Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Top 10 Religious Nicknames In Sports

Today, a Conclave of Cardinals meets at the Vatican to begin selecting a new Pope, to replace Benedict XVI, who resigned in order to avoid impeachment.  I mean, to spend more time with his family.  I mean, because he felt he was too old and infirm to do the job.

There's an old joke: "Who are the two former Cardinals honored in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium?" Of course, for centuries, every Pope had been a Cardinal first, so the answer is "Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II." Each delivered a Mass at the old Stadium: Paul VI in 1965, the first Papal Mass ever delivered in the Western Hemisphere; and John Paul II in 1979.

What the joke doesn't tell you is that 1920s manager Miller Huggins and 1960s right fielder Roger Maris played for the St. Louis Cardinals, so there was an actual answer to the joke.

The Mass delivered in 2008, in the final season of the old Stadium, by Benedict XVI ruined the actual answer to the stupid joke.  Unless Joe Torre, who (like Huggins) both played for and managed the St. Louis ballclub, gets his Plaque before Pope Unknown the Questionmarkth comes to become the first Pontiff to preach at the new Yankee Stadium.

John Paul II delivered Masses at Yankee Stadium, then Shea Stadium.  He went to Yankee Stadium first.  Gee, maybe he really was infalliable.  He also delivered Mass at Madison Square Garden.

Disclaimer: I was raised Methodist, therefore Protestant.  I am not trying to denigrate faith in general or the Roman Catholic Church in particular.  However, every organized religion has things for which it must answer to the God it claims to represent.

As Bill Veeck, who owned 3 different Major League Baseball teams, put it, "Baseball is like religion: Great game, lousy owners." Or, to put it another way, all too often, the fans/believers are ahead of the owners/bishops.

I hope the Vatican gets it right with their next "Commissioner."

Top 10 Religious Nicknames In Sports

10. Sports Pope.  Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News gave this nickname to WFAN host Mike Francesa, because Francesa apparently believes himself to be infallible.  This is the dumbest one, so I'm doing it first.

9. Lord.  James William "Jimmy" Jordan was a mediocre middle infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1930s.  He appears to be the only ballplayer whose nickname was "Lord." I can't find any reference to a reason.  So I'm doing it next.

8. Jesus.  It takes a lot of guts to call someone that, unless it's his name, as many Spanish-speaking players have been named that, with the pronunciation "Hay-ZOOS." But 2 basketball players have had the nickname: Earl "the Pearl" Monroe was Black Jesus, and Larry Bird was Basketball Jesus.  Come on, both were great players, but the closest either got to performing miracles was the Pearl sublimating his ego so that he could play with Walt Frazier, and Bird's steal on the Detroit Pistons.  Although, with all the sweating that goes on on a basketball court, both could be said to have "walked on water."

In 1978, Ron Guidry had the best season any New York-based pitcher has ever had.  In 1984, Dwight Gooden became even more celebrated, even though he wasn't as good.  Both times, people would remark about them, "He ain't God, man." But before the 1978 Yanks-Red Sox playoff game, Guidry heard it from one of the Sox, and sent him a note saying, "No, I'm not God, but I'm the closest thing to it you'll ever face" -- a rare moment of ego from "Louisiana Lightning." And Keith Hernandez defended Gooden by saying, "No, but he might be God's Son."

There was a basketball player from New York whose father named him God Shammgod -- which might have been the inspiration for Ray Allen's character of Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee's film He Got Game. Not wanting to sound like he thought he was God, Shammgod began using the name Shammgod Wells, and that's how he was known in high school at New York's La Salle Academy.  But when he got to Providence College, he was told he had to use his birth name or legally change it.  He didn't have the $600 fee to go to court and have his name legally changed, so he became known as God Shammgod from then on.  He played 2 years (1997-99) with the Washington Wizards, and then bounced around minor and international leagues for the next 10 years.

7. The Rabbi of Swat.  When Babe Ruth arrived with the Yankees in 1920, and started bringing in fans with his home runs, and was nicknamed "The Sultan of Swat," New York Giants manager John McGraw was eager to find someone who could do the same for his club.  He thought a Jewish player would be a big draw in New York.  So he looked for someone who could be called "The Rabbi of Swat."

The good news: He found one, an outfielder named Mose Solomon, who was not just Jewish, but a New York native, growing up in the most stereotypically Jewish place in America, Manhattan's Lower East Side. And Mose seemed to be a decent player in the minor leagues: His batting average was .313, and in 1923 he hit 49 home runs in just 108 games -- at Class C, which was roughly equivalent to today's "Short-season A-ball." The bad news: Solomon was less a Babe Ruth, more a Dave Kingman.  He was a horrible fielder, and after 8 games in September 1923, McGraw determined that this guy was not going to play in the upcoming World Series against Ruth and the Yankees -- which the Yankees won.  Solomon never played another major league game.

6. Superjew.  Mike Epstein was a slugging 1st baseman for several teams.  He came up to the Baltimore Orioles in 1966, too late to be on their World Series roster, but in 1972 won a ring with the Oakland Athletics.  In the postseason, he wore a black armband in memory of the 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team who had been killed by terrorists at the Olympics.  Teammates Ken Holtzman, who was also Jewish, and Reggie Jackson, who had grown up a black kid in a Jewish neighborhood in a Philadelphia suburb, also wore them.  Neither team owner Charlie Finley nor Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, both freaks for conformity, took action against them -- maybe the only time Finley and Kuhn agreed with each other on something and did the right thing.  (Reggie was injured in the final ALCS game and did not play in the Series, but he did wear the armband until then.)

