What's in a name?" Will Shakespeare wanted to know.
Well, if you're talking about sports, Will, plenty.
You see, Jerome Bettis, when he played for the Rams, was this nice, comfortable running back, used mainly on short yardage, and he had this nice, useful, but not very imaginative career. By himself, he didn't sell many tickets.
Well, now, thanks to my lovely, lively little compatriot from Pittsburgh, Myron Cope, Jerome Bettis has become "the Bus" and he goes into the lore of the game.
I think Myron noticed Bettis went through the line like the 5:02 Greyhound out of Memphis, bound for Texarkana and points west. Sometimes he took on passengers, other times he went too fast for them to get aboard. Either way, he arrived on time in the end zone.
Well, it was a shot in the arm, not only for Jerome but for the Pittsburgh Steelers (Myron pronounces it "Pitts-barg," by the way).
Fans got in the spirit of the thing, began to show up with toy buses stapled atop their Steeler caps. They honked horns when Jerome got the ball and so on.
And they bought tickets.
This is in the finest traditions of sportswriting and sportscasting. But it is a device that has lost favor in the profession of late.
More's the pity.
Nicknaming used to be a high and lively art in the lexicon of this business.
Think about it. Think what it meant to the literature of college football when some nameless poet of the press box first thought to call Harold "Red" Grange, "the Galloping Ghost."
It spawned a whole industry--professional football. A whole game owes its identity to a guy who was just trying to make his writing interesting. There is no doubt the professional game took off on the wings of a nickname. Red Grange capitalized on it. So did the Chicago Bears and the rest of the pro game. I mean, you had to go see the Galloping Ghost, didn't you? If you had any red blood in you at all.
What about when Grantland Rice went to see a Rudolph Valentino movie the night before an Army-Notre Dame game and was moved to call the Irish backfield "the Four Horsemen" the next day? Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden went into the history books, barnstormed, played pro and got rich. And they sold tickets. You had to see the Four Horsemen if you didn't see another game for the whole year, right? Harvard-Yale be damned. No Horsemen there.
You think the guy who named the 1930s University of Pittsburgh "the Dream Backfield" didn't contribute to the game? How about calling the Vince Lombardi defensive line at Fordham, "the Seven Blocks of Granite"? That got into the spirit of the thing, right?
That's why I was so glad to see "the Bus" come spewing over the Internet of late. It's like old times.
Let me ask you: You think calling Joe Louis "the Brown Bomber" didn't have its effect on the gates? Jack Dempsey was a great fighter but "the Manassa Mauler" put him in a pantheon with the immortals.
Sometimes, the nickname is superfluous. I mean, there are guys whose right names had the ring of menace to them. "Hogan," whispered on a golf course, had strong men shaking over their putts. Bronko Nagurski didn't need no stinkin' nickname.
Alex Karras once insisted to author George Plimpton that a man's name dictated his career. Dick Butkus couldn't have been anything but a raw-meat-eating linebacker for the Bears, he claimed.
"If his name was Robin Jenkins, he couldn't have played for Harvard," Karras insisted.
He said if his own surname was Harris, instead of Karras, he would have ended up playing the cello. He maintained that the quarterback Milt Plum was victimized by his name.
"He had natural ability, but you can't get beat by a guy named Milt Plum," Karras told Plimpton.
But it's the sobriquet that defines the man in the papers. Larry Csonka didn't need a nickname. His real name sounded like one.
But you think "the Shark" didn't enhance Greg Norman's career? To say nothing of his pocketbook, what with a line of clothing, clubs and instructional fees? "The Golden Bear" didn't hurt Jack Nicklaus' image.
You didn't have to be Longfellow. "The Sultan of Swat" told you most of what you needed to know about Babe Ruth. "The Iron Horse" pretty much summed up Lou Gehrig's career. "The Yankee Clipper" couldn't have been anybody but Joe DiMaggio. "Murderers' Row" put the 1927 Yankees in perspective.
"The Hitless Wonders" worked for the turn-of-the-century White Sox. You had to go see a team that could bunt you to death. "The Seven Blocks of Granite" might not work for the modern speed game, but "the Steel Curtain" worked just fine for the modern Pittsburgh pros.
It's a dying art, though. Where is the nickname for Cal Ripken, who broke the Iron Horse's record? Why aren't there "Bushwick Assassins" in the fight game? Tiger Woods came equipped with his own nickname. Would Eldrick Woods have fit the headlines as aptly?
So, let's hear it for "Sunny Jim" and "Pistol Pete" and "the Wild Horse of the Osage" and "the Gashouse Gang" of antiquity. Let's hear it for Myron Cope, who won't let an old tradition die.
Excuse me while I go try to catch the next Bus.