Ever tinkering with chance: baseball’s enduring superstitions

 

In baseball routine becomes superstition and strict practices must be followed to ensure good luck.Baseball players have traditionally been superstitious because since its beginning it has been enmeshed in folklore. In the early years of the sport, players did not have formal educations and they would seek any means to remedy a problem.

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For many Americans, nothing trumpets the end of winter louder than the arrival of baseball players for the annual ritual known as spring training. Snow still covers much of the country, and in most climes daffodils have yet to poke through the still-frozen sod, but the sights and sounds of a ball hitting a bat or popping into a catcher’s mitt provide unmistakable evidence that warmer, happier days are around the corner. Spring fever soon reaches epidemic proportions.

Thus it has been for generations. While football, basketball, and other sports have been transformed by rule changes, mass marketing, and the superior athleticism of modern contestants, part of baseball’s enduring appeal is the sense that the game seems timeless. For fans, how the contests are played is little changed from the time Babe Ruth started swatting home runs.

Evidence of that quality comes in the superstitions that are as much a part of the game as batting averages and Cracker Jacks. Even the most sophisticated athletes have been known to give in to the power of superstition as an aid to winning or avoiding injury; it’s a crutch, a secret weapon to solicit that small advantage needed for victory. Most are quick to deny it, claiming they simply follow a certain routine. Outfielder Rick Monday once explained, “I don’t believe in superstitions; I think they’re bad luck.”

But routine becomes superstition when one feels it must be followed to ensure good luck. Tampa Bay Devil Ray third baseman Wade Boggs, striving to become the next member of the sport’s illustrious 3,000 career hits club, is a study in superstition, embracing perhaps eighty strict practices on and off the field. He claims his hitting prowess comes from chicken, prepared fifty different ways by his wife. He developed an exact and intricate time/routine system, minute by minute, from leaving his house until game’s end. He has a fixation on the numbers 7 and 17 (in 1984, he signed a contract for $717,000) and formed the habit of drawing a chai, the Hebrew symbol for “life,” in the box before hitting. “Everyone has a routine,” concludes Boggs. “Mine just takes five hours.”

Though Boggs may be an extreme example, when it comes to quirky practices among ballplayers, he is not alone.

Beer barrels to Murine

In the last twenty-five years, baseball’s salary structure has skyrocketed. Now, even weak-hitting reserve infielders may sign contracts paying them a million dollars a year. Still, the old ways persist. The next time you’re at a park, look for the signs. You might see a coach kick dirt at first base while spitting toward second base four times, in hopes of preventing a runner from being picked off or thrown out stealing; meanwhile, the left fielder may be tying his spikes, which are already tied, while pointing both thumbs toward the opposing team’s bench.

Why is baseball such a hotbed of omen seekers? One answer is that it’s older than other major American sports and is enmeshed in folklore. The early player was generally uneducated and quick to embrace any possible remedy for poor fielding or a batting average that matched his weight. Putting a lady’s hair ribbon under his cap or a rabbit’s foot in his pocket seemed as sensible as, say, working to improve his fielding or batting style. Players kept photographs, four-leaf clovers, a box of crickets, even frilly women’s underwear in their lockers.

In the early days, to see a funeral procession on the day of a game was a bad omen, but one could reverse the curse by flipping a coin in the direction of the deceased. A cross-eyed woman in the grandstand presaged no hits that day, but the jinx would disappear if the player spit in her beer. It was a common practice to rub a batboy’s head for luck.

In the first two decades of this century, barrels played a mystic role in the lives of baseball players. In general they believed that if they saw a wagonload of barrels before a game, it meant good luck. New York Yankees owner Jacob Rupert had a beer wagon circle Yankee Stadium before games, with positive results.

New York Giants manager John McGraw once hired a “player” who couldn’t even play, because “old John” felt the man was a magnet for good fortune. McGraw would have him sit on the bench each day, in uniform, and tell him he was going to pitch that day. The man, Charles Victory Faust, finally did get to pitch one meaningless inning, to the delight of the crowd. The Giants won three consecutive pennants with their good-luck charm on the bench. Faust died before the 1914 season, and the favored Giants lost the pennant that year. (Historian Ken Burns reports that McGraw had another, less charming amulet: a piece of rope once used for a lynching.)

Louis “Bobo” Newsome was baseball’s first “Mr. Superstitious.” He refused to tie his shoelaces but would stand majestically while someone tied them for him. He always took off his street socks in order, left sock first, then dropped them into his shoes. At the end of every inning he tossed his glove up in the air so it dropped just in front of him as he crossed the foul line; then he stopped and touched the foul line. “Bobo” once pitched a nine-inning no-hitter and lost the game.

Forrest “Spook” Jacobs always squirted a mysterious liquid on his bat before a game. When pressed for an explanation, Jacobs said he was applying Murine so he’d have a “seeing-eye” bat.

