10 things: The best nicknames in sports history

A March 4 Jeopardy contestant hilariously, and incorrectly, guessed that the nickname of Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid was “Do a 180.” In honour of this mixup, The McGill Tribune sports section compiled a list of some of our favourite sports nicknames of all time.


Shaquille O’Neal: The Big ____

It is challenging to think of an athlete with more nicknames than Shaquille O’Neal, known universally as ‘Shaq.’ The NBA centre, widely considered one of the most dominant players of all time, was a nickname goldmine. The floodgates opened when a young Shaq told reporters to call him “The Big Aristotle” in reference to the Greek philosopher’s belief that excellence was a habit. Next came “The Big Deporter,” after two players retired to Europe following defeats by Shaq in the 2000 playoffs. “The Big Felon” came to Shaq after a game-sealing steal against his former team, the Orlando Magic. And of course, he dubbed himself both “The Big Cactus” and “The Big Agave” upon joining the Phoenix Suns in 2008. At his peak, Shaq declared he was the MDE (Most Dominant Ever), which is still up for debate. But, he does stand head and shoulders above the rest as the most prolific nicknamer in sports history.

Maurice and Henri Richard: The Rocket and The Pocket Rocket

Quebecers and Montreal Canadiens Maurice “Rocket” and Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard are two of the most legendary brothers in NHL history. The Rocket’s speed earned him his nickname in 1939, and the Pocket Rocket, three inches shorter, got his nickname when he entered the league 16 years later. Henri holds the record for most Stanley Cup wins by a player with 11 titles, five of which he won with his brother. The Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s regular season top goal scorer, bears the name of the Montreal native. Maurice died in 2000 and Henri passed away days ago on March 6, 2020, but the Rocket and Pocket Rocket will be revered by the hockey world for a long, long time.

Florence Griffith-Joyner: Flo-Jo

American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, commonly referred to as “Flo-Jo,” still holds the 100 and 200 metre world records that she set in 1988. Joyner also holds the second- and third-fastest times for the 100 metre and the second fastest time in the 200 metre. While her records may be shrouded in suspicion of drug use, there is nothing mysterious about how cool her nickname and personal style were. Known for racing in flamboyant outfits, featuring everything from a one-legged suit to long and colourful nails, Flo-Jo’s status as a household name was well-deserved. There is no question: Flo-Jo and her name remain iconic. 

Early 1900s baseball players

Baseball players of the first half of the 20th century almost always had fun nicknames. From catcher Charles “Gabby” Hartnett—ironically nicknamed for his quiet nature, and also later “Old Tomato Face” for his aging complexion––to his contemporaries like utilityman Socks Seybold, the early 20th century was a great time for nicknames in baseball. Pitchers Cannonball Titcomb and Pop-boy Smith, as well as the aptly named third baseman Home Run Baker were classics too. A childhood friend nicknamed shortstop Rabbit Maranville for his bouncy nature. Pitchers Mysterious Walker and Slim Love threw a handful of innings for their teams over the years. Even Shakespeare had his influence: Pitcher Charles Lear became forever known as King Lear.

Wayne Gretzky: The Great One

A hockey legend and Canadian hero, Wayne Gretzky earned his title of “The Great One” from a local newspaper when he scored 400 goals at just 10 years old. Gretzky is widely considered to be the greatest hockey player of all time: At just 19, he became the youngest player to score 50 goals in a single NHL season, and he remains the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer 20 years after his retirement. To list all of Gretzky’s records and accomplishments is a futile endeavour, but ask any Canadian, and they will confirm that “The Great One” is an epithet that he is certainly worthy of. 

Alex Morgan: Baby Horse 

In the early 2010s, Alex Morgan was one of the youngest members of the American women’s soccer team which explains the “Baby” part of “Baby Horse.” The second half of the nickname, so the story goes, is a reference to her long, gallop-like strides as she makes the runs that have distinguished her as one of the best offensive players in women’s soccer. A 15-second video posted to the US Soccer YouTube channel in 2011 shows Morgan feeding what appears to be grass to a small horse. When athletes lean into their nicknames they cement those names, and themselves, as true classics in both the sporting and nicknaming worlds. 

Fitz Hall: One Size 

Fitz Hall’s career in the English Premier League was not particularly illustrious, with no big awards or championships to boast of. But what Hall lacks in sporting glory he makes up for with one of the greatest nicknames the soccer world has ever known: One Size Fitz Hall. The nickname is fairly self-explanatory; it doesn’t require background information about Hall, his life, or his soccer career. Hall is, in fact, better known for his nickname than his soccer, and that is the sign of a truly great moniker. 

Earvin Johnson: Magic

For many casual sports fans, the name Earvin Johnson may not carry any meaning. But this was the name of a Los Angeles Lakers great long before he won five NBA championships and three MVP awards for the purple and gold. As a 15-year-old athlete at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, Johnson earned the nickname “Magic” from a sports reporter after he carried his team to a 30-point victory over the league’s presumptive favourite. Johnson tallied an astounding 38 points, 20 rebounds, and 19 assists in that game. The nickname brilliantly captured all that made Magic who he was: A beaming smile, jovial personality, and, above all else, unparalleled passing ability. The nickname stuck, following Johnson to the NBA and effectively supplanting the name “Earvin” for all time. 

René Lacoste: The Crocodile 

For the past century, Lacoste has sponsored an impressive roster of tennis players from around the world. The brand’s namesake, seven-time Grand Slam champion and world number one René Lacoste, was known as “The Crocodile.”  The name originated from a 1927 bet where Lacoste requested the alligator skin prize suitcase from the French Captain of the Davis Cup if he won. Once victorious, he was dubbed “The Alligator” by the American press and was later embraced as Le Crocodile by French fans back home. Lacoste then had a logo of the reptile embroidered on his blazer. Tennis whites were once restrictive, but The Crocodile changed the tennis uniform forever.

Gabby Douglas: The Flying Squirrel

Gabby Douglas was only 17-years-old when she won the All-Around Olympic gold medal at the 2012 games. The only member of Team USA to compete in all four disciplines of artistic gymnastics, Douglas also won a gold medal for uneven bars. The incredible height Douglas reached on the jumps of this routine earned her the nickname the “Flying Squirrel.” Additionally, her five-member US squad was given a nickname of its own: The “Fierce Five.” Team USA won the team gold medal, making Douglas the first US gymnast to ever win both individual and team events at the same Olympics. Douglas kept flying, helping Team USA repeat victory at the 2016 games. 

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