The Yogi, the Duke, and the Bambino
I did not know what "larrupin'" meant five minutes ago.
Nicknames, like secret handshakes, have always been a way to say that you're part of an exclusive gang. Yet baseball monikers once felt like a nationwide hug shared between fans and athletes. And everyone was a fan to some degree. The sports pages may have been the best-written and most accurate part of the newspaper. You could argue with anyone anywhere about the Yankee Clipper without worrying that the words "sails" or "DiMaggio" would creep into the conversation.
In the days of radio play-by-play, glorious baseball nicknames were woven from situation and alliteration. Often granted by sportswriters to meritorious rookies, the practice seems to have fallen out of favor; otherwise we'd be talking about "The Big Syringe" and "The Baltimore Cuckold." The golden era of baseball nicknames gave us the Sultan of Swat, the Georgia Peach, the Big Train, Three-Fingered Brown, Cool Papa, Yogi, Stan the Man, Dizzy, Daffy, Charlie Hustle, the Bird, Space Man, and the Human Rain Delay. Often, birth names were lost to common usage --- who ever refers to Laurence Berra?
In the twilight of the nickname era, the best-known handle of an active player likely belongs to Roger "the Rocket" Clemens, who has been plying his trade for more than two decades. Though fans will know the Big Unit (Randy Johnson) and the Big Hurt (Frank Thomas), who have also been around for eons.
Perhaps we're simply too sophisticated nowadays to make sport of our sports. Who is no longer on first, and we have only ourselves to blame. Apropos of Larrupin' Lou Gehrig, it means "a blow, especially one delivered with a lot of force," which I had intuited as a child, though adulthood required definition.