The (nick)name game

042145 Claw

We have an Iron Claw sighting!

As I was perusing microfilm of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper from the mid-1940s, I came across the above article, which includes a reference to a New Orleans player who, I had thought, vanished into history after a shining couple sandlot seats.

That would be none other than one-armed pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus.

His name pops up in an April 21, 1945, article on something called the New Orleans Bar Owners League, which included (most likely) amateur teams like Rip’s Playhouse Gyps, Toni’s Tavern Tigers, Marty’s Mugs and Ferd’s Birds.

Apparently the article is a cover the intracity league’s opening-night twin bill, and Populus, with named misspelled “Poplus,” took the hill for Rip’s Gyps, pitching the rollicking squad to an 18-4 crushing of Toni’s by allowing just five hits and posting five K’s. Toni’s at one point sported a player named “Peanuts” Gougies. Another team in the bar league was proferred by the Crystal Club.

I couldn’t find any more immediate references to Iron Claw in the Weeklys from 1943-45, so apparently once again he disappears into the historical ether, only to appear decades later in police blotters as an alleged illegal bookie.

But the article doesn’t just feature an Iron Claw appearance. It also reflects what is turning out to be the New Orleans blackball community’s amazing propensity and aptitude for creating a rainbow of unique nicknames.

We, naturally, can begin with some of the homegrown products who made the big-time Negro Leagues as famed manager “Lucky” Winfield Welch, stumpy pitcher Frank “Groundhog” Thompson (or Thomas, depending on the article), Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins and, of course, Edward “Peanuts Nyasses” Davis.

But this article here also shows that just about every weekend warrior in NOLA also had quirky monikers. The story refers to players dubbed Snooks, Speedy and a first baseman named, simply, Freddie. (“Snooks,” by the way, appears to have been quite the popular nickname; it also belonged to local blues legend Fird “Snooks” Eaglin.)

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Other Louisiana Weekly articles I ran across last week featured stories on other city amateur, sandlot and semipro leagues and teams — baseball and softball) had additional nutty names for both players and their teams’ commercial sponsors or ownership. There were nines from Foster’s Chicken Den, which included guys like “Dog” Turner; the Rose Room, featuring Red Buster; the Jitterbug Red Sox, with phenom hurler “Speed Ball” Hayes; and the Pepsi Cola Stars, with twirler “Bob Cat.”

But in my mind, a candidate for best moniker in New Orleans blackball history goes to the Jax Zulo Hippopotamus, who existed in the mid-1940s. Jax was a NOLA brewing company that produced locally renowned beer and soda.

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The Hippopotamus, meanwhile, were a comedy aggregation in the vein of the Ethiopian Clowns or various Zulu Giants squads, i.e. blackface, grass skirts, the whole, ahem, nine. Players, for example, were dubbed String Bean Speedy and the slightly-less-goofy Kildee Bowers. However, Kildee’s “last name” was misspelled “Bowels” in one article I found. Eek.

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Finally, over time New Orleans was the locale of leagues of teams from the city’s various housing projects, like Melpomene, Lafitte and Calliope. Players on these teams included Gummy Williams and the relatively pedestrian Big Joe Martin, who did double duty by suiting up for a team in the projects league.

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