They just don't nickname 'em like they used to.
So laments sports columnist Dave Anderson in today's New York Times. Back in the day, every sports hero--from The Babe to Doctor J to Broadway Joe--had a memorable moniker. The boys of summer had boyish handles to match: Pee Wee Reese (so named not for his stature but for his favorite marble), Yogi Berra (whose pals thought he looked guru-esque when he sat cross-legged), Duke Snider, Catfish Hunter. Boxing rings were filled with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, the Manassa Mauler, and the Brown Bomber. And football was a nicknamer's field of dreams, peopled by guys a/k/a Crazylegs, Too Tall, and the Minister of Defense.
Today? Well, there's Tiger Woods, whose birth certificate reads "Eldrick." "But few of today's best sports names have a nickname," writes Anderson. "Maybe the big money has drained the fun out of nicknames."
Anderson doesn't look outside North America, but I'd venture that the trend is international. Quick: Think of a soccer player since Pele who was known by his nickname. Ronaldinho, Robinho, and their ilk don't count--they're diminutives, not true nicknames.
("Nickname," by the way, came into English around 1440 as a misdivision of "an ekename," in which "eke" means "increase" or "add to.")
For more sports-nickname nostalgia, check out this article from AskMen.com and ESPN's 2001 roundup of all kinds of sports nicknames--people, phenomena, and memorable moments.
Whilst it's true that 'Pele' was a nickname, I don't think it was used in quite the same way as the various nicknames that were applied to American sportsmen and women. Not being a TimesSelect subscriber, I can't access the full NYT article you linked to, but from the look of the examples you cited many of the nicknames related to the player's appearance or personality or the way they played the game. As far as I know 'Pele' was a meaningless nickname; certainly fans outside Brazil were blissfully unaware of any significance to the name, other than the fact that it was the nickname of the greatest World Cup footballer of all time, that is. (The Wikipedia article on Pele cites the player's autobiography as supporting this theory.)
I can really only speak for British sports, but I don't think that sporting nicknames have ever really taken hold among the general public. About the only leading British sportsman of the last thirty years I can think of who has a widely recognised nickname would be cricketer Ian Botham, who was nicknamed "Beefy" because he was prone to packing on the pounds. Most British footballers, cricketers and rugby players do have nicknames that are conferred by their team-mates and known to fans of the team, but those nicknames don't seem to be used by the press as a matter of course and thus don't make an impression on the general public.
This seems to point in the direction of differences between the media coverage of sports as the root cause of the divergence between British and American habits: could it be something to do with the British press being dominated by national newspapers and radio and TV networks, whereas regional media have been more important in the US? Perhaps a British national newspaper which has readers who follow all 90-odd professional football clubs feels that the use of nicknames that are primarily known to the fans of a particular team would serve to alienate or confuse fans from further afield, whereas a major US regional paper is talking to, say, Californian fans and thus would be more willing to use locally-known nicknames? (I should emphasise that this is nothing more than a theory formulated as I typed this comment, based on my general impression of how US media work. Feel free to shoot it down in flames.)
(Actually, as I type this I can think of a second example of a British sportsman with a well-known nickname: tennis player and perennial Wimbledon also-ran "Tiger Tim" Henman. But his nickname was semi-ironic, foisted on the player by an English press that was desperate to add some colour to a fairly boring character who was for a decade the only British tennis player with any real hope of winning a Grand Slam title: I'd be astonished if the nickname survives his retirement.)
Posted by: John | July 01, 2006 at 06:27 AM
Quick: Think of a soccer player since Pele who was known by his nickname. Ronaldinho, Robinho, and their ilk don't count--they're diminutives, not true nicknames.
Petit - he is a midfielder for Portugal.
You may also like to check out the All-Name squad i put together for this year's World Cup.
(I tried to put a direct link in this post, but it seems that html is disabled, at least for those without typepad accounts. If you click on the link to my blog and scroll down to June 26th, it's there.)
Posted by: Barry Ragin | July 03, 2006 at 11:43 AM