Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones is well-known in New York as a Mets killer. His lifetime line in Shea Stadium includes 19 home runs, the most at any stadium outside of Atlanta in Jones' career. For this, Mets fans famously jeered him with the most clever taunt they could muster: Larr-ree, Larr-ree.
The chant lasted for years. In a September, 2012 New York Times article about Jones' impending retirement, the paper of record included a photo of Jones standing at third base. Behind him is a Mets fan holding a homemade poster reading "LARRY!" The caption for the photo says, "Chipper Jones hit .308 in three games during the 1999 National League Championship Series, despite Mets fans calling him by his given name, Larry."
As a fellow Larry without a catchy nickname to hide behind -- and no, "Little Larry" most certainly does not count -- I knew that pain all too well. Listening to that chant, it was as if a whole city was echoing everything popular culture had been telling me about my name for all my life. Jones would later say, "It's pretty cool when you have 50,000 people saying your name. It acts as motivation." But I know what he was really feeling. Everyone named Larry does.
Why chant "Larry"? It is Jones' first name, but don't be fooled. This isn't the same "Darr-yl! Darr-yl!" chant that brought a tear to Darryl Strawberry's eye while playing for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. No, those chants were meant to rattle the player, not disparage him. After all, who would be insulted by someone calling his name over and over? It's a silly notion ... unless you ask Mets fans, who have at least one answer: Chipper Jones. And it's all because his name is Larry. No one respects a Larry.
Think of the Larrys you know. Who are they? If you're old enough (or had access to the right reruns), the chest-haired Larry Dallas from Three's Company comes to mind. He's the sleazy, swinging, used-car salesman friend of Jack Tripper who can't help involving his best pal in his wacky and sexy adventures.
Others of the proper age might remember Larry and his brother Daryl and his other brother Daryl. Or Cousin Larry, the bumbling ball of neuroses who was responsible for more "I learned something today..." moments than the entire cast of Full House and The Brady Bunch combined. The great Parker Lewis Can't Lose even had Larry Kubiac, a bully like you've never seen.
Fans of The Simpsons might think of the episode "Burns, Baby Burns." When writers wanted to cast Rodney Dangerfield as the long-lost, illegitimate dolt of a son of Mr. Burns, they could think of no better name for the character than Larry Burns. Larry sold googly-eyed walnuts at the side of a deserted train track and had once seen a blimp. Could any other name be more appropriate?
This trend extends far beyond television. In recent years, for example, the unpardonable movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry hit theaters to horrible reviews. Comedian Dan Whitney helped make the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" a national phenomenon with his simple-minded redneck character, Larry the Cable Guy. In video games, "Leisure Suit Larry" was the go-to example of perversion and depravity in the industry for years and years. Even the relatively tame funny pages aren't immune from the wholesale sullying of the Larry name. In Pearls Before Swine, one of the flagship comic strips of the past decade, the main villain is an idiotic crocodile who often ends up dying when the traps he lays for his zebra neighbor inevitably fail. He's Wile E. Coyote if the Road Runner's nemesis had the intelligence of an ACME brand anvil. He is named Larry.
Things don't get any better when you leave the world of fiction. Sure, there are a few Larrys who seem like they have shirked this curse, but even they can't steer clear of it completely. The NBA, for example, lays claim to what should be one of the proudest members of Team Larry in Larry Bird, one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. But what do people know him as? "The Hick from French Lick." Seriously. There is finally a legitimate superstar named Larry and even Woody the Bartender can look down on him. We can't catch a break.
Baseball doesn't even give us that chance. Many baseball fans would be surprised to learn who the most famous and successful Larrys even are, seeing as how they are known by their much catchier nicknames. We already know that Chipper Jones dislikes "Larry" so much that he prefers "Chipper" even though it's been nearly 35 years since he was in the second grade. Baseball also lays claim to the man who should be the most famous Larry.
You know him as a 3-time MVP catcher, one of the most famous Yankees ever, and the author of many of baseball's most well-known quips. "It ain't over 'til it's over ... Baseball is ninety percent mental; the other half is physical ... It's like deja vu all over again." Yogi Berra was born Lawrence Peter Berra. Though he went by Yogi to his friends in high school, the papers still knew him as Larry Berra early in his career with the Yankees. When he socked a home run in his major-league debut in 1946, this is how it was reported:
The Yankees won both contests... That was pleasant enough for the partisan home fans, but of greater importance were the fine impressions made in their Yankee debuts by Bobby Brown, Larry Berra and Frank Colman.
By 1947, the papers were routinely using "Yogi Berra" to describe the squat catcher, but "Larry" would still appear occasionally. Before long, though, he was known only as Yogi. That nickname, along with his crooked smile, "Yogiisms," and ten World Series rings, would send Berra down in history as one of baseball's most colorful characters. And yet people haven't called him Larry for 65 years. It's an injustice!
Not every Larry has hidden behind a flashy nickname, of course. Larry Dierker, Larry Bowa, and Larry Parrish all had long, successful careers (they were All-Stars!) in the big leagues, but these are hardly household names. It's the bigger names who make a mark on the public consciousness.
One such name was Larry Doby. While Larry Berra was winning the New York media over to his Yogi ways, Doby, as the first man to integrate the American League, was fighting the same prejudices as Jackie Robinson. And though he put together a Hall of Fame career in his thirteen seasons, it wasn't until 1998 when Doby was recognized by Cooperstown. Par for the course.
The most successful Larry in recent decades was three-time batting champ Larry Walker. Having mastered Coors Field like no other, he should be on his way into the Hall. Instead, Walker finds himself on the outside looking in, lucky to stick around for another ballot. Just another example of how even the best Larrys can only fly so high.
As you can imagine, this is personal for me. Growing up with nothing but morons and deviants on television, turning the pages of my favorite books to see yet another classless Larry, and all the jokes at my expense ... It all weighs on a kid's soul. But I could always look to sports. Sure, Larry Bird was an ugly farmboy, but that didn't matter. He was still a Larry. You take what you can get, you know? When I found out that Yogi Berra was actually a namesake, my world was changed forever.
It continues to be an uphill battle, however. No one ever mocked Nolan Ryan with chants of Ly-ynn! Ly-ynn! But they weren't so kind to Chipper Jones. There's just something about the name Larry that brings out the worst in people. And though Jones is not playing games in New York anymore, we're still only one star away from 45,000 people chanting "Larry! Larry!" in mocking derision. When that finally does happen again, we can take solace in one fact: At least he won't be hiding behind Chipper.