But perhaps nobody matched “the Nervous Greek,” Lou Skizas: He wore six pairs of socks during games, “and before every game he had to rotate them bottom pair to the outside and so forth.” Skizas just had to step between the catcher and the umpire when getting into the batter’s box, and he always took a practice swing with his left arm, keeping his right hand in his back pocket (where he held his lucky Greek medal) until the instant before the ball was delivered.

Team efforts

As is true of any ritual, superstitions must be observed if they are to survive. Even as night games, television, and the designated hitter came to baseball, players–and sometimes whole teams–retained their superstitious ways.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant was known for his penchant for smoking cigars while in the postgame shower. His admirers never saw the strands of beads and the special loincloth that he wrapped around his waist, under his uniform, “to ward off evil.” Astros right-hander Joaquin Andujar knew how to break a losing streak on the mound: He showered with his uniform on to “wash the bad out of it.”

But no pitcher was quirkier than Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. To avoid any misunderstanding on the route it was to take, the Detroit Tigers right-hander spoke to the ball before each pitch, in a whisper so batters couldn’t learn the ball’s intended path. Fidrych had a phenomenal 19-9 record in his rookie season and started for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. His deity, it seemed, was the most powerful. But his next four seasons produced a 10-10 mark, and he was out of the major leagues.

Another reason that baseball superstitions die hard is that hexes do seem to exist in the sport. The Chicago White Sox were involved in the infamous Black Sox scandal in 1919; since then, neither the White Sox nor their north side counterparts, the Cubs, have won the World Series.

Dame Fortune has tormented the Boston Red Sox for eight decades. In 1918 owner Harry Frazee, heavily in debt from supporting a bevy of showgirls and backing the wrong Broadway shows, traded away most of his stars, including Ruth, to the New York Yankees. Superstitious fans knew disaster would follow; since that year the Red Sox have not won a World Series. The Yankees have won twenty-three championships. Boston’s faithful still refer to the incident as the “Curse of the Bambino.”

Perhaps consequently, sometimes only a team effort can get the attention of the god of superstition. The Philadelphia Phillies once carried black cats onto the field in an (unsuccessful) attempt to put a curse on Jackie Robinson. The Atlanta Braves try to ignite rallies by wearing their caps backwards. In 1994 the Milwaukee Brewers were mired in a fourteen-game losing streak. They counted on a box of Lucky Charms and a “lucky” goat, then went out and lost another game.

But the minor-league Salt Lake Trappers carried it a bit far: In 1987 the entire team opted for the no-wash rule to extend their winning ways. No player washed his socks, and some washed nothing at all. They achieved a 29-game winning streak, a professional baseball record. When the streak was over, the rest of the league breathed easier in more ways than one.

Leo “the Lip” Durocher, one of the surliest players and managers ever, always rode in the back of the bus to break a losing streak. He coveted hairpins (“See a pin and pick it up / All the day you’ll have good luck / See a pin and let it lie / All the day you’ll have to cry”). Durocher would arrive in the clubhouse at the same time every day and leave at the same time. If his team was winning in the ninth inning, he’d walk the length of the dugout for a drink of water after each out recorded against the opposition. Joey Amalfitano recalls Leo’s behavior during the 1954 pennant chase: “Leo felt it would be even better luck if all his coaches did the same thing. It was like a Chinese fire drill. Every time we got a ninth-inning putout, five guys had to get up and march down to get a drink.”

Hair of the dog

Is there a god of superstition who smiles and rewards those who daily incorporate sometimes strange routines into their lives to ward off evil spirits? Perhaps, but since .400 hitters and thirty-game winners are rare, that deity, real or imagined, must be myopic or inattentive (except in the cases of Boston and Chicago, where it appears rather vindictive).

Maybe that’s why today’s players and managers remain wary of tempting fate. Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr., who many observers proclaim the best of contemporary players, feels luck is with him only when his mother is in the stands. Terry Pendleton knows it’s bad luck to throw a bat; he always hands his bat to the batboy. David Justice steps out of the box after each pitch and has a one-way conversation: “If I’m not talking to myself, I’m not into the at-bat.”

Culinary rituals have always carried clout. Pitcher Jim Palmer ate pancakes for breakfast while on a streak: “Well, I went something like 17-2 during one streak eating pancakes, so why take a chance?” During a season filled with twenty-five wins, pitcher Steve Stone’s daily rite consisted of having breakfast with the same sportswriter. Hall of Famer Al Lopez breakfasted on kippered herring and eggs seventeen days in a row. Roger Maris hit two homers on a day when he had eggs and bologna for breakfast, prompting him to order the same breakfast at the same deli, at the same table, with the same waitress, for all home games. Then-Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton believes that his career was revived by eating Fruit Loops for breakfast.

Players and skippers are better educated today than in decades past; most have some college education. Former White Sox and Athletics and current Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is one of baseball’s “new breed” of managers, bright, articulate, and the possessor of a law degree. He has a computer in the dugout to keep track of opposing players.

