The next time you're at a baseball game, watch the first base coach to see if he kicks the bag before he enters the coach's box each inning. Now, he may kick the bag because he has nothing else to do, a frequent problem for first base coaches. More likely, though, he kicks the bag because he feels that, if he doesn't, all sorts of bad things will happen. Runners will get picked off. Or runners will get thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Or runners who beat throws to first will be called out by a diabolical umpire. Or, if he's the New York Yankees' first base coach, he will get word that George Steinbrenner wants to see him after the game.
The next time you see Mario Andretti, hand him a green pen and ask for an autograph—then duck. He may throw the pen to the ground. He may throw you to the ground. Like many race car drivers, Andretti considers the color green more of a threat to his well-being than Turn 1 at Indy.
The next time you're around Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly before a game, you may find you want a quick change of company. Why? Because Kelly may suddenly bolt from his seat, rush to the bathroom and force himself to vomit. He has been doing this since his days at East Brady (Pa.) High, not because a physician or trainer told him it would help relieve pregame jitters, but because Kelly feels it brings him luck. "I don't eat a pregame meal," says Kelly. "I rent it." Ugh!
In the world of sports, superstition isn't all rabbit-feet and four-leaf clovers. Sometimes, in fact, it's octopuses, as it is at Detroit Red Wing hockey games. The tradition of throwing octopuses onto the ice started at the old Olympia in 1952, when a seafood merchant named Peter Cusmano tossed one out, reasoning that its eight tentacles would help the Wings achieve the eight victories (in two series) they needed to win the Stanley Cup. Sure enough, Detroit won, and its fans never forgot. When the Red Wings, who now play in Joe Louis Arena, qualified for the playoffs last season for only the fourth time in the last 16 years, down came the octopuses. Some eager fans even throw them during the regular season. That's not superstition, however—it's mass hysteria.
February 8, 1988
Your basic, run-of-the-mill superstitions usually don't cut it with athletes. Take the case of former New York Yankee pitcher Bob Tewksbury. One of the first things Tewksbury did last season after he learned he had been demoted to Columbus was kick his lucky rabbit-foot across the locker room. However, when athletes indulge in superstition, it generally involves something stronger and more unusual than mere rabbit-feet. Marvin Johnson, three times a light heavyweight champion from 1978 to '86, for instance, never washed in the 24 hours before a fight. Now, that was a strong superstition.
Superstitions have been around since the dawn of man—we know this from cave drawings showing Neanderthals stepping carefully over foul lines—but athletes probably do as much as anyone to perpetuate superstitions in this enlightened age. There are several reasons for this. Superstitions tend to be passed down from one generation to the next through the strong oral tradition of the locker room—in between dirty jokes, of course. Athletes, too, seem largely unburdened by the commonly held assumption that superstition is mumbo jumbo that doesn't work. And some athletes turn to superstition for the same reasons that others turn to religion or drugs—to relieve pressure, to convince themselves that results are predetermined, to take the fear out of the unknown.
"A superstition is a way to get through a tough situation," wrote Carole Potter in Knock on Wood, a 1983 book about superstitions. For the athlete, superstitions are a crutch, a secret weapon, a way to get that little edge. And a superstition can't fall out of, say, Joe Niekro's pocket on the mound, the way an emery board can.
Much as they might indulge their superstitions, however, athletes, coaches, team executives and other sporting types rarely admit that they are superstitious. They prefer to talk about "habits" or "routines." New York Giants coach Bill Parcells is a classic example. Each morning when he's not on the road, Parcells follows this "routine": He drives from his house in Upper Saddle River, N.J., to Elmer's Country Store for a cup of coffee and then stops by Christiana's Coffee Shop in nearby Wood-Ridge and picks up two more containers of coffee to drink in his office at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.
Now, one might assume that Parcells simply likes the coffee brewed by those two establishments (which happens to be true). But a routine becomes a superstition when someone believes that he must follow it to have good luck, or that bad luck will come knocking if he doesn't. Put Parcells in that camp. He doesn't want any of his players or staff to precede him into the locker room, and he always wants to see the same three players—Phil Simms, Brad Benson and Chris Godfrey—before he sees anyone else. He'll never pick up a penny that has tails facing up. He collects brass statues of elephants—20 of them adorn his office—but only elephants whose trunks are pointing upward.
