Back Page THE NAME OF THE GAME
There was a time when people did not refer to me as Norm or any of those other things they now call me. In the late 60’s, I was "Wide Load" Hitzges of the San Antonio Toros minor league pro football team along with Ox and Primo and Big Dog.
No other area of society seems so bent on finding other ways to refer to people as does athletics. Many nicknames are simply retreads - more anonymous jocks called Rocky or Tiger or Butch. But the athletic alias can be an area of creativity and keen observation. Babe Ruth was, of course, the Sultan of Swat. Anyone who has ever witnessed Julius Erving knows that Doctor J. operates like no one else in the NBA. And what could be more evocative than Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster? Tags like Catfish, The Juice, Hammerin’ Hank, and Mean Joe carry instant recognition for millions.
Hondo, Wolftnan, and Piggy have come and gone from Arlington Stadium in recent years. Those monikers, like so many baseball nicknames, are a combination of humor and cruelty. Birdlegs, Dogface, and the Chicken all played major league baseball last season. A few years back, an especially rotund pitcher named Ken Wright was dubbed "Quarter To Three" because he weighed 245.
But there is a serious side to nicknames in athletics-the team nickname. New pro franchises have gone so far as to hire social psychologists to select just the right blend of macho, cleverness, ferocity, and alliteration. Many clubs sponsor contests to determine what they’ll call the new team in town. The most recent example was the NFL Seattle franchise which chose the Sea-hawks after rejecting a list of over 1700 suggestions - including the Earthworms, Diarrheas, No Names, Identified Flying Objects, and the Cumulo Nimbos. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure how the new Toronto baseball franchise, with all the creative possibilities for a name, ended up as the Toronto Blue Jays.
Occasionally the name game leads to identity crises. The expansion New York hockey franchise, now the Islanders, originally wanted to call themselves the Ducks (as in Long Island Ducks, you know). Then they hired a public relations firm who wasted no time pointing out how terrible the new team would be and how many terrible words rhyme with Ducks. The New England Patriots of the NFL were the Boston Patriots in the early days of the AFL. But originally the Patriots had been christened the Bay State Patriots. That lasted until the first time the Boston Globe referred to them as the B.S. Patriots.
Even our own stolid Cowboys kicked it around a little before they got settled. The team was first talked about as the Dallas Steers, then actually incorporated as the Dallas Rangers, before finally taking the field as the Cowboys. Not a particularly inspired choice, but then the Cowboys have never been much for flashy nicknames. In the last few years, though, they’ve come on strong with the likes of Hollywood Henderson, Harvey "The Smiling Assassin" Martin, and Ed "Too Tall" Jones (Too Tall, incidentally, is being succeeded at his Memphis State alma mater by a lineman in the 400-lb. range - they call him Too Huge).
Some teams might have had a chance to survive had it not been for the name they were saddled with. When the World Hockey Association transferred a club to Ottawa last year it became the Ottawa Civics. Ugh. Think of it - "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for the Civics stand up and holler." The Civics died two months later. A couple of years ago, Charley Finley sold his ABA team, the Memphis Tarns (Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi-TAMS, get it?), and they became the Memphis Sound. The team was moved to Baltimore and became the Hustlers, then the Claws. And then they folded without ever playing a game in Baltimore. Imagine being a Tarn, a Sound, a Hustler, and a Claw all in three years. It’s enough to make a man sell insurance.
It’s intriguing to note that the National Football League has begun playing exhibitions in Tokyo, Japan with an eye to placing a franchise in that country eventually. What could it be called? Like the Patriots and 49ers, the NFL might turn to history and call it the Tokyo Roses. Perhaps the major occupation of the area might be used as it was for the Steelers and Packers. If so, we’d have the Tokyo Transistors.
But the wisest choice might be to let Texans name all the future franchises. For it is Texas high schools that have given sport some of its most colorful terminology. Nowhere else but Texas could you find the Hutto Hippos, Cuero Gobblers, Itasca Wampus Cats, Trent Gorillas, Happy Cowboys, Munday Moguls, Frisco Fighting Coons, Frost Polar Bears, and Winters Blizzards. And what about the Falfurrias Fightin’ Jersevs - is their mascot an irate dairy cow or an angry athletic shirt? And then there are the Hamlin Pied Pipers (one wonders if their followers call themselves the Rats). And down in the southwestern plains there are those classic matchups between the Knippa Rockcrushers and their arch-rivals, the Rotan Yellow Hammers. And at least two Texas high schools don’t even need nicknames - Howe High and Miles High speak for themselves.
There are, however, a few Texas high schools which could have been a bit more creative in selecting mascots and nicknames. Certainly Leakey High could have done better than the Eagles and Blanket should not have settled for the Tigers. Cisco might have been the Kids instead of the Loboes. The Florence Nightingales seems far prefer able to the Florence Buffaloes. And how did they come up with the Turkey Patriots?
But the school that really missed their chance is Mesquite High. Mesquite chose to be the Skeeters. In retrospect, that team should have been called only one thing - the Toes. The Mesquite Toes.
All for the Toes stand up and holler.