by Paul Knepper
Nicknames have long played a prominent role in sports. They personalize the athletes for the fans, build camaraderie among teammates, add a humorous element to the competition and are essential to the myth-building of sports legends.
There are many factors to consider when determining what makes a great nickname. Is it apropos? Does it stand the test of time? What’s the source and reason for the nickname? Is it alliterative? Is there a comical component to it? Is it widely known and used?
The list below is inevitably somewhat biased towards athletes from the past 30 years, though the greatest nicknames stand the test of time and many from the first half of the 20th century are recognized. There have been countless great nicknames for duos, trios and groups in sports, but I decided to restrict this list to individuals.
These are the 100 greatest sports nicknames of all-time.
The longtime Pacer was dead on from way behind the arc and equally as sharp with his tongue. Check out his classic ’80’s poster.
99) The Assassin – Jack Tatum
No elaboration necessary for this nasty former Raiders defensive back.
98) Donnie Baseball – Don Mattingly
Donnie remains a crowd favorite in the Bronx because of the way he approached the game. Bill James summed him up best: “100% ballplayer, zero percent bullshit.”
97) Pudge – Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodriguez
Fisk’s nickname was due to his big frame and he wore it well, belting his way into the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez will likely have a spot waiting for him in Cooperstown as well.
96) Chi Chi – Juan Rodriguez
Chi Chi’s jovial personality and signature “toreador dance” brought some much needed panache to the PGA Tour.
95) Pops – Willie Stargell
The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates’ theme song was Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Stargell was the head of that family. Pops won World Series with the Pirates in ’71 and ’79.
94) Nails – Lenny Dykstra
“Nails” was befitting of the gritty, gutsy center fielder for the championship 1986 Mets.
93) Dizzy Dean – Jay Dean
Dizzy won the 1934 N.L. MVP Award as he and brother Paul “Daffy” Dean led the famed St. Louis Cardinals “Gas House Gang” to world series glory.
92) The Flying Tomato – Shaun White
This red head Californian has taken competitive snowboarding to a new level with his death defying Double McTwist 1260.
91) The Croatian Sensation – Toni Kukoc
Kukoc was billed as the greatest European basketball player when he joined the Bulls prior to the ’93-’94 season and was a valuable sixth man on three championship teams.
90) Goose – Richard Gossage
You’d never know it from his nickname, but Gossage terrified opposing batters with a fastball that approached triple digits. Before the days of bullpen specialists, he regularly secured two and three inning saves.
89) The “Say Hey” Kid – Willie Mays
The name aptly reflected the New York Giant center fielder’s boyish exuberance for the game.
88) Lester the Molester – Lester Hayes
Not surprisingly, the Raiders’ defensive back wasn’t a big fan of this one. His other nickname was “The Judge” for meted out justice to wide receivers he faced.
87) The Hawk – Andre Dawson
The multi-talented right fielder finally received his due when writers voted him into the Baseball Hall of Fame last year.
86) Marvelous Marvin Hagler – Marvin Hagler
Hagler liked the sound of this so much that he legally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
85) The Minister of Defense – Reggie White
Fittingly, the pass rusher who put the fear of God into opposing quarterbacks every Sunday also led the post-game prayer sessions.
84) Tree – Wayne Rollins
During his playing days, the former Hawks’ center with the slim, yet wide seven foot one inch frame and long limbs was known simply as “Tree.”
83) Skip 2 my lou – Rafer Alston
Alston picked up this nickname as a playground legend on the streets of New York for the way he dribbled the ball and it stayed with him throughout his NBA career.
82) The Chairman of the Board – Edward “Whitey” Ford
Any time you share a nickname with Frank Sinatra you’ve got it going on. The pitcher with the greatest winning percentage in MLB history was known for his excessive partying and also answered to the name “Slick.”
81) Tractor Traylor – Robert Traylor
He was always listed at 290 pounds, but it’s safe to say the former University of Michigan star crossed the 300 mark in high school and never looked back.
Payton was the premiere on-the-ball defender in basketball during the late 1990’s and could trash talk with the best of them.
