I’m probably one of the few followers of the Detroit Tigers who is genuinely excited about the recent acquisition of Mikie Mahtook. It’s not that I think Mahtook is a great player and will solve the team’s center field problem all by his lonesome. Frankly, I don’t know that much about Mahtook, other than he had a good year for Tampa Bay in 2015 before slumping badly last season.
No, the excitement comes from the name. Mikie Mahtook. How can you not love a name like that? First off, there haven’t been many “Mikies” in baseball history. (The most famous Mikey remains the boy from those wonderful Life Cereal commercials in the 1970s.) Second, the name just flows with alliteration. Mikie Mahtook. God, that’s a great name.
The acquisition of Mahtook motivated me to start thinking about some of the best names in the history of the Tigers’ franchise. There have been some good ones, even a few great ones. Some are based on nicknames, but others rhyme, and still others are just flat-out unusual.
Putting aside their ballplaying abilities, let’s consider an all-name team for the Tigers. A few of these players played only briefly for the Tigers, but their names have become some of my favorites, the kind of names that any self-respecting broadcaster would have loved pronouncing.
Lu Blue, First Base: Over the course of baseball history, a few players have had last names that rhymed with their first names. Greg Legg is one. Another is Don Hahn. There’s also Mark Clark. And who could forget Paul Schaal? All of those names draw a chuckle.
From the Tigers, there is Lu Blue. That wasn’t his birth name. He was born Luzerne Blue (making him the only Luzerne in major league history), so it’s understandable that he might have wanted to shorten it to Lu. Given the rhyming scenario, the name made perfect sense for this first baseman of 1920s vintage.
Blue was a remnant of the dead ball era, a first baseman with little power but a hitter who knew how to control the strike zone. During a Tigers tenure that lasted from 1921 to 1927, he hit .300 four times and consistently compiled on-base percentages of over .400 because of his keen batting eye. The sportswriters of the day certainly recognized his talents; on three occasions with the Tigers, he received votes in the MVP balloting.
After an off year in 1927, the Tigers traded him and Hall of Famer Heinie Manush to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Harry Rice and shortstop Chick Galloway. With the Browns, Blue rejuvenated his career, putting up two excellent seasons before slumping in 1930 and moving on to the Chicago White Sox.
Tito Fuentes, Second Base: His real name is Rigoberto Fuentes, a lyrical name in and of itself, but a bit harder to remember than Tito Fuentes. The name brings to mind the famed musician and songwriter, Tito Puente, while giving us one of a handful of “Titos” in major league history. Take your place, Mr. Fuentes, next to the likes to Tito Francona, Tito Landrum, and Tito Navarro.
Fuentes played only one year in Detroit (1977), but it was one of his best seasons. Signing as a bargain basement free agent, Fuentes filled a hole at second base, a position that had plagued the Tigers since the departure of Dick McAuliffe, Fuentes played 151 games, batted .309 and played passable defense as Tom Veryzer’s double play partner. Not only did Fuentes reach a career-high in batting average, but he also compiled a personal best OPS of .745 and legged out 10 triples, an impressive total for a player in his thirties. He softened the transition to the next era of Tigers second baseman, making way for Sweet Lou Whitaker.
Fuentes departed the Tigers after the summer of ‘77, but left a memorable legacy. He was one of the game’s most colorful players of the 1970s, a hot dog who played with a flair that irritated opponents but made him popular with the hometown fans. He loved to talk to opposing players, so it’s no surprise that he went on to become a longtime broadcaster in San Francisco.
Coot Veal, Shortstop: For many years, I used to confuse Coot Veal with Cot Deal (a onetime pitcher), but they are indeed two separate ballplayers. In Veal’s case, even his real name was somewhat amusing. He was born Orville Inman Veal, a wonderful name to say the least, but in baseball circles, he became known as Coot.
Why Coot? It came from his high school coach, who once noticed a barnstorming player who bore that name. The coach thought the nickname fit his shortstop, branded him with the new label, and watched it stick. “The [nickname] just stuck,” Veal told the Denver Post a few years ago. “Nobody knows me by Inman [or Orville].”
Veal broke in with the Tigers in 1958, battling Billy Martin for playing time and impressing with his defensive skills at shortstop. But his hitting never caught up to his fielding. He was remarkably skinny, and seemed to get overpowered at the plate. As one of his teammates once said about him: “He’s the only player I ever saw whose bat went backwards after he hit the ball.”
After three seasons with the Tigers, Veal was taken in the expansion draft by the Los Angeles Angels, but eventually rerouted to the Washington Senators. In 1962, he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates very briefly, allowing him the rare opportunity to play with Bob Veale, the hard-throwing left-hander. For just a few games that summer, Veal and Veale became a major league tandem.
Skeeter Barnes, Third Base: If he had gone by his real name of William Barnes, this Tigers’ utility infielder of 1990s vintage might not be well remembered. But with a name like Skeeter Barnes, that’s a different story. No one seems to know how Barnes came up with the moniker. It was given to him by his mother at birth, but she never publicly explained the rationale behind it. Whatever the case, it worked out well for Barnes, making him a popular player in Tigers lore.
Prior to his arrival in Detroit, Barnes had been a standout minor league player, but never was able to make a fulltime impact with organizations like the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, or Montreal Expos. Barnes did not come to the Tigers until the age of 34, but he had an impact as a versatile utility infielder with a surprisingly live bat. From 1991 to 1994, Barnes did good work as a jack-of-all trades who played every position, with the exception of pitcher and catcher, for appreciative manager Sparky Anderson. One of his primary responsibilities was to spell a young Travis Fryman, giving him a day off from time to time. It was a role that Barnes proved well.
