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Whatever became of nicknames?

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / October 17, 1984



A jogger we know only by the name of ''Stumbles'' told us the other day that sporting nicknames are dying out. There are scholarly articles and even books to prove it, our man said as he tripped over a curb and staggered off into the middle distance.

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Well, this must come as news to relief pitcher Goose Gossage and the ''M&M Boys,'' as the San Diego Padres outfielders Kevin McReynolds and Carmelo Martinez are known - not to mention the San Diego general manager, Jack McKeon, whose canniness in the baseball marketplace has earned him at least two nicknames, ''Trader Jack'' and ''The Sultan of Swap.''

Meanwhile, in the other World Series dugout, the no-nickname thesis must have delivered an equal shock to Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, whom almost nobody calls George.

Why do the professors believe the sports nickname is an endangered species?

One of them sees ''the decline in the use of nicknames'' as ''part and parcel of the more general process of transition of American society from a gemeinschaft model characterized by a sense of solidarity ... to a geselltschaft type in which individualism, mobility, and impersonality are common features.'' An implied argument - we blush even to paraphrase it - depends upon the old chestnut about the disappearance of heroes in our time. Do the professors of the history of sports, our new academic breed, find mythic awe being expressed by such traditional nicknames as ''Dizzy,'' ''Rube,'' and ''Kid''?

It is our opinion that just the opposite argument might be made. We put it to you. As life goes on, who among us would really want to be known as ''Pinky'' or ''Babe'' or ''Muggsy''? And this should be the test.

The decline and fall of the nickname, if it's occurring - and we don't for a minute concede this - could be more simply explained as a change of style among sportswriters. In the days when editors demanded ''color,'' rather along the garish lines of a comic strip, the first duty of a sportswriter was to invent a nickname for every player on the home team.

Ah, how the nicknames of ''Lefty'' and ''Pepper'' and ''Red'' proliferated! Think of all the heavy-hitting, slow-footed first basemen called ''Moose.'' Think of all the fastball pitchers, with more speed than direction, known as ''Wild Bill.''

On the whole, we're just as glad that the compulsive perpetration of nicknames by sportswriters has gone out of fashion. The labored alliteration in such cases as Vernon (Goofy) Gomez, the too-easy punning with names like Virgil (Fire) Trucks - these contrived setups we can do quite well without, thank you.

Still, while we're on the subject and the World Series lingers in the air, we can't resist nominating our favorite baseball nicknames, not counting Ring Lardner's fictional rookie, ''Alibi Ike.''

Aptness scores with us. We really appreciated the pitcher known as ''Jughandle Freddy'' Frankhouse, named for the arc described by his curveball.

''The Yankee Clipper'' seemed to grace Joe DiMaggio.

You couldn't beat ''Yogi'' for Lawrence Berra.

We've always been fond of ''Shuffling Phil'' as the characterization of a pitcher named Douglas, famous for his nighttime strolling among the bright lights of cities he played in.

But lest the scholars of the vanishing-nickname school think we're proving their argument for them, we'd like to close with an all-time, all-star nickname belonging to a backup catcher of the 1984 San Diego Padres. Doug Gwosdz is also known as - are you ready? - ''Eyechart.''

Who can doubt now that the nickname is alive and well, and subtler than ever? We rest our case.