79) The Bus – Jerome Bettis
The NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher was bigger than a linebacker and did some serious damage when he got his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage.
78) Skywalker – David Thompson
Thompson is an integral member of the lineage of great basketball leapers, which includes Elgin Baylor, Dr. J, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Blake Griffin.
77) The Big Aristotle – Shaquille O’Neal
If you go by overall collection of nicknames “The Diesel” is in the top five. “The Big Aristotle” has always been my favorite.
76) The Penguin – Ron Cey
Short legs forced the Cubs third baseman to waddle around the bases.
75) Pee Wee – Harold Reese
Much like his Dodgers teammate Duke Snider, few people ever knew this shortstop’s real name.
74) Sleepy – Eric Floyd
The eyes don’t lie. He and Tracy McGrady must be related.
73) El Duque – Orlando Hernandez
The Duke is a solid nickname. Add a little Spanish flavor and it becomes a classic. Hernandez was referred to exclusively as El Duque during his career in the states.
72) The Worm – Dennis Rodman
As Karl Malone or any of Rodman’s coaches can tell you, this worm got under your skin. His teammate John “Spider” Sally was considered for this list as well.
71) Juice – O.J. Simpson
It was simple and obvious, but it worked.
70) El Presidente – Dennis Martinez
Martinez pitched a perfect game in 1991 and with 245 wins is probably the most under appreciated pitcher of his era. As for the nickname, I have no idea where it came from, but it has a nice air of nobility to it.
69) Big Country – Bryant Reeves
I liked this one so much that in high school I started calling my best friend Big Country. Between Reeves’ size, flat top haircut and the dull expression on his long face, he looked the part.
68) The Count – John Montefusco
This is an obvious twist on Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. From Sesame Street to Dracula, everybody loves a count.
67) Satchel – Leroy Paige
There are varying stories as to how Paige picked up the name Satchel, but that’s the case with many of the details and fascinating tales from his life.
66) Clyde the Glide – Clyde Drexler
The nickname just rolls off your tongue, as smooth as his game.
65) Larry Legend – Larry Bird
Bird was fond of referring to himself as “The Hick from French Lick.”
64) Hammerin Hank – Henry Aaron
The Hammer was selected to 25 all-star games and is the rightful all-time home run king, yet he doesn’t receive the recognition of some of his contemporaries like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
63) Clyde – Walt Frazier
Frazier’s Knicks teammates began calling him Clyde because he wore a brimmed hat similar to the one Warren Beatty wore as Clyde Barrow in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. The name jibed with Frazier’s laid back persona.
62) Crime Dog – Fred McGriff
The name stems from the commercials featuring the animated crime dog McGruff, though McGriff will always be remembered for his role in another commercial, Tom Emanski’s Defensive Drills Video.
61) Louisiana Lightning – Ron Guidry
Also affectionately referred to as “The Gator” by fans and teammates, Guidry compiled a 25-3 record and 1.74 ERA in 1978.
60) The Golden Jet – Bobby Hull
“The Jet” was known for his blinding speed and rocket shot. He retired second in NHL history in goals scored and ninth in points.
A picture tells a thousand words about this former Red Sox reliever…
58) The Georgia Peach – Ty Cobb
The irony of this one is comical. Anything but a peach, Cobb was a renowned SOB.
57) Round Mound of Rebound – Charles Barkley
The problem with this classic nickname is that it didn’t stick after Charles slimmed down during his first few years in the league.
56) Tiger – Eldrick Woods
If your name is Eldrick you better have a good nickname. The name “Tiger” ranks so high because of its ubiquity within the game of golf.
55) Catfish Hunter – James Hunter
Few people know that the Hall of Fame pitcher’s actual name is James. Bob Dylan was so fond of the pitcher and the name that he wrote a song called “Catfish.”
54) The Admiral – David Robinson
The 7’1 Robinson had to be the tallest man in the history of the U.S. Navy. Or any Navy for that matter.
53) The Mailman – Karl Malone
During Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals Malone was on the line about to attempt the winning free throws with the game tied and seconds remaining when Scottie Pippen whispered in his ear, “Just remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.” Malone missed both free throws and the Bulls won the game.
