By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – This Halloween coincides with baseball’s World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and what would the holiday or the game be without its superstitions?
Baseball players are among the most superstitious of professional athletes, with myriad rituals and routines to keep a winning streak alive or to pull a struggling team out of a slump. In 171 years of the sport’s existence, the list of do’s and don’ts covers everything from what to eat before a game to not washing your socks after the game is over.
And it’s not only the players who are a bit jittery. Just ask some of the fans of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Houston Astros if there’s such a thing as a Taylor Swift curse. New York Yankees fans recently revealed their favorite game-day superstitions, including Brad McLoughlin, who presses his girlfriend’s belly button to help his favorite team win.
In the spirit of bringing good luck to those celebrating Halloween and the World Series this week, a certain WSU Libraries’ patron dug into the stacks and online resources for why America’s pastime has so many wacky (and sometimes stinky) superstitions.
Why so superstitious?
In an April 1998 article for the peer-reviewed journal World & I, writer Jack Connelly described one of baseball’s most superstitious players, Tampa Bay Devil Ray third baseman Wade Boggs, one of the rare ball players to reach 3,000 career hits.
Active from his 1982 MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox to his final appearance in 1999 with the Devil Rays, Boggs credited his hitting achievements to his pregame habit of eating chicken, which his wife made. He followed strict timelines for waking every morning, leaving his house and running sprints. The numbers 7 and 17 held special significance for Boggs; in fact, he signed a contract for $717,000 in 1984. He also drew the letters for the Hebrew word chai, or “life,” every time he stepped in the batter’s box.
Boggs is by no means the first to compulsively stick to such extreme habits. Baseball seems to have always drawn such behaviors from its players. But why?
“One answer is that it’s older than other major American sports and is enmeshed in folklore,” Connelly wrote. “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.”
Another answer may be baseball’s slow pace compared to other professional sports, said writer Zack Hample during a 2015 interview with Canada AM – CTV Television out of Toronto. “It just lends itself to having your brain do weird things. So, while basketball and football have constant action back and forth and they’re smashing each other, in baseball you have 10 or 20 seconds between each pitch to sit there. And you know, funny things happen mentally.”
The curse of the Bambino
Curses and superstitions go hand in hand, especially in baseball. One need only remember the Black Sox scandal in which eight players of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team agreed to throw the World Series game against the Cincinnati Reds. After that, the White Sox would not win a World Series until 2005. Joseph L. Price explores this topic in his book, “Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America.”
“In baseball, the culture of curses thrives because of the larger system of superstitions from which it draws its energy and support,” Price wrote. “Belief in curses identifies a cosmic cause for failure, thus absolving players for their ineptitude and fans for their lack of faith or dutiful support. Belief in curses also cuts the sainted players some slack.”
Like the White Sox, the Boston Red Sox enjoyed early success in baseball’s beginning years, winning five of the first 15 World Series, including the 1918 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. Then Red Sox owner Harry Frazee did the unthinkable, selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 to help finance a Broadway musical. The Fenway Fates were not amused. The Red Sox would not win another World Series until 2004, breaking their curse one year before the White Sox.
Still, did the power of curses and superstitions on the collective consciousness of ball players in part fuel their evolving mastery of the game? Some say that superstition does help performance. Steven Streeter, in the book “Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box,” wrote, “Attention to baseball superstition brings awareness and precise concentration, and these qualities produce quantifiable results.”
Coug ball players are superstitious too
Superstitions are part of Cougar baseball players’ lives as well. Left-handed pitcher Dylan Orlando, a freshman out of Las Vegas, has several, including not stepping on the foul line when taking the field to play defense.
Another superstition is the rally hat. Flipping the hat inside out when the team is down in the last inning is supposed to bring good luck or start a rally.
But Orlando’s last superstition is shared by his teammates: Stay in your own seat when the Cougars are scoring a lot of runs, or else it will bring bad luck.
“Baseball has so many superstitions because it is a game of failure,” Orlando said. “It’s the only game where most of the time you are going to get out or fail. In this case, superstition is present because we have to find ways to ensure continued success.”
- Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries, public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744, firstname.lastname@example.org