Yet, in 1982, LaRussa was wearing his heaviest jacket during a chilly midsummer night game against Boston, and his White Sox won. So the woolen-lined jacket became a fixture for the next three weeks, even when the temperature exceeded ninety degrees. “We went 15-3 after I started wearing it,” Tony recalls. “That jacket helped, and so did my scruffed cap. I wore the cap for home games, and we won seventeen straight.”

Sometimes the apparel is an amulet: Scott Erickson chose to wear black on a pitching day, “The Day of Death”; John Smoltz adopted a Notre Dame T-shirt, played Nintendo baseball before home assignments, and persuaded his psychologist to wear something red for luck (some psychologist!); Walt Weiss wore the same white North Carolina wrestling T-shirt and a left sock with a hole in it when things were going well. Home run champ Mark McGuire puts his uniform on in the same exact order, from bottom to top. He always steps out of the clubhouse right foot first for batting practice and returns to it left foot first.

Marge Schott, the feisty Cincinnati Reds owner, carried a plastic bag containing clumps of hair from her deceased dog, Schottzie. Before a 1995 game she rubbed some of the hair on players’ chests and legs for luck, and she later put the hair in their uniform pockets. She also sought magic results by rubbing the chest hair of manager Lou Pinella every day. It must not have worked; Schott was eventually suspended for conduct detrimental to the game.

During the Minnesota Twins’ “Banner Day” in 1984, a fan displayed a huge sign reading “Frankie `Sweet Music’ Viola.” Viola won that day and went on winning every game his ardent fan attended. When he learned that “Banner Man” couldn’t get tickets for the 1987 World Series, Viola managed to find tickets for games 1 and 7, both of which he won, while losing game 4. Viola explained, “A superstition is a way to get through a tough situation.”

Fickle fate

When he was a player, current Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove rivaled Wade Boggs as a super superstition freak. Before facing the pitcher, Hargrove would walk up the first base line and take three practice swings. At the plate he dug a hole with his left foot, adjusted the batting glove on his right hand, wiped perspiration from his upper lip with the crook of his left elbow, tugged one shoulder of his uniform, pushed down on top of his batting helmet, and pulled up his pants from the center. Then he was ready to hit. But if the pitcher then stepped off the rubber, Hargrove went through the whole routine again, except for the practice swings. For his slowdown antics, Hargrove became known as “the Human Rain Delay.”

Joe Altobelli, who would drive the same route to the ballpark every day, says, “You can call it routine or religion or idiosyncrasy or superstition. But the truth is that if you watch closely enough, you’ll find [every ballplayer] has some kind of quirk.”

Even the fans (from “fanatics,” for extremism) acknowledge the value of voodoo by doing the seventh-inning stretch, performing the “wave,” clutching those “Homer Hankies” in Minnesota, or wearing “cheese heads” in Milwaukee. Atlanta fans demonstrate the “tomahawk chop” while singing their war chants. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous tap dancer, always carried a vial of “goofer dust” to Yankee games. He’d execute his little dance, then scatter the dust on Yankee bats to ensure hits and on their gloves to ward off errors. All these ceremonies are designed to woo Lady Luck.

Baseball is a game of inches, perhaps decided by providence: a lucky bounce, the sun appearing at just the fight angle to momentarily blind a fielder, a fielder dropping a sure out. Are such events simply coincidence, or are they reserved for the deserving? Whatever the answer, they encourage players to appeal to the occult so as to be the survivors, not the casualties, of fickle fate.

Will the superstitious ways survive? Almost certainly. As with most sports, to be played well, baseball requires intense concentration, study, and almost endless practice and repetition; it’s a game of the mind. As baseball’s philosopher-king, Yogi Berra, so succinctly phrased it, “90 percent of this game is half mental.”

And with the multimillion-dollar stakes of the game still rising, who wouldn’t use superstition to hedge his bets?

Undoubtedly, former umpire Ron Luciano, who puts little stock in superstition, speaks for many. “Wearing a hat some silly way can’t possibly bring good luck,” says the arbiter. “The only things that really work are talent, hard work, and sitting with your right leg crossing your left knee, with your arms folded across your chest.”

Additional Reading

“Baseball’s Superstitions,” Sporting News, Apr. 23, 1984.

Matt Bouza, “Super Superstitions?” Sporting News, May 4, 1987.

Kathlyn Gay, They Don’t Wash Their Socks, Walker Publications, New York, 1990.

“Green Cars, Black Cats and Lady Luck,” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 8, 1988.

Linda Lewis Griffith, “You’re Not Knock on Wood Superstitious?” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 8, 1988.

Ron Luciano, The Umpire Strikes Back, Bantam, New York, 1982.

–, Remembrance of Swings Past, Bantam, New York, 1988.

Jack Connelly, a retired schoolteacher based in Webster, New York, has written frequently about the national pastime.

 

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