Parcells should be in baseball. Superstition envelops that game like a shroud. It's bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first batter. Never mention a no-hitter in the dugout. Don't cross bats. Don't wash your uniform or change your sanitary socks during a winning streak. Step over the baseline, not on it. The fans get involved too, joining the seventh-inning stretch to bring good luck to their team. Let's be careful, however, to exclude from the list of venerable baseball superstitions such modern gimmicks as the Homer Hankies that were waved by Minnesota Twins fans during last year's World Series. Anything invented since 1950 and done by more than, say, 100 people at a time isn't a superstition. It's an effort to get on national TV.
Why is baseball so rich in superstition? Probably because it's older than most American sports and is so enmeshed in folklore. Many early baseball players weren't the most educated of men, and the idea of rubbing a bat with a hot towel to get out of a slump seemed more effective than, say, adjusting your stance. Remember, back then there were no videos, nor analytical batting coaches like Charley Lau to talk about "a tension-free swing." Even Christy Mathewson, a college man, wrote in his 1912 book Pitching in a Pinch: "[A jinx can] make a bad pitcher out of a good one and a blind batter out of a three hundred hitter."
Some superstitions are endemic to baseball, but others were simply adapted to the sport from sources lost in the murky depths of time. Stepping over the foul line is no doubt an offshoot of the old childhood superstition that says, Step on a crack, break your mother's back. That superstition, incidentally, can be traced to the belief that a crack represented the opening of a grave, and to step on that crack meant you might be walking on the grave of someone in your family. Ask a base coach about this sometime and notice how he nods his head in pensive accord before he spits tobacco juice on your shoes.
The idea of not bathing during a hot streak is an offshoot of the centuries-old superstition about washing away good luck. According to Raymond Lamont Brown, author of A Book of Superstitions, Welsh miners never washed their backs for fear that the roof would fall in on them. Though the percentage of Welsh miners on their roster was small, the Salt Lake Trappers of the Class A Pioneer League adopted the no-wash superstition last summer during their 29-game winning streak, a professional baseball record. No player washed his socks, and some washed nothing at all. When their streak finally ended with a 7-5 loss to the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs on July 27, the rest of the league was relieved in more ways than one.
Even what appears to be a contemporary display of narcissism (not to mention bad taste) might be an update of an ancient superstition. Like one of those ancient tribal warriors who wore amulets to please the gods, former major league in-fielder Tito Fuentes hung as many as a dozen chains around his neck, and each had to be perfectly aligned before he would step into the batter's box. A man of many superstitions, Fuentes also named one of his sons Clinch because he was born on Sept. 29, 1971, the day before Fuentes's team, the San Francisco Giants, clinched the National League's Western Division title. "If we had made it to the World Series and he had been born then, I was going to name him W.S.," said Fuentes.
Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox could match any of the old-timers superstition for superstition. Eating chicken every day barely scratches the superstitious surface for Boggs, whose game-day routine makes a guy like Parcells seem positively spontaneous. Here's the Boggs Log for every Red Sox home night game:
•3 p.m.: Leave apartment for Fenway.
•3:30: Sit in front of locker and change into uniform.
•4:00: Go to dugout and sit down.
•4:10: Warm up arm.
•4:15: Take grounders for 20 to 25 minutes.
•4:35 or 4:40: End grounder drill by stepping on third, second and first (in that order). Take two steps in first base coaching box and lope to dugout in four steps, preferably hitting the same four spots every evening. Get drink of water. Jog to centerfield for meditation.
•Just before infield practice: Stand or sit in runway between clubhouse and dugout and toss ball against wall.
•7:17: Do wind sprints.
•While in on-deck circle: Arrange pine tar, weighted doughnut and resin in a precise way and apply them in that order.
•Upon stepping into batter's box: Draw a chat, the Hebrew symbol for life.
•After that: Hit the ball where it's Pitched—and where they ain't—whenever possible.
"Everybody has a routine," says Boggs. "Mine just takes five hours."
The best ongoing major league superstition story involves Frank Viola, the Twins' lefthanded pitcher. During Banner Day at the Metrodome back in 1984, a fan named Mark Dornfeld displayed a six-by nine-foot sign that read: FRANKIE SWEET MUSIC VIOLA. Viola noticed it and tipped his hat to Dornfeld, not realizing that Dornfeld's banner would become an almost magical good-luck charm. Viola didn't pitch that night, but often during his starts over the next two seasons he noticed the banner hanging from the second deck in right. Dornfeld and his banner didn't make it to every game Viola pitched, but they came often, and Viola began to notice that he never lost when the sign was on display.
In 1987, Dornfeld introduced himself to Viola. "I'm the man with the banner," he said. They talked for two hours.