Lee was one of the true characters in baseball, a proud marijuana user known for publicly criticizing management and making controversial political statements.
51) The Barber – Sal Maglie
Maglie won 119 games over ten big league seasons and was given his nickname because he liked to give batters a close shave.
50) Bear Bryant – Paul Bryant
The renowned football coach won 6 championships at the University of Alabama and his star pupil, Joe Namath, still tears up when he talking about him.
49) Sugar Ray – Ray Robinson, born Walker Smith Jr. and Ray Leonard
Walker Smith wasn’t able to obtain an AAU boxing card because he was only 14, so he borrowed his friend Ray Robinson’s card and kept the name. Later in his career his manager told him he was “sweet as sugar.”
48) The Pearl – Earl Monroe
Earl the Pearl’s offensive repertoire was immortalized in Spike Lee’s He Got Game. They called him Jesus on the playgrounds of Philadelphia because he worked miracles on the court.
47) Too Tall Jones – Ed Jones
The 6’9 Jones was the most intimidating member of Dallas’s famed “Doomsday Defense.”
46) AK-47 – Andre Kirilenko
His initials are AK, 47 is his number and like the Kalashnikov he’s named after, he was made in Russia.
45) Oil Can – Dennis Boyd
Boyd supposedly picked up the nickname, which fit his oddball personality, during his beer drinking days in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi.
44) Mr. Cub – Ernie Banks
Banks is the king of the lovable losers and is vastly underrated outside the city of Chicago.
43) The Microwave – Vinnie Johnson
Johnson used to heat up in a hurry when he came in off the bench for the “Bad Boys” Pistons teams that won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90.
42) Mr. Clutch – Jerry West
Not bad for a guy who lost in the NBA Finals eight times. He’s also called “The Logo” because his silhouette is used as the NBA logo.
41) Air Jordan – Michael Jordan
It’s simple, but classic and ties in well to Jordan’s jump man logo.
40) The Chief – Robert Parrish
Parrish was named “The Chief” after the Native American character Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who like Parrish was a quiet big man, with an unnatural running style.
Also check out the following classic scene at http://youtu.be/togQKkA_Zws
39) The Golden Bear – Jack Nicklaus
Remember when everybody was certain that Tiger would break Jack’s record of 18 career major championships?
38) Big Papi – David Ortiz
Everything about Papi is big: his size, his personality, his hugs and his swing.
37) The Rocket – Maurice Richard
Richard was the first of many athletes to be labeled “The Rocket,” including Raghib Ismail, Roger Clemens and the “Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure.
36) Broadway Joe – Joe Namath
With the possible exception of Clyde Frazier, no athlete embodied the pulse and pizzazz of New York City like Joe Willie. He talked the talk and walked the walk.
35) Duke – Edwin Snider
Originally referred to as “The Duke of Flatbush,” it was shortened to just Duke. Snider hit more home runs than any other player in baseball during the 1950’s.
34) The Wizard of Westwood – John Wooden
Wooden set the standard as a teacher and basketball coach and his lessons on life will continue to serve as a guide for people of every profession.
33) Papa Bear – George Halas
Papa Bear did it all in the game of football. He was a player, coach, owner and pioneer over his 65 years in the game.
32) Bonecrusher – James Smith
How would you like to step in the ring with a guy named Bonecrusher?
This three-time pro bowl wide receiver was one of the first NFL players to do touchdown celebrations. He introduced the “Funky Chicken” during his rookie season with the Houston Oilers.
30) Pistol Pete – Pete Maravich
Aptly named for his brilliant ball-handling skills and shoot from the hip jump shot, Maravich was before his time.
29) The Human Eraser – Marvin Webster
Also known as “Marvin the Magnificent,” Webster averaged 1.4 blocks per game over his ten seasons in the ABA and NBA.
28) Three Finger – Mordecai Brown
Brown lost parts of two fingers on his right hand in a farming accident when he was kid. Despite only three full fingers on his pitching hand he went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
27) Big Game James – James Worthy
Stuck in the shadow of teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, Worthy was often the difference in the finals for the Lakers. His nickname has been emulated, but never duplicated.
