Devil Ray phenom Rocco Baldelli made an odd bit of history on June 10, when he took the field wearing a jersey with “Rocco” embroidered on the back, instead of his surname. The Tampa rookie was oblivious to the mix-up—apparently a prank engineered by teammates—until an umpire pointed it out during the first inning, after which he switched to a proper jersey. Baldelli thus became, albeit briefly, the second current major leaguer to have his first name on his uni, the other one being Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki, whose first name has essentially become a brand, like Prince or Madonna.
But while Baldelli and Suzuki are unique among today’s players, they’re hardly the first to have worn something other than their surnames on their jerseys. As Bruce Markusen of the Baseball Hall of Fame has documented, at least 20 other players have gone this route, beginning with journeyman infielder Wayne Causey of the 1963 Kansas City A’s, who wore “Kooz” on his back. Teammates Ed Charles (“Ed”) and Doc Edwards (“Doc”) soon joined in, but the trend was then dormant until 1969, when Ken Harrelson had “Hawk” stitched onto his Indian jersey. He continued this practice after being traded to Oakland, where teammate Jim Grant soon had his jersey relettered as “Mudcat.” When gimmick-happy A’s owner Charles O. Finley encouraged other players to do likewise, several of them obliged, including Billy Conigliaro (“Billy C.”), Vida Blue (“Vida,” which he also wore years later with the Giants), and Richie Allen (“Wampum,” his Pennsylvania hometown).
Similar behavior engulfed the Braves when Ted Turner acquired them in 1976. At least 10 players wore nicknames, including Ralph Garr (“Roadrunner”), Phil Niekro (“Knucksie”), Jimmy Wynn (“Cannon”), and Darrell Evans (“Howdy,” referencing Evans’s resemblance to Howdy Doody). Turner went too far, however, when he dubbed Andy Messersmith “Channel” and assigned him uni number 17, thereby creating a de facto ad for Turner’s TV station. When the league office put the kibosh on that stunt, Messersmith switched to “Bluto.”
Oddly enough, the other major sports—all considered less tradition-bound than baseball—have kept their unis relatively nickname-free. In the NBA, Pete Maravich wore “Pistol” early in his career (and Yao Ming currently wears “Yao,” but that’s actually his Chinese surname). Uni Watch is unaware of any comparable NHL or NFL examples, although the short-lived XFL encouraged its players to wear nicknames and slogans, one of which—running back Rod Smart’s “He Hate Me”—created a brief media sensation. But such antics grow wearisome, which is why Uni Watch prefers the approach taken by the Yankees, the last major sports team with no names at all on their jerseys.