The 1976 Atlanta Braves weren't a very good team. They finished with a record of 70-92, which left them in the cellar of the National League's Western Division. (Yes, the Braves were in the NL West in those days. Go figure.)
But for about a month and a half of the '76 season -- basically 40 years ago right now -- the Braves commanded a certain degree of attention in the baseball world. Their notoriety wasn't based on how they were playing; it was about what they were wearing. Instead of having their surnames on the backs of their jerseys, the Braves' players were wearing nicknames.
The '76 Braves weren't the first MLBers to wear nicknames, and they wouldn't be the last, but they were the first and are still the only team to do it on a team-wide basis. There's been a lot of misinformation and missing information about the nicknames in the ensuing four decades, and visual documentation of the nicknamed jerseys has been surprisingly difficult to find. But now, thanks to some excellent research by Braves historians Sam Wallace and Tony Cocchi and the discovery of some never-before-published photos taken by former Braves photographer Walter Victor, the full story can finally be told.
Let's start by talking about NOBs. That's short for "name on back," which is the standard industry term for players' names on jerseys. NOBs are nearly universal today (every MLB team wears them except the Giants at home, the Red Sox at home, and the Yankees for all games). But back in 1976, lots of teams, including the Braves, were still NNOB -- that's short for " no name on back."
During the previous offseason, the Braves had acquired four players from the Dodgers via a trade -- Jimmy Wynn, Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, and Jerry Royster. Those players had grown accustomed to wearing their surnames on their Dodgers jerseys and were surprised to find that the Braves were NNOB. Somebody said something, and the idea of adding names to the Braves' jerseys was born.
But why did the Braves choose to add nicknames instead of surnames? "We knew the team wouldn't be very good, but we also didn't have any money to spend on promotions, so we had to do things that generated publicity," said former Braves PR director Bob Hope (no relation to the famous entertainer) in a Uni Watch interview a few years ago. "We would say, 'It is better to go down the street as the village idiot and be noticed than to not be noticed at all.' We would do things that would stir up harmless controversy and get in the news but didn't really hurt anyone." The nicknames fit right into that mindset.
In some cases, the players' nicknames were already well-established. Outfielder Jimmy Wynn, for example, had become known as the Toy Cannon during his time with the Astros and Dodgers, so he wore "Cannon" on his back, and knuckleball specialist Phil Niekro was routinely called "Knucksie":
Some of the other nicknames were well-known within the Braves clubhouse but less so among baseball fans, like catcher Vic Correll's "Bird Dog" (because he trained dogs in the winter), infielder Jerry Royster's "J.Bird" (based on his first initial), Dick Ruthven's "Rufus" (it sort of rhymed) and infielder Marty Perez's "Taco" (because of his Hispanic heritage, which would surely be considered unacceptable today):
But the nickname that got the most attention wasn't really a nickname at all: Pitcher Andy Messersmith wore "Channel." Nobody had ever called Messersmith that, but when combined with his uniform number, 17, it conveniently turned into a de facto ad for team owner Ted Turner's cable TV operation, SuperStation WTCG (the forerunner of today's TBS):
Unsurprisingly, that bit of self-promotion from Turner didn't sit well with National League president Chub Feeney (yes, the leagues had their own presidents and organizational structures in those days), who was OK with the nicknames but wouldn't tolerate an advertisement:
Again, this fit right in with the team's plan. "For 'Channel 17,' we knew baseball would step in and stop it," said Hope, the former PR director. "But we would get lots of publicity." Mission accomplished.
Following Feeney's edict, Messersmith switched to wearing "Bluto." This nickname -- like the entire nickname stunt itself -- had roots in the Dodgers, where first baseman Steve Garvey had been called Popeye because of his bulging arm muscles. Messersmith, who played for L.A. and had a full beard at the time, had been dubbed Bluto, which became his fallback Braves jersey nickname when "Channel" was banned.