Matt Tuiaososopo, Outfield: I’ve always enjoyed saying this name, dating back to the days of Matt’s father, Manu Tuiasosopo, a very good defensive end in the NFL back in the 1980s. “Too-ee-yah-so-so-poh.” It’s actually easier to pronounce than you might think, and a name that is just fun to recite over and over.
Tuiasosopo lasted only one season with the Tigers, playing as a backup outfielder in 2013. He played decently that season, putting up an OPS of .765 as a fill-in outfielder, first baseman, and third baseman. I never understood why the Tigers placed him on waivers after the season. Then again, he didn’t play at all in the majors in either 2014 or ’15, bouncing around in the minor leagues with Toronto, Chicago (the White Sox) and Baltimore, before finally managing to squeeze out three at-bats with the lowly Atlanta Braves in 2015. He will likely find himself struggling to make a roster this spring.
I hope Tuiasosopo does make it back to the big league. That name is just too good to be wasted on a minor league journeyman.
Geronimo Berroa, Outfield: His first name is one that we associate with Native Americans and the great Apache chief of the same name, but Geronimo is actually a fairly common sir name in Latin American countries. There have been no fewer than three major leaguers with the first name of Geronimo: Berroa himself, infielder Geronimo Pena, and catcher Geronimo Gil. It’s a name that is properly pronounced with a nearly silent “G” in Spanish, but is often mispronounced with a hard “G” in the English language.
When coupled with a last name of Berroa, it becomes a lyrical name, one that flows off the tongue, and one that became a favorite of broadcasters back in the 1990s. Nicknamed “The Chief,” Berroa spent part of only one season in Detroit, playing as a DH and backup outfielder on the 1998 team that featured Luis Gonzalez, Brian Hunter, and Bobby Higginson in the starting outfield.
Berroa didn’t hit much for the Tigers, so he was let go as a free agent after the ’98 season and finished out his career with short stints in Toronto and Los Angeles.
Baby Doll Jacobson, Outfield: Let’s dip into the nickname bin for our third outfielder, and it’s hard to come up with one much better than “Baby Doll.” Born William Chester Jacobson, he certainly didn’t look like a Baby Doll. A large, strapping outfielder with broad shoulders, Jacobson had a frame of six feet, three inches and 215 pounds, which was particularly big for a ballplayer in the 1910s and 20s.
So why Baby Doll? The Sporting News quoted Jacobson at length about the origin of his nickname. “Everybody called me Bill until [one] day in Mobile,” Jacobson explained. “It was opening day and a band was playing. Just before the first pitch, they struck up ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll,’ a popular song at the time. Well, I led off with a homer on the first pitch and a lady sitting behind the plate jumped up and shouted: ‘You must be that beautiful doll they were talking about.’ The name stuck with me and that was it.”
Baby Doll started his major league career with the Tigers in 1915, but he didn’t hit well and was traded in midseason, sent to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Big Bill James. It would turn out to be a short-sighted trade for the Tigers, as Jacobson developed into a top-flight defensive outfielder with good on-base skills in St. Louis. For his 11-year career, he would bat .311, proving that this Baby Doll was made of something other than porcelain.
John Wockenfuss, Catcher: No matter how you pronounce his last name, “Wock-in-FUSS” or “Wock-in-FOOS,” it sounds funny. His name is one of those you cannot say out loud without drawing a smile from a knowing baseball fan. The recollection of his bizarre batting stance, one of the most unorthodox in the game’s history, only makes memories of Wockenfuss that much more enjoyable.
Some Tigers fans might not be aware that Wockenfuss did not start his career in the Detroit organization. Originally drafted by the Washington Senators in 1967, Wockenfuss then went to the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1973 trade for hard-throwing right-hander Jim Bibby. It was not until the winter of 1973 that the Tigers acquired him for an obscure minor league shortstop named Lawrence Elliott.
After struggling in his first three seasons with Detroit, Wockenfuss became one of the team’s most important bench players, a valuable backup catcher who could also fill in at first base and the outfield. Unlike many backup catchers, Wockenfuss could swing the bat, making him a dangerous pinch-hitter and capable platoon player. In 1979 and ’80, he reached double figures in home runs while playing caddy to Lance Parrish behind the plate. Wockenfuss would remain with the Tigers through 1983, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in the Willie Hernandez deal, thus depriving him of a chance at a World Series ring in 1984.
Shaky Joe Grzenda, Pitcher: This journeyman pitcher has one of those last names that appears to be in desperate need of a vowel. With so many consonants in a row, it’s a strange looking name, but easy to pronounce: “Gruh-zen-da.”
Tall and thin, Grzenda also owned a great nickname. Teammates called the likeable left-hander “Shaky Joe.” That’s because he had a habit of drinking two full pots of coffee each day. He also had a tendency to chain smoke, typically plowing through three packs of Lucky Strikes each day. Sometimes Grzenda would light a cigarette in the dugout and start smoking, leave it on the bench, and then try to work so quickly on the mound that he could return to the dugout and finish the cigarette. A bundle of nervous energy, he was constantly fidgeting, sometimes to the point that he appeared to be shaking.
If you don’t remember Grzenda as a Tiger, that’s more than understandable. He made only four appearances for them in 1961, struggling so badly that he earned a quick demotion to the minor leagues. Two years later, Grzenda received his release, but he managed to bounce around for another decade before finally retiring in 1972.
So there you have it, the Tigers’ all-name team, from Lu Blue to Johnny Wockenfuss. I hope that the newly acquired Mikie Mahtook can add his name to the ledger, and perhaps simultaneously fill that all-important vacancy for the Tigers in center field.