I did not know what “larrupin’” meant five minutes ago.
Nicknames, like secret handshakes, have always been a way to say that you’re one of us. Yet, baseball monikers once felt like a nationwide hug shared between fans and athletes. And everyone was a fan to some degree. The sports pages may have been the best-written and most accurate part of the newspaper. You could argue with anyone anywhere about the Yankee Clipper without worrying that the words “sails” or “DiMaggio” would creep into the conversation.
In the days of radio play-by-play, glorious baseball nicknames were woven from situation and alliteration. Often granted by sportswriters to meritorious rookies, the practice seems to have fallen out of favor (otherwise we’d be talking about “The Big Syringe” and “The Baltimore Cuckold”). The golden era of baseball nicknames gave us the Sultan of Swat, the Georgia Peach, the Big Train, Three-Fingered Brown, Cool Papa, Yogi, Stan the Man, Dizzy, Daffy, Charlie Hustle, the Bird, Space Man, and the Human Rain Delay. Often, parental given names were lost to common usage- who refers to Laurence Berra?
In the twilight of the nickname era, the best-known handle of an active player likely belongs to Roger “the Rocket” Clemens who’s been plying his trade for over two decades, though fans will know the Big Unit (Randy Johnson) and the Big Hurt (Frank Thomas), who have also been around for eons.
Perhaps we are simply too sophisticated nowadays to make sport of our sports. Who is no longer on first and we have only ourselves to blame. Apropos of Larrupin’ Lou Gehrig, it means “a blow, especially one delivered with a lot of force,” which I had intuited as a child, though adulthood required definition.
I have been in a large room filled with people in colorful costumes and wearing odd bits of plastic upon their face. I have sat with them and listened to them talk disconsolately about a proposed re-write of a fictional universe that would alter the “history” as previously composed. I sympathized until my pupils contracted to mere dots. I write this by way of saying that I have seen the reeking armpit of obsession.
Enter one Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who went by the name “Parallax” for obvious reasons. He is the progenitor, not the obsessive in the story. Parallax toured the U.K. teaching “zetetic astronomy,” which argued that the Earth is flat with the North Pole at its center. Next, we meet John Hampden, who read Rowbotham’s Earth Not A Globe and, you guessed it, became obsessed when it turned on so many light bulbs in his head that ships could navigate by his nose. Hampden offered £500 to anyone who could prove that the Earth was round. Alfred Russel Wallace, scientist and all around swell guy, won the bet easily on March 5, 1870.
1870? Obsession breeds obsession. Hampden found like-minded loons and started a movement based on the premise that libeling Wallace was better than scientific proof. Good hullabaloo moves easily across the ocean. Locally, Buffalo resident Alexander Gleason published Is the Earth a Globe? (1893) in which he demonstrated that Lake Eerie showed no sign of convexity.
The modern flat earth movement blossomed again in England with Samuel Shanton, who founded the International Flat Earth Society. The presidency passed to American Charles Johnson on Shanton’s death in 1971. Whether anyone agreed with him or not, Johnson was known for his reliance on fact in defending the Society’s agenda. He died in 2001, leaving the flat earth ship without a rudder, adrift along the treacherous edge of the planet’s border. Be wary of Flat Earth Society impostors on the Internet. As you might imagine, the topic lends itself to satire.
Just as you go to get coffee during the unending special features on the Spiderman 2 deluxe DVD, your youngest child asks, “What exactly is ‘the proportional strength of a spider’ anyway?” Or perhaps you’re standing in line to buy tickets for Batman Begins when the thought bobs to the surface of your mind, “How can I use this film to enhance my child’s science education?”
Before the person behind you pokes you in the kidneys, let me help with both questions. Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg have written The Science of Superheroes, along with a sequel, The Science of Supervillains. The writing is light and the science is outstanding. While fighting the good fight for truth and justice, Gresh and Weinberg tackle biology, astronomy, and physics.
Finally, you’ll be able to discuss E=mc2 over dinner while visions of the Flash race through your children’s heads. If you seek a contemplative silence over your starch and protein, break out the old chestnut about Galileo’s square cubed law. You can lean back with your after-dinner port and announce, “So, when Giant-man doubles in size, his surface area increases fourfold and his volume eightfold. Could this be why Giant-man suffocates and Ant-man stomps arachnid butt?”
Chances are that anyone interested in superheroes, even the cinematic ilk, has latent interest in science. Gresh and Weinberg do answer the spider question, but the webslinger proves a bit disappointing in the science department.