Other Braves players and their nicknames included the following:
Tom Paciorek, "Wimpy": Another Popeye reference, this one rooted in postgame meals where Paciorek would settle for hamburgers while better-paid players would order steak.
Darrell Evans, "Howdy," and Darrel Chaney, "Nort": These were both 1950s television references. The baby-faced Evans was thought to resemble the rosy-cheeked puppet on the TV show "Howdy Doody," and teammates thought Chaney looked like Ed Norton, the character played by Art Carney in the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners."
Earl Williams, "Heavy" and Roger Moret, "Gallo": Both of these were related to the players' physiques. Williams was, shall we say, a robust individual (and must have had a good sense of humor about it if he was willing to wear "Heavy" on his back). Moret, meanwhile, was skinny like a rooster, and "rooster" in Spanish is "gallo."
Name game: Several of the other jersey nicknames were based on the players' first or last names (although it seems like not much thought went into some of them). Pitcher Carl Morton wore "Mo"; catcher Biff Pocoroba wore "Poco"; outfielder Ken Henderson wore "Ken H"; outfielder Rowland Office wore "Row"; and infielder Rod Gilbreath simply wore "Rod" (not really a nickname, but it's too late to complain about that now):
Missing in action: There are several other players whose nicknames have been verified by team researchers but for which we can't find photographic documentation, including Dave May ("Chopper"), Bruce Dal Canton ("Prof," because he was a teacher in the off-season), Max Leon ("Max"), Lee Lacy ("Lace"), Adrian Devine ("Bing," a reference to the St. Louis Cardinals' then-GM, Bing Devine), Elias Sosa ("Sos"), Cito Gaston ("Cito"), and Willie Montanez ("Hot Dog"). In addition, there are two players -- Craig Robinson and Pablo Torrealba -- whose jersey nicknames are currently unknown. (If anyone reading this has photos or information that can add to the historical record, you know what to do.)
A few additional notes:
? The nicknames were only worn at home. The road jerseys were NNOB.
? The nicknames were worn only from May 1 through June 24 -- a total of 28 home games, or about one-third of the team's home schedule. (Home jerseys before and after this period were NNOB.) Why such a short experiment? "Ted Turner was ambivalent in his attitudes about things," said Hope. "We wanted to do things that would get us attention and get us on the news, but we knew that certain things, like the nicknames, would probably only last for a little while and then we'd go back to being traditional."
? Manager Dave Bristol and his coaching staff wore their surnames, not nicknames.
? The nickname jerseys didn't include the National League centennial patch that all other NL teams wore in 1976. The patch did appear on the Braves' road jerseys, and on the home jerseys they wore before and after the nickname experiment.
? If you can't recall seeing any of the nickname jerseys in the Hall of Fame or on the game-used memorabilia market, that's because most of them had the nicknames removed and were then recycled in the team's minor league system. Too bad.
All in all, a fun promotion. And hey, 40 years later, the Braves once again find themselves sorely in need of some pizzazz to distract fans from the team's on-field woes, so why not resurrect the idea as a throwback promotion? It would be a great way to add some fun to an otherwise dreary season while also teaching fans about a little-noted chapter in the team's history.
If you're thinking you've seen other MLB players wearing nicknames, you're right. Several A's players did it in the late 1960s (one of team owner Charles Finley's many promotional gambits), and a few players on other teams have done it here and there as well:
Yes, there are also MLB players who've worn their first names, or who've used the back of their jersey to make a statement. And yes, there are also players who've worn nicknames in the NFL, the AFL, the NBA and ABA (including some very recent examples), college hoops, and, perhaps most famously, the XFL. We'll take a closer look at some of those nickname jerseys in future editions of the Friday Flashback.
(Special thanks to Braves historians Sam Wallace and Tony Cocchi for their research assistance. Thanks also to Carolyn Serra of the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame for providing most of the photos shown in this article, which were taken by former Braves team photographer Walter Victor and have never been published before.)
Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.
Paul Lukas figures it's just a matter of time before another MLB team -- or maybe every MLB team -- tries a nickname promotion. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.