Got your attention, didn’t I?
But no, this is not about “Jersey Shore.” This is about the power of nicknaming. Several months ago I wrote a tribute to Charlie Cumiskey and included in the piece how much his students adored the nicknames he gave us. Mine was “Toe-High.” To my surprise and delight, more than a few of his former students wrote me, each recalling with fondness the name that Mr. Cumiskey had provided them. I bet that when he dubbed Fred Fink “Friendly Fred the Undertaker Man,” for example, Mr. Cumiskey had no idea that forty years later Dr. Fink would still cherish the name. But such is the impact of a memorable moniker.
Bobby Needham and I coached JV Baseball together from 1987 to 1994. This was the era of ESPN’s ascendance. That network’s most popular play-by-play man at the time was Chris Berman, who on the fly would make up ridiculous nicknames for athletes. The practice became known as “Bermanizing,” and many broadcasters emulated it. Well, if it was good enough for Chris Berman it was good enough for us, and so each year we set upon trying to play off every guy’s name. Some were easier than others – “Body by” Jake Denton and Jung “Central” Park were obvious, for instance. Others were not so readily designated – we debated Andrew “Beer” Stein and decided that it was inappropriate for publication (until now, I guess). We made do with “Franken” instead. But there was Damon “Avocado” Pitler and John “Little” Johnson and and John “Big” McPherson and scores of others.
Others, like my own “Toe-High” (I was four-foot-nothing as a sixth grader and therefore not even “toe high to a tadpole”) were gently teasing, and we always hesitated going public with those. But sometimes, depending on the personality of the player and the aptness of the name, we couldn’t resist. My personal favorite may have been Neil “Cool Papa” Barr, named for the legendary Negro League All-Star James “Cool Papa” Bell. Those who saw Bell play swear he was the fastest base runner of all time. Satchel Paige once said that Cool Papa could hit the switch on the wall and be under the covers before the room got dark. Well, young Mr. Barr was, shall we say, horizontally challenged. That is, you could make a sandwich in the time it took him to get from home to first, so our nickname was, if nothing else, highly ironic. But he was, and still is, such a good sport and an overall tremendous person that we figured Neil could see the affection and respect under the name…we hope.
Sometimes it cuts the other way and the student provides the teacher or coach with the nickname. It was Mittie Jordan (or one of her classmates – no one can be sure) who first dubbed Patty Masterson “Bat.” Lost in history is the identity of the student who first called Byron Babcock “Babo,” but the name definitely came from a student and stuck for the rest of Mr. Babcock’s life. Perhaps the sweetest of all came from four-year-old Michael Cheng, who, upon being introduced to Tommy Hudgins, his counselor on the first day of NA summer day camp, extended a terribly mature handshake and said, “Nice to meet you, Dr. Hudgins.” Evidently at his tender age young Michael had never met an adult who wasn’t an M.D. And while you could make the argument that at age 22 Tommy had perhaps not yet earned the status of “adult,” on that day and every day since Tommy’s friends have referred to him as “the Doctor.” Michael is one our more distinguished alumni and Tommy is the new Head of the Carlisle School in Martinsville. I am confident that none of his faculty is aware of his “medical” background. But to us he’s still the Doctor.
As I said, such is the power of the perfect nickname. In these ramblings I prattle on and on about the strength and significance of the personal relationship between faculty and students created here. Calling someone a name that you gave him and not the one his parents provided, and having that person enjoy your creation, adds another dimension to “personal.” It makes our interactions unique. It’s something we trust each other with, and it’s something that can last a lifetime.
Trust your old friend Toe-High on this one.