Ask Mr. Know It All

Q. Charlie Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. His nickname was “Bird.” What’s with the nickname?

K.J., Roswell, Ga.

A. Charles Parker Jr. (1920-1955) picked up the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career. There are many conflicting stories as to how he got the name. One story is that he would listen to bands from the yard outside a club. Another is that he loved eating chicken, which also was called yardbird. Yet another version is that he practiced in a park so often that people would hear his sax and call him Bird. In time, Yardbird was shortened to Bird, a name that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Q. The shirt worn by woman equestrians is called a ratcatcher. Why the unusual name?

M.W., Ashland, Ore.

A. At one time in Europe, rat catching was necessary to keep cities and towns free of diseases, especially the plague. Rat catchers often wrapped their necks with cloth to protect their throats from angry rats.

The ratcatcher shirt is a button-up shirt with a mandarin-style collar that resembles a turtleneck. Someone noticed the similarity between the two, and the curious name for the riding shirt was born.

At one time, ratcatcher was a British insult. It’s not used much anymore, but it was made popular by Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Q. You explained the meaning of a walk-off home run in a previous article. I first heard the term about two years ago. Where and when did the term first originate?

A.H.S., Torrance, Calif.

A. A walk-off home run is when a member of the home team hits a home run in the bottom of the last inning and wins the game. The term was coined by relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley. Most baseball historians say Eckersley first used the phrase after giving up a home run to Kirk Gibson in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of the 1988 World Series.

The term was first used to describe how a pitcher would have to walk off the field with his head down, but it is more celebratory now.


As a teenager, Boston-born Matt Damon earned extra cash by being a break-dancer in Harvard Square.

Q. When I was a young boy, my folks bought me an Uncle Milton Ant Farm. I loved it. When my sons reached the same age, I bought them the same toy. This Christmas, my grandchildren each received an ant farm. When were they introduced? What is the story behind the idea?

C.G., Milford, Pa.

A. After returning home from World War II, Milton Levine and his brother-in-law Joe Cossman started a mail-order novelty company in Pittsburgh. Do you remember the shrunken heads or the 100 soldiers for $1 advertised in comic books? They were from Uncle Milton.

In 1952, the company moved to Hollywood, Calif. During a Fourth of July picnic in 1956, Levine observed ants scurrying about and recalled his youthful days when he would catch the insects and put them in a jar. He went with the idea. Before long, the Uncle Milton Ant Farm was created. It was a success. Nearly 60 years later, it has sold more than 20 million units. Milton Levine died in January 2002 at age 97.


After seeing “Star Wars,” James Cameron quit his job as a truck driver to enter the film industry.

Send questions to Mr. Know-It-All at or c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

2013 Gary Clothier

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.