So, I’m still making like Herman Punster, playing around with baseball names and song titles. Fortunately for all though, it’s winding down. One of the challenges of doing this is negotiating the difference between how a name looks and the way it sounds. For example, a reader left one I really enjoyed – “Tiant Steps” – after John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and the ageless Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant. It works beautifully on paper, a good visual pun, but Tiant’s name is pronounced like “tea-aunt”, making “Tiant for Two” a better ear-pun. The best song puns work both ways, but they’re hard to come up with.
I tripped up on pronunciations a few times in my first long pun-post and had to change a couple. My friend Bill Kirchner has huge ears and eagle eyes. He pointed out to me that even as a self-confessed “non-baseball fanatic”, he was pretty sure Bobby Knoop’s last name was pronounced like “Knopp”, meaning it didn’t really work for “What’s Knoop?” (“What’s New?”). So, “But Knoop For Me” would be better. It was the same with Clem Labine – I somehow got it into my head that his name was pronounced “Labeen” and used that for “It’s Labine A Long, Long Time”. But his last name rhymes with “fine”, so I changed the song to “Labine & Dandy”.
Given that the general populace of North America numbers in the hundreds of millions and there have only been ten or twelve thousand major-league ballplayers, it’s amazing that there have been such a disproportionately high number of funny, tongue-twisting names in baseball. Toronto is a very multicultural city where I’ve lived all my life and I’ve met or known hundreds and hundreds of people, but none of them with names such as Klimchock, Grba, Klippstein, Groth, Baldilli, Cerv, Repulski, Terwilliger, Palica, or Dillhoefer, to name but a few. Maybe I’m just moving in the wrong circles……Some of these names are a real mouthful and even though Chris Cannizzaro is not that weird a name, he was a classic example. He was among the collection of cast-offs, misfits, has-beens and never-would-bes who made up the unlikely and comic roster of the expansion 1962 Mets. They were made all the more hilarious because they were managed by Casey Stengel, one of the funniest (but shrewdest) characters in the history of the game. The early Mets were unbelievably inept but played it for laughs all the way, endearing themselves to fans instantly despite all their losing. In 1962, Stengel was old, had a long history of language-mangling known as “Stengelese” and suddenly had a lot of new names to familiarize himself with. For these reasons, he was never once able to pronounce Cannizzaro’s name properly, not even close. It always came out as “Canzoneri” or “Cannizullo” or a hundred other possibilities, but never Cannizzaro.
But perhaps the most inscrutable baseball name of them all is that of Doug Gwosdz, who was a second-string catcher with the San Diego Padres for a couple of years in the early 1980s. He was a good defensive player but not much of a hitter, so he didn’t last long in the majors. As the Padres were never on TV much around these parts, I never saw him play or heard his eye-popping, consonant-cluster of a name pronounced. I was aware of him though, because he was given the wonderful nickname of “Eye-chart” for obvious reasons. If his name had consisted of just one more letter, “Scrabble” would have been another nickname possibility – it seems to me I’ve had the letters G W O S D Z and J on my Scrabble letter-tray and wondered, “Just what am I supposed to spell with that?”
Anyway, I assumed that Gwosdz was pronounced somewhat as it appears and it was pretty easy to work it up into a song-pun – “All Gwosdz Chillun’ Got Rhythm” – I mean, that looks good, it works. Right?
Wrong. I vaguely remembered that there was something unusual – daahh – about the way that “Gwosdz” was pronounced, something more (or less) than meets the eye. So I consulted “Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googely eyes”, typing in “pronunciation of Doug Gwosdz”, not expecting to get much. Wrong again. Much to my amazement, I was immediately taken to an incredible website called “Great Names in Baseball”, which is right up my a…..alley. Who knew? I was floored that there were other people who share my fixation with baseball names to the extent of devoting a website to nothing but. Anyway, a brief and funny article revealed that Gwosdz – which is Polish, incidentally – is pronounced “Goosh”, of all things.
This startling information stirred my inner jukebox, circa mid-to-late ’40s. Right away I thought of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, who had a record called “Goosey Gander”, or in this case, “Gooshy Gander”. Al Cohn wrote a chart a few years later for the more boppish Herman band called “The Goof and I”, now “The Goosh and I”. Or how about Charlie Parker’s “Goosh the Mooch” ? Or for that matter, “Moose the Goosh”.
Turning to the (slightly) more mainstream world of standard songs, I thought of a couple of possibilities – “Goosh Sorry Now?” or “If I Should Goosh You”, which sounds a bit naughty, but there you are. Of course, none of these look right using the actual spelling of Gwosdz, which makes your eyes explode and just doesn’t compute.
None of this is very important, in fact I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all save for having a “close encounter of the goose kind” the other morning. Goose, that is, as in Canada Goose. I was walking to the subway on my way to work, the sky a perfect, clear blue. My subway station is Woodbine and it’s undergoing major reconstruction, which won’t be finished until 2017 at the earliest. The TTC is not just redoing the station on the east side, they’ve taken down a house on the west side to build an entrance with a tunnel under Woodbine Ave. and they’re also building a street-level elevator on the north side of Strathmore Blvd., so the entire intersection is a virtual war-zone of construction, a hubbub of noise, dirt, pylons, temporary wooden walls and heavy traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. Suddenly, right in the middle of this clamorous chaos a squadron of ten Canada Geese flew across Woodbine at no higher than twenty feet, in a perfectly spaced < formation of 1-2-3-4. I half expected to hear Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyrie start up to accompany them, like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. The stunning incongruity of it stopped me dead in my tracks and I stood there with my mouth open, looking up – this was surely one of nature’s great non sequitirs.
It’s not uncommon to see Canada Geese waddling around in parks or flying way up high. On the ground they’re ungainly, noisy and cantankerous, apt to chase after anyone who annoys them. But seeing them in the air so low against the clear blue sky like this I was struck by how big they are, yet also how beautiful and graceful in flight. Their wing-beats were in perfect, silent synchronization, thrusting them steadily forward like a team of scullers. They were so flawless they didn’t seem quite real, but rather mechanized, or like the Canada Geese models that hang in the Eaton Centre. It was so odd – almost eerie, but nice. I thought how lucky I was to have arrived at exactly the right time and place to see them, about four seconds before they landed on the roof of the Valu-Mart next to the subway stop.
Life is like that, full of odd coincidences and unexpected connections between the obscure and the famous, the silly and the serious, the old and the new. And, in this case, the concrete and the celestial. It was later that morning that I investigated Doug Gwosdz and found out that his name was pronounced “Goosh”. So I’d gone from goose to Gwosdz to “Goosh” in just a few hours, leaving me to wonder, “Gwosh, what next?”
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.