5. The Caliph of Conversion.  No, he wasn't a proselytizing Muslim, but you should still know the name of musical legend Tommy Walker.  No, not the protagonist of The Who's rock opera Tommy.  This Tommy Walker played for the University of Southern California in the late 1940s -- both on the football field, as a placekicker, and in the marching band, as a trumpeter.  He is the man who wrote "The Charge Call." He was trying to come up with a sound that would spur his team on, and thought of combining the "charge call" of Western-movie cavalries and the "Call to the Post" from horse racing, and came up with, "Dah dah dah DAT dah dahhhh!"

4. Deacon.  This has been used for many baseball players, to suggest that they had high morals, including: James White, 1880s 3rd baseman; James McGuire, early 20th Century catcher; Bill McKechnie, 1910s 3rd baseman and 1920s-40s manager; and Vernon Law, 1960s pitcher.

I had read somewhere that Bill McKechnie actually was a deacon at his church, but this appears to be an exaggeration: He was not an official at the church, but he was a member of its choir.  Vern Law, on the other hand, is a Mormon who was named a deacon in that faith at the age of 12, and a priest in it at 17.  In 1960, at a time when the Cy Young Award was given to the most valuable pitcher in both leagues, he won it, as he was a major factor in the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series.  Today, March 12, 2013, is Vernon Law's 83rd birthday.  He is very much still active, both in his church and in baseball: His son Vance Law, also a former major leaguer, is the head baseball coach at Brigham Young University, and at adjoining Provo High School, Vern is the pitching coach.

But the best-known Deacon in sports is David Jones, the legendary defensive end who anchored the "Fearsome Foursome" of the 1960s Los Angeles Rams.  He also had a political nickname: Secretary of Defense.  George Allen, who coached him in L.A., called him the greatest defensive end of modern football. Jones also created the term "sack" to describe tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.  In 1999, The Sporting News ranked their 100 Greatest Football Players, and Deacon Jones came in at Number 13, the highest-ranking defensive end, ahead of even Reggie White.

Speaking of whom, White was an ordained minister.  So was Mike Singletary before him.  Both were nicknamed the Minister of Defense.

3. Preacher.  Elwin Charles Roe was a crafty lefty who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of their famed "Boys of Summer." Some "boy": He was already 31 when he threw his first pitch for them, and was already a veteran of 4 seasons, plus 6 more in the minors, and he lived to be 92.  He got his nickname at age 3, when, back home in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, an uncle asked his name, and he said, "Preacher." When asked why he said that was his name, he said he liked the minister who would take him on horse-and-buggy rides.

Preacher Roe was a 5-time All-Star.  In 1951, he went 22-3, and if there had been a National League Cy Young Award that year, it would have been down to him and the New York Giants' Sal Maglie.  "Ole Preach" had a great curveball, and a spitball that was, with a wink and a nod, called a sinker.  But he missed out on the Dodgers' 2 most important seasons: He and 3rd baseman Billy Cox were traded there from the Pirates after the 1947 season that launched both Jackie Robinson and the Boys of Summer generation of Dodgers, and both were sent back to the Pirates after 1954, and it was the next year that the Dodgers finally won the World Series.  Roe was about to turn 40, and retired rather than report to the Pirates.

My Grandma, a former Dodger fan from Queens, told me this story, and I can now confirm it: A great pitcher but a horrible hitter, Roe batted .110 lifetime, but in 1953 he hit a home run -- at, of all places, the toughest hitters' park in the league, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  He got a standing ovation from the Pirate fans, who not only remembered him as one of their own, but knew just how strange this achievement was for him.  And Red Barber, the Dodgers' broadcaster, said, "Well, old Number 28 has hit a home run, and we'll never hear the end of it, folks!" Red was assuming that Ole Preach would talk about it forever.  As I said, he lived to be 92, in 2008, and he was still talking about it.  I'm still talking about it now.

2. Mahatma.  This title is from the Sanskrit language of the Indian subcontinent, meaning "Great Soul." It is similar in usage to the Christian title "Saint." It is most commonly associated with Mohandas Gandhi.  In sports, it is associated with Branch Rickey, the man who built the St. Louis Cardinal Pennant-winning teams of 1926 to 1946, the Brooklyn Dodger Pennant-winning teams of 1947 to 1956, and the Pittsburgh Pirate World Champions of 1960.

In spite of a decidedly non-Christian nickname, Rickey was a deeply devout Methodist, who wouldn't even show up for work at the ballpark on Sunday, being the Christian Sabbath.  However, he had no problem accepting the profits gained on the day.  How he rationalized that, I don't know.

1. The Pope.  Paul Owens, longtime general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, was nicknamed Pope not just because his name was Paul and he was greatly admired, but because he actually did bear a bit of resemblance to Pope Paul VI, the Pontiff from 1963 to 1978.  Owens also managed the Phillies to their 1983 Pennant.

In case you're wondering about former Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, that's his real name: Priest Anthony Holmes.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Cortright said...

Great names totally religious...

Geoffrey@Football Agency