroom and manage to be in bed before the lights went out is probably made up, his actual exploits as a baserunner are just as impressive. It was said he would advance two or three bases on bunts and steal multiple bases on a single pitch.
But that's not how he came to be called Cool Papa. In his younger days, Bell was a left-handed pitcher with a funky mix of pitches that included a curveball, knuckleball and screwball. As a 19-year-old, after he struck out Hall of Fame slugger Oscar Charleston in a clutch situation, his manager observed how "cool" he was under pressure. That manager then added "papa" to the nickname so it would sound better, which we can all agree was the right decision.
George "Chippy" Britt, A.K.A. "Public Enemy Number One"
Britt may not have been too good with names (he earned the nickname "Chippy" simply because that's what he called everyone else), but he did have a second, fantastic moniker and the reason for how he earned it is legendary.
Chippy was something of a hothead on the field. Along with Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson and Vic Harris, he was one of the "four big bad men" of black baseball. He was once tossed from a game for throwing at the umpire after surrendering three walks in an inning. During one game in Mexico City, he apparently challenged some spectators -- who turned out to be a detachment of armed revolutionaries -- to come down to the field and fight. This incident earned him the nickname "Public Enemy Number One."
Arthur "Rats" Henderson
There are a couple different origin stories of how Henderson came to be called "Rats," but the general thrust of all them is the same. As a teenager, Henderson was working at a glass factory when his co-workers decided to play a little practical joke on him. They hid a few rats in his lunchbox. Of course, when he went to eat his lunch, the rats jumped out and gave him a scare and presumably ruined his meal.
To make matters even worse, Henderson had to relive this moment for the rest of his life as the nickname followed him throughout his career.
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson
Johnson was one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues, and she was also much smaller than a lot of her opponents, standing a mere 5 feet, 3 inches tall. Nevertheless, she owned an impressive fastball that would blow by hitters. After throwing one of her fastballs by Hank Baylis, he stepped out of the box and noted that Johnson wasn't "any larger than a peanut," and therefore, couldn't hope to strike out any male batters. Johnson struck out Baylis, and his failed insult ended up as her nickname.
James "Biz" Mackey
As a catcher, Mackey was friendly and talkative but also super competitive behind the plate. Playing for the Hilldale Daisies in 1923, Mackey earned the nickname "Biz" for his work behind the plate. He became known for talking a batter's ear off in an attempt to distract him or otherwise throw him off his game. In other words, he was "giving them the business." By the end of the season, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Courier were using the new name.
"Gentleman Dave" Malarcher
Unsurprisingly, the origin of "Gentleman Dave" traces back to Malarcher's demeanor both on and off the field. He never argued with umpires or was ejected from a game. Off the field, he never smoked or drank alcohol.
From an early age, his mother emphasized education, so before he became a professional ballplayer, Malarcher first attended and graduated college. He believed his education helped him as a baseball player. “The education and the mind and spirit discipline that I learned at New Orleans University enabled me to observe and absorb the baseball training techniques and strategy [of my mentors],” he said after his career.
After his baseball career, Gentleman Dave returned to school to become a real estate broker. He used his earnings to establish a scholarship fund in honor of his mother. He also was a published poet.
Leroy "Satchel" Paige
Paige grew up to become a baseball legend with a career that lasted 40 years and stretched across five different decades. But, before that, young Leroy Page -- the spelling of his last name changed during his life -- was a poor boy in Mobile, Ala., working a number of odd jobs to help his family make ends meet.
One such job had Leroy working as a porter at the Mobile train station, carrying the bags of wealthy passengers to nearby hotels. In order to carry more bags at a time -- and, thus, make more money -- he got a pole and some rope to make a tool that allowed him to sling multiple bags together. Allegedly, one of his fellow baggage boys joked that Leroy looked "like a walking satchel tree," with his new contraption. From that day on, his name was Satchel.
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe
Radcliffe was both a pitcher and a catcher during his career. As a pitcher, he was known as something of an expert at doctoring baseballs, which allowed him to probably punch above his weight on the mound. He was also regarded as an excellent defensive catcher, claiming that his experience as a pitcher helped him work well with the guys on the mound.
Playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932 as Satchel Paige's battery-mate, Radcliffe earned his nickname when sportswriter Damon Runyon saw him play in a doubleheader. In the first game, he caught Paige and hit a game-winning grand slam. He followed that up by taking the mound in the second game and throwing a shutout. Runyan bestowed the "Double Duty" nickname upon him. From that time on, he went by either "Double Duty" or just plain "Duty."
Norman "Turkey" Stearnes
Like Paige, Turkey is much better remembered by his nickname than his given name. But, given the origins of it, it's a bit of an unfortunate state of affairs.
Consensus is that Stearnes earned his nickname because of the way he ran -- with his arms flapping all around at his sides, which resembled the way a turkey might run. For what it's worth, Turkey himself claimed it was because he had a pot belly as a kid.
Either way, the way he ran wasn't the only odd thing about Stearnes' way of playing the game. His natural batting stance was so strange that he apparently looked off balance just standing in the box. Basically, he was the Hunter Pence of the 20th century. That didn't stop him from winning six home run titles in his career and being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, though.
George "Mule" Suttles
Just as fans arrive early to Yankee Stadium to see Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton take batting practice and launch balls into the ether, Suttles' batting practices were known to draw spectators. Known for his ability to hit low pitches with a giant 50-ounce bat, his teammates would encourage him by yelling, "Kick, Mule!" and he would respond by reaching down and "kicking" the ball out of the park with his bat.
It's no surprise that some of Mule's kicks have become legendary, like the time he allegedly hit the ball nearly 600 feet or when he crushed three home runs in a single inning.
Jud "Boojum" Wilson
Like Mule, Wilson was an excellent hitter whose bat carried him to a delightful nickname. He was discovered playing on the sandlots of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and joined the Baltimore Black Sox in 1922. Early on, his teammates started calling him "Boojum" based on the sound his hard-hit line drives made when they bounced off the outfield wall.
Though he was limited defensively at third base, he quickly became one of the most feared hitters in the history of the Negro leagues. He finished his first season in Baltimore with a batting average of .467, and for his career, he hit over .350 in the Negro leagues.