Talking about the Hall of Name with D.B. Firstman

Baseball has many legendary names… Aaron, Ruth, DiMaggio, Paige. Then there are the legendary names. Johnny Dickshot. Razor Shines. Urban Shocker. Maybe the players themselves aren’t in the Hall of Fame, but those names are pretty memorable.

Author D.B. Firstman has a new book that celebrates 100 of the best names of all time, along with the players behind them. Hall of Name: Baseball’s Most Magnificent Monikers from The Only Nolan to Van Lingle Mungo and More tells the story of these ballplayers, along with a few fun tidbits. Firstman delves into the etymology of each name, details each player’s best day in the majors and includes an anagram for each player – Quinton Antoine McCracken turns into “Romance incontinent quack.”

I spoke with Firstman about the idea behind the book, the correct way to pronounce “Kiki” and how they found these names in the first place.

Where did the interest in baseball names come from?
I am a bit of a reference book nerd and a bit of a trivia nerd. Growing up, I was always interested in words and word derivations and etymology and things of that nature. I was and still do play competitive Scrabble and go to Scrabble tournaments. So I’ve always been fascinated by words, anagams, spoonerisms, puns, palindromes and all sorts of wordplay. Names were sort of a logical extension of words.

I just find names very interesting. What country are they from? Where did they get their name? What were their parents thinking when they named their child Callix? I’m interested in all sorts of things regarding baseball, but the names aspect felt like an itch I had to scratch.

What led to transforming this interest into a book?
I have a blog, Value Over Replacement Grit, which has been going on and off since 2011. One of my features for the blog was these names profiles. From time to time, I would write up the origins of a player’s name. I think a couple of the first ones I did were Billy Jo Robidoux, Bris Lord and Doug Gwosdz [pronounced “Goosh”]. Around 2012, I thought to myself, maybe there’s a book in there somewhere. Maybe I can cobble together some of these profiles and put out a book with 50, 75 or 100 profiles.

I am friendly with John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, and be put me in touch with a couple of niche publishers who publish obscure sports topics and things of that nature—topics that might not normally sell to the mass audiences. I took my idea to these publishers, and they all said, “Personally, I love the idea, but I just don’t think it is going to sell.” That was in 2012. Since then, the self-publishing world has basically exploded, and it’s become much more accessible to the general public.

Around 2018, I was looking for some other way to get my writing out there. I had done articles, I had done blog posts, I had written for all sorts of formats, and I wanted to do something different. The idea of the baseball name book came back to me. I assumed the publishers I went to seven years ago were still going to say no to me now, so I self-published. I found a publishing and distribution firm called ingramspark, I got my manuscript together, I found a cover illustrator through Twitter. I fortunately had a layout and book design person, who was a friend from the Scrabble world, to do the layout of the book for me. I just went for it. I’m going to give it a shot, and lo and behold, here we are.

What players did you already know about, and what ones did you discover?
Of the 100 people in my book, I would say I knew no more than a quarter of them. Or I knew their names, but I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t know anything about Johnny Dickshot or Jack Glasscock. I knew who Rusty Kuntz was, and I had seen Pete LaCock play. A fair amount of them are from the late 19th Century or early 20th Century. I might have passed by them in a Baseball Reference page or heard about them at a SABR convention.

There is a gentleman named Sean Lahman who puts together the Lahman Baseball Database, which is sort of an encyclopedia of baseball information, and one of the files there is basically the demographics, the personal information of anybody who has ever played the game: what is their name, where were they born, when did they debut, how tall they were. I basically took that file of 18,000 names, and I went one by one and said, ‘That’s a keeper, that could be a keeper…” I went through 18,000 names like that.

I knew [some of] who I was going to write about because I’d written about them on my blog. That wasn’t more than 10 or 15. So I needed another 80 to 90 names. I came up with another 200 to 250 just by looking through the Lahman database. I started whittling this list down and started looking into if I can find the etymology of their name, or a biography of this person. If I could find something, then I would write about them. If he played one game or I couldn’t find anything to write about, I wasn’t going to force the issue. What I have is 100 players where I was able to find something, either in print or online.

One of the biggest helps was the SABR Baseball Bio Project, which is maintained by the volunteers of SABR who research and write about all the different people in the baseball universe, whether it’s managers, players, owners, executives. There are over 5,000 entries in this database. When I couldn’t find anything on these players through any other resource, I turned to the Baseball Bio Project, and that’s where I got some of my information from.

It’s fun to read about some of the players from baseball’s earliest days, because there are some great names from the 1800s or early 1900s.
Back in those days, players often went by something other than their given name. They were often referred to by their nickname. You had Ice Box Chamberlain, you had Pickles Dillhoefer, you had players playing who were normally referred to by a nickname. Who can you say that these days? You have Oil Can Boyd, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, and that’s going back 30 or 40 years anyway. What happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, players were routinely given other names. Like Snuffy [Stirnweiss]. Nobody names their kid Snuffy, but it became the guy’s name. It wasn’t that the given names were more archaic or esoteric, it was that there were more players playing with a nickname, other than their given nickname.

As you’ve gone through this process, is there any player whose career has stuck with you or stood out?
I hate to admit it, but I was really not versed on how great a player Kiki Cuyler was. First of all, it’s “Kai-Kai” not “Kee-Kee.” That is a longstanding mispronunciation of his first name. He was born Hazen Shirley Cuyler, and he was called Kiki because the teammates in the outfield would call “Kiki” to let him know it was his ball if there was a fly ball to the outfield.

I verified this fact because there was a longstanding rumor or story that the reason he was called Kiki was that he had a stuttering problem. I happened through a mutual friend to get in touch with Kiki’s great-grandson, whose name is also Hazen Cuyler. I asked the great-grandson if he was true about his great-grandfather, was he a stutterer. He said, “Absolutely, positively not, that’s a tall tale. He was called Kiki because that’s what his teammates called him. They were making a play on his last name.”

Beyond the name itself, he was a probably one of the first five-tool players in major league baseball history. He put up what we call black ink numbers in different categories in different through years throughout his career. He was an amazing player for many years. Then, there’s the story of how he got benched late in the 1927 season because he was upset of where he was batting in the batting order – basically, his manager benched him through the last two months of the season and the entire World Series. There is such a story to him, from just the name itself – Hazen Shirley Cuyler, which is a great name – and he’s got this talent level, and his story has been overshadowed by the Yankees of that era and Ty Cobb. You’ve got a lot of names in that era, but Kiki Cuyler is one of my favorite players that I found out about through the research for this book.

Is there anything that you’ve learned about baseball that you didn’t know before you started the book?
I think it’s that the players of the earlier generations from the late 1800s and early 1900s were just as human as anybody that we have today. You didn’t have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, you didn’t have the mass media cataloguing your every move and every decision, or who is dating who or who engaged in this sort of behavior. I found that the players in the earlier eras were just as human and had the same sort of frailties as the players today; they just weren’t reported on like they are today. You didn’t find, back in the earlier days, the notion of tearing down your heroes that you might find today. Oh, “Mike Trout, there must be some sort of dark cloud around him.” I didn’t sense it in those earlier eras. The players then had alcoholism, they dealt with insecurities, there was marital infidelity, we had a murder-suicide with one player where he killed his wife and killed himself.

What I’ve learned through the process of the book is that the human element has always been present, perhaps not as readily accessible to the public because the media kept a distance with the players. There were lines you didn’t cross in terms of what the players were doing after the game, before the game, their social life was their own.

Hall of Name is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or, if you want to support independent bookstores, Bookshop. D.B. Firstman’s blog is Value Over Replacement Grit, and you can find them on Twitter at @dianagram.

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