26) Yogi – Lawrence Berra
Yogi was the perfect name for this short, stubby American poet. He’s one of a select group of athletes recognized simply by a one word nickname.
25) The Brown Bomber – Joe Louis
Louis was the first African-American athlete celebrated by both black and white America when he knocked out Germany’s Max Schmeling.
24) Shoeless Joe – Joe Jackson
Supposedly, a writer penned the name “Shoeless Joe” when the White Sox center fielder didn’t wear shoes one game because of blisters on his feet.
23) Sweetness – Walter Payton
By all accounts, “Sweetness” applied to his character as much as his game. Number 34 is still the second all-time leading rusher in NFL history.
22) The Iceman – George Gervin
One thing he could do was finger roll. Nobody was cooler than the Iceman.
Never has a nickname been more befitting. Knight coached at the U.S. Military Academy and adopted the authoritarian leadership style of his idol General Patton. Point guard Sherman Douglas also went by “The General” and Avery Johnson was “The Little General.”
20) The Wizard of Oz – Ozzie Smith
This was a great play on words and quite apropos. Smith’s back flips and slick fielding introduced an eloquent and magical flare to the game.
19) Mr. October – Reggie Jackson
He hit three home runs on three consecutive pitches in the decisive Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. Enough said.
18) The Human Highlight Film – Dominique Wilkins
This two-time slam dunk champion brought a devastating combination of athleticism and power to his craft.
17) Charlie Hustle – Pete Rose
The guy sprinted to first base after a walk and ended catcher Ray Fosse’s career when he bowled him over at home plate during an all-star game.
16) The Refrigerator – William Perry
15) Night Train Lane – Dick Lane
The great defensive back’s teammate plucked this nickname from a song that was popular in the Rams locker room.
14) The Iron Horse – Lou Gehrig
Iron horse is an old name for a locomotive, a fitting description for the lean, muscular first baseman who played in 2,130 consecutive games.
13) Mean Joe Greene – Joe Greene
It’s short and simple, but rhymes and is on point. The cornerstone of the vaunted “Steel Curtain” was one of the most dominant defensive players of the 1970’s.
12) Cool Papa Bell – James Bell
This African-American speedster is one of the figures most associated with the Negro Leagues in large part due to his nifty nickname.
11) The Splendid Splinter – Ted Williams
Also known as “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Splendid Splinter” truly captured the artistry and excellence of baseball’s last .400 hitter.
10) The Raging Bull – Jake LaMotta
This nickname was so catchy that Martin Scorsese used it for the title of one of the best boxing movies ever made.
9) The Great One – Wayne Gretzky
The greatest hockey player of all-time was in a class of his own.
8) Dr. J – Julius Erving
Originally just called “The Doctor” for the way he operated on his opponents, the “J” was added later for his breathtaking jams. His nickname has inspired several derivatives, from rapper Dr. Dre to pitcher Dwight Gooden, AKA “Dr. K.”
7) Crazy Legs – Elroy Hirsch
A sportswriter once said of the great running back: “His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions, all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck.”
6) Chocolate Thunder – Darryl Dawkins
The colorful Dawkins threw it down with such force that he shattered two NBA backboards. He also went by “Sir Slam” and “Dr. Dunkenstein.”
5) Manos de Piedra – Hands of Stone – Roberto Duran
Duran was a brawler who intimidated his opponents by cursing and snarling at them in the ring. The Panamanian took on all comers and began his career with a remarkable 72-1 record.
4) The Galloping Ghost – Harold “Red” Grange
They just don’t have nicknames like this anymore. The legendary halfback was named the greatest college football player of all-time by ESPN in 2008.
3) Stan the Man – Stan Musial
Supposedly, the name originated when an awestruck kid at Ebbets Field said, “Mama there goes that man.” The nickname is now pervasive in American culture and casually used for Stans and Dans everywhere.
“The Babe” acquired many nicknames over the years, though none captured his mystique and grandeur as well as “The Great Bambino.”
1) Magic – Earvin Johnson
A mesmerized local sportswriter came up with the most apropos nickname in sports after watching Johnson play in high school. His court awareness and no-look passes were simply Magic.