A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 14, 2005
Big Six
"Big Six" was the name of the Americus fire truck used by Boss William Tweed and his Tammany Hall gang.

Later, "Big Six" was the nickname of the great New York Giants baseball pitcher Christy Mathewson. It also applied to his height -- six feet!

25 November 1869, New York Times, pg. 4:
The Fire Department, once remanded to the keeping of the demagogues, and used for the perpetration of political crimes rather than for extinguishing conflagrations, will revive those days of "Big Six" which our citizens have imagined was impossible.

20 October 1875, New York Times, pg. 4:
While TWEED was amusing himself, as a runner with the Big Six fire-engine, KELLY was Captain of the Carroll Target Guards.

4 January 1880, New York Times, pg. 2:
THE OLD FIRE DEPARTMENT
(...)
"BIG SIX" AND HER RIVALS

13 June 1882, New York Times, pg. 2:
"BIG SIX'S" DINNER.
AN ANNIVERSARY OF A FIRE THAT OC-
CURRED 33 YEARS AGO.

Nearly 70 members of Americus Engine Company No. 6, more familiarly known as "Big Six," of the old volunteer Fire Department, sat at a banquet last night in Lamberti's Hotel, at No. 108 Fourth-avenue. The occasion was the thirty-third anniversary of the first fire to which the engine company was ever called, on June 11, 1849. The banquet hall was decorated with flags and banners, and on one of the mantelpieces were three fire hats which had belonged to members of the company. An oil-painting represented the big engine drawn by six white horses in the annual parade passing the Astor House. This was painted in 1852, when William M. Tweed was the foreman.
(...)
The latter had composed a song entitled "Americus Engine Company No. 6," and this was sung by the entire company. At daylight the members were still reminding each other of the "good old days of Big Six," and were singing Mr. Burns's song.

9 June 1907, Washington Post, pg. SP2:
Add to them a modesty that amounts almost to diffidence, a deportment with which no fault is to be found, and a boyish demeanor that belies the force of the man underneath it, and you have an idea of "Big Six," the nickname that the boys have now attached to him. And the boys of New York made Mathewson an idol.

10 January 1909, Chicago Daily Tribune, pg. B1:
Christy Mathewson, the Giants' great pitcher, who has ben classed among the numerous ballplayers who were through with the game and at outs with their clubs, has been misquoted grievously. The following in a letter to a Chicago friend from "Big Six" ought to assure the anxious fans that he will be back at the old stand when the coming season opens..

24 December 1922, New York Times, pg. 21:
.MATHEWSON SOLVES
SOBRIQUET'S ORIGIN

He Alone Knew the Meaning of
"Big Six," a Name So Long
Attached to Him.

How the best known pitcher in baseball got his most famous nickname is, on the face of it, a question that any urchin in the land ought to be able to answer. But fame is fleeting and memories tricky, which may account for the fact that not even the famous manager of the famous pitcher could supply an answer to the above conundrum.

The famous pitcher is Christy Mathewson. The nickname is Big Six, and the famous manager is John J. McGraw, who was appealed to when all other authorities failed. John J. opined that, as far as he could recollect, Matty was called Big Six after a well-known fighter of that day who had the same sobriquet. This, as it turned out, was one of a half dozen explanations, and not one of them was right.

For a time it looked as if the origin of Matty's famous nickname would be one of life's little mysteries. An innocent query from a reader started a casual investigation. The casual investigation soon became an exhaustive research. Files were searched to their depths. Biographies were scanned desperately. Ancient citizens, historians, baseball experts -- all were questioned and all scratched their heads without conveying any helpful information.

A few explanations were advanced cautiously. "Big Six was a name they used to apply to all champions and outstanding performers," declared one sage. "Sysonby, the race horse, was called by that title, and in due time they began calling Matty Big Six because he was the best of the pitchers."

"That isn't the explanation at all," said a second Solomon. "The fact is that Matty was called 'Big Six' because at that time, as now, the Big Six Typographical Union was so powerful and outstanding."

"Well, that isn't the way I remember is," asserted a third expert. "At the height of Matty's prime there was a crack fire engine company in New York called 'Big Six.' Somebody stuck the name onto Matty, and it filled the bill so well that the fans began using it."

A fourth citizen, versed in his baseball history, destroyed all these theories with a single sweep of his hand. "The name has no origin at all," said this party. "It sounded good and somebody just called him that without any particular reason at all."

Up to John McGraw went the momentous question, and the comedy became a downright farce when the man who has been at Matty's side for more than a decade confessed that he was the least bit vague on the point. The Little Napoleon "thought" that there had been a boxer by that name -- which scrambled the mystery even more. Did anybody in New York know where the greatest Giant of them all got the right to be called "Big Six?"

Apparently nobody in New York knew, but somebody in Saranac Lake did. Matty himself saved the situation by solving the conundrum. This is what he says: "'Big Six' is a contraction of 'Big Six Footer,' which referred to my height."

And that ended it.

Posted by Barry Popik
Names/Phrases • (0) Comments • Wednesday, December 14, 2005 • Permalink