Musings: Mookie Betts And Baseball Nicknames

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

MOOKIE BETTS AND BASEBALL NICKNAMES

Mookie Betts has it all. He hits for average (.346 in 2018); hits for power (32 home runs);

runs like the wind (30 stolen bases); and is a defensive wizard (3 Gold Glove awards). He

also has a great nickname.

He is universally known by the name Mookie and not by his given first name of Markus.

Of course, he’s not the first baseball player with that moniker. Three decades ago Mookie

Wilson (real name, Bill) of the New York Mets became famous (or infamous, depending

on your point of view) by hitting a routine ground ball that somehow found its way

through the legs Bill Buckner and into the annals of unforgettable Red Sox disasters of

the twentieth century. But Mookie Wilson’s nickname has nothing to do with that of

Mookie Betts.

When little Markus Betts was just an infant in Nashville, Tennessee, his parents used to

watch Atlanta Hawks basketball games on television. The Hawks had an estimable point

guard named Mookie Blaylock (whose given first name was Daron); that’s when they

began calling their baby Mookie. The rest is history.

A side note: Blaylock was a very good NBA player (he made an all-star team and several

all-defensive teams), but he fell victim to alcohol addiction in his post-playing days. He is

currently serving time in prison for manslaughter as the result of his involvement in a

fatal automobile collision.

Nicknames have always been a big part of all sports; baseball and the Red Sox are no

exceptions. The names fall into different categories. For the purposes of this piece we are

not counting commonly used variants of more formal names, such as Tom, Dick, or

Harry. There are nicknames that are shortened versions of players surnames, such as Yaz.

Pesky was another such nickname given to Johnny Paveskovitch for the simple reason

that it fit more easily into box scores; it took hold to the extent that he had his name

legally changed in 1947. Then there are those nicknames that were the creation of sports

writers and headline writers; the Splendid Splinter comes to mind. There are also names

that only seem to be nicknames; Spike, for example, is the actual given name of Spike

Owen, the Red Sox shortstop of three decades ago. Sometimes a nickname will come

about because of a player’s ethnicity. When David Ortiz first came to the Red Sox he

didn’t know everyone’s name so he started calling teammates “Papi,” a Spanish

colloquialism for “Buddy.” They called him the same, adding the “Big” because of his

size. There are some nicknames that, though they become widely used, never really

supplant given names; Rick “Rooster” Burleson and Dave “Boo” Ferriss are two

examples. Then, of course, there are nicknames that actually take over from the given

names of players; they in fact become part of a player’s persona to the point where we

don’t know or even care what his given name is. Everyone loves Mookie, but most of us

aren’t aware that he is really Markus Lynn Betts.

A decade and a half ago the Red Sox had an outfielder who, when he was a little kid,

used to be teased by his sister that he looked like one of the characters pictured on the

box of Cocoa Krispies cereal. Her nickname for him never really took hold until, as a

young player in the low minor leagues, he was asked to fill out a questionnaire used to

help familiarize players with one another. Next to “nickname” he filled in “Coco.” His

teammates thought it was funny, had the name put up on the scoreboard, and from then

on he was Coco Crisp. Never again would he use his given first name of Covelli; in fact,

like Johhny Pesky, he had his name legally changed in 2013.

Young Elijah Green had no idea why his mother always called him Pumpsie, but she did

– and so did everyone else.

Birdie Tebbetts (George) was the Red Sox catcher in the late nineteen-forties. He got his

nickname from his high-pitched voice that, when he’d yell out encouragement to the

pitcher, sounded like a bird chirping. He was regarded as a smart baseball man and a

great field general (he went on to manage the Reds, Braves, and Indians), but he also had

the reputation as the slowest runner in baseball. One day late in the 1949 season, when

looking over the Red Sox team statistics, Dom DiMaggio noticed that Tebbetts was

leading the team in stolen bases. DiMaggio and Pesky, both terrific base runners, were

under orders not to steal when Ted Williams was batting or due up (Dom hit lead-off,

Johnny second, and Ted third) because the opposing pitcher would walk Williams, taking

the bat out of his hands. Dom approached Tebbetts, explaining what an embarrassment it

would be if the slowest runner in the league finished the year leading the team in stolen

bases, and asked if Birdie would mind it if he, Dom, stole a few. Tebbetts said not at all,

that the only reason he ever stole was that pitchers never bothered to hold him on base

and that he would occasionally run down to second because no one was paying attention.

Dom stole a few bases in the next couple of games and reported back to Birdie, “I think

I’ve got enough now; besides, Ted is starting to get really teed off.”

You could look it up. In 1949 Dom DiMaggio led the Red Sox in stolen bases with 9; just

behind him with 8 stolen bases was Birdie Tebbetts.

Colorful nicknames were more prominent years ago than they are nowadays. My favorite

Red Sox nickname of all time was Baby Doll Jacobson (given name, William), who was

an outfielder with the Sox and several other teams from 1915-1927. He was a big,

muscular guy (6’3”, 215 lb) who looked not at all like a baby doll. The story is that on

Opening Day of 1912, while playing for the Mobile Seagulls of the Southern Association,

Jacobson, batting lead-off, came up to hit as the band in the stands (a common occurrence

in the pre-loudspeaker days) played “Oh You Beautiful Doll.” Jacobson homered, and a

woman sitting behind home plated yelled out, “You must be that beautiful doll they’re

playing about.”

Memorable monikers add greatly to the enjoyment of all sports. Let’s hope that we’ll

rooting for Mookie for years to come.