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Come To Think of It: Exploring the Superstitious Minds of Baseball Players

Bob Warja@@bobwarjaSenior Writer ISeptember 17, 2009

“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer, Superstition ain’t the way.”

- Stevie Wonder

Sorry, Stevie, but superstition is very much the way in major league baseball. Ballplayers certainly can be described as creatures of habit.

No, not that kind of habit.

(If you’re old like me, you may recall an episode of the television series M*A*S*H , where “Hawkeye” once said to “Klinger”, “warning – dressing like a nun may be habit forming.”)

Instead, the purpose of this diatribe is to examine some of the strange behavior of the typical major league player, and attempt to get inside their head and figure out just where this all started and why it continues to be so pervasive.

In life, people have a lucky rabbit's foot, and wear magnetic bracelets that are supposed to reduce pain. They cross their fingers for luck, and don’t dare break any mirrors. 

Heck, some people even go so far as to hold their breath when passing a cemetery. I know this because one of my daughter’s friends recently got her to start doing this. I try to tell her that breathing is good, but if you have children of your own, you understand that you cannot tell a 10-year-old girl anything.

Recognizing this, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that baseball players exhibit certain behaviors in an attempt to avoid bad karma and the dilemma of the Bhagavad Gita.

Still, for some, it goes way beyond simply not stepping on the chalk lines as they walk on and off the field. No sir, that’s kid stuff to these guys.

This is not something new. Superstitions have been around since baseball itself. Let’s consider the following (hat tip to suite101.com):

  • In the 1870s, Cap Anson refused to speak to his starting pitcher on the day that he was pitching.
  • The 1894 Baltimore Orioles sat down together one hour before batting practice and chugged glasses of turkey gravy.
  • Wade Boggs ate fried chicken before every game
  • Craig Biggio never cleaned his batting helmet
  • Dick Stuart used to take chewing gum out of his mouth, then throw it across home plate - right before every at-bat
  • Ted Williams would go to Louisville, KY once a year and spend hours searching for the perfect piece of wood that would be made into his bat
  • Turk Wendell would brush his teeth and chew licorice between every inning 

Then there was a little known former outfielder named Kevin Rhomberg who took superstition to a whole new level.

According to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, Rhomberg had a need to touch back someone who had just touched him. If a person somehow eluded his return touch, Rhomberg would send a letter that said, "This constitutes a touch."

Opposing players and even teammates used to drive Rhomberg crazy with their attempts to circumvent the touching.

Brook Jacoby once told of tagging Rhomberg with a ball in the minors, then throwing it out of the stadium. Jacoby said that Rhomberg spent two hours looking for the ball before finding it. An umpire once halted play during a game in New York to tell Yankees players to stop touching Rhomberg.

Stone has more good stuff to share. Larry Walker was apparently obsessed with the number "3." He set his alarm for 33 minutes past the hour, took practice swings in multiples of three, wore No. 33, was married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 PM, and bought tickets for 33 disadvantaged kids when he played in Montreal, to be seated in Section 333 at Olympic Stadium.

Admittedly, those are some of the more outrageous behaviors. Some of the more common superstitions that baseball players ritually follow include:

  • Not talking about a no-hitter or perfect game in progress
  • Holding on to a lucky bat or glove, no matter how old, chipped, worn-out, or covered with pine tar that piece of equipment may be.
  • Refusing to wash a piece or part of an entire uniform during a hot streak
  • Tapping one's bat on home plate before an at-bat
  • Not shaving after a first post season win. This superstitious practice was first done by the 1908 Chicago White Sox on their run to the World Series title and revived by the 2005 Boston Red Sox.
  • The desire to keep a number they have been successful with

Of course, a curse is also a form of superstition and those have been around the game for a long time.  I am all too familiar with the “Curse of the Billy Goat” that has allegedly plagued the Cubs since 1945, the last time they were in the World Series.

In case you hadn’t heard the story, Billy Goat  tavern owner Billy Sianis decided it would be a good idea to bring his pet goat into game four of the Series. While the goat was allowed in, the Cubs ejected the animal later due to complaints about its bad odor.

Sianis was outraged and placed a curse upon the Cubs that they would never win another pennant or play in a World Series at Wrigley Field again because the Cubs organization had insulted his goat.

Then, there is the “Curse of the Bambino”, which originated from the Red Sox having sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. This one lasted 86 years until the Sox finally won the WS in 2004.

Well, now that we’ve determined what they do, the next question is why do they do it?

Heck, I don’t know. Thank you and good night.

No, wait, Bleacher Report might revoke my senior writer standing if I don’t offer more analysis. So I did a little research of my own.

Ryan Clark, in psychologyofsports.com , reports that Richard Lustberg, a sports psychologist based in New York, said the reason for developing superstitions is simple: It's a "coping mechanism" to deal with the pressure to succeed.

"Athletes begin to believe, and want to believe, that their particular routine is enhancing their performance," Lustberg said. "In reality, it's probably just practice and confidence that's making them perform better."

Another explanation is that it is a convenient excuse for poor performance and helps players maintain their confidence. As Yogi Berra famously once said, "Baseball is 90% mental—the other half is physical."  Blaming one’s woes on some silly superstition is a way for some players to deal with failure and avoid having to look in the mirror and admit they suck.

Some also believe that superstitions propagate their own fulfillment. In other words, players hear about them from past players, or from the media, and copy them out of ritual or out of an intense fear of failure.

Former pitcher Frank Viola felt that baseball produces superstitious players because the game is cerebral, with so few chances to redeem oneself after a mistake.

"You have nothing to do but think," he said. "So you have your routine."

New York professor George Gmelch believes it has to do with the uncertainty of the game. "It's an attempt to bring certainty into an uncertain world," Soldiers do the same thing—every occupation with a lot of uncertainty."

While baseball players seem to have the most rituals, other sports have their own superstitions. Michael Jordan wore his blue North Carolina shorts under his uniform for good luck. Hockey players believe it’s good luck to tap the goalie on his shin pads before a game, many golfers start with odd-numbered clubs, and double numbers on a football uniform are said to bring luck as well.

You don’t need to be an expert in Neuro-Linguistic Programming to understand that baseball players, especially, need to relax and get out of their own way. They have the physical skill or they wouldn’t have made it to The Show. It’s the mental side that makes or breaks many of them.

Hence, they have their rituals that they do to focus better and to clear their mind of negative thoughts.

But, whatever the reasoning, it can be somewhat fascinating to watch. I may not understand it, but then again, I’m not the superstitious type and yet my life is going along just fine.

Knock on wood, come to think of it.

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