During that season Viola continued to be remarkably successful whenever Dornfeld was at the Metrodome with his banner. At the end of the regular season Viola was 15-0, with four no-decisions (all Minnesota victories, according to Dornfeld) in banner games. By then, the secret was out. The banner story elicited banner headlines. Before Game 1 of the World Series it was reported that the Banner Man didn't have a ticket. Kathy Viola, Frank's wife, promptly called Dornfeld to offer him tickets to Games 1 and 7. With the banner proudly unfurled, Viola won both games and was named Series MVP.
"I've had a lot of people tell me I should try to capitalize on it somehow," says Dornfeld, who's 25 and unemployed. "The banner was shown in a commercial for Disney World that Frank did. But I don't want to cheapen it."
Dornfeld isn't sure of the strategy he'll adopt for the 1988 season. "I want to discuss it with Frank first," he says. Meanwhile, the banner will spend the off-season in the trunk of Dornfeld's car.
Far fewer superstitions have found their way into football, possibly because, philosophically, its confrontations take a much more direct approach than baseball's. Instead of, "Hey, fellas, let's mix the bats up to change our luck," football players tend to say things like, "Hey, fellas, let's get out there and punch their faces in!" The less subtle the sport, the less room there is for superstition. Remember, this is just a theory.
Confrontation—that's what football players thrive on, but of course there are exceptions. On Friday, Nov. 13, 1987, a stray black cat strolled into the Denver Broncos' practice facility. Five days earlier the Broncos had lost 21-14 to the Buffalo Bills to fall 2½ games behind the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West. The Broncos decided to keep the cat to see if it would change their luck. Obviously, they were going against the grain of conventional superstition. (Actually, black cats were considered lucky in ancient Egypt. It was only during the witchcraft-mad Middle Ages that black cats got a bad rap.) Anyway, when Denver won its next four games, Quatro, as the cat was called, became a good-luck charm.
Many football superstitions involve equipment. Jim Kelly, he of the pregame retch, will use only black laces in his rib protector and will lace it only from top to bottom. One of his offensive tackles, Joe Devlin, feels that any cosmetic alterations made to his equipment are bad luck. One day Devlin came in to find that Dave Hojnowski, the Bills' equipment manager, had cleaned his helmet. Devlin went outside and beat it against a curb to restore its battle-worn look. His head was reportedly not in it at the time.
Many football players let only certain trainers tape them, and only at certain times and in a certain pattern. Denver quarterback John Elway always has offensive guard Keith Bishop sign in for him on the pregame list that goes up in the Bronco locker room of those who want to be taped. Million-dollar quarterbacks can do stuff like that. And some quarterbacks are even superstitious about other quarterbacks. Kelly, for example, refuses to watch game films with his backup, Frank Reich, for fear that if he does, Reich will play in a game other than one in which the Bills are far ahead late in the fourth quarter—a game in which Kelly is injured, for instance.
When John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders, he never let his players leave the locker room to start a game until running back Mark van Eeghen had burped. (This ritual was known as the pregame "Buick.") Perhaps Madden was aware of ancient aural superstitions, such as the wailing of a banshee, which foretold death in Gaelic culture. More likely, though, Van Eeghen's burp was somehow just pleasing to Big John's ear.
An inordinate number of basketball superstitions center on clothing. Take that awful brown, red and blue crew-neck sweater that St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca wore for good luck during the 1984-85 season. Though it can be safely said that Carnesecca has never exactly fled the spotlight and that the garment in question was good for attracting the public's attention, Carnesecca was, no doubt, sincerely superstitious about wearing it while his team was winning 13 in a row. But Carnesecca put it away after Georgetown dashed the sweater's winning streak in a game during which Hoyas coach John Thompson wore a T-shirt designed to look like the horrible sweater.
Kansas coach Larry Brown also has several superstitions involving fashion. He always wears a University of Kansas pin on his lapel and tucks a white handkerchief into his breast pocket. He will never again wear the same suit and tie that he wore during a loss. For a long time paisley ties were verboten on the Jayhawk bench because Brown was wearing one when he lost his first game at Kansas five years ago.
In addition to his sartorial superstitions, Brown shaves in the same pattern each morning. He will tape his pregame radio show only inside arenas, since the Jayhawks once lost after he had taped the show in a lobby. Kansas players must leave the floor to return to the locker room with just under 10 minutes showing on the pregame clock. And Brown must touch each assistant before the tip-off, just as Egyptian pharaohs touched hunchbacks for luck centuries ago.
Two young members of the Indiana Pacers, second-year forward Chuck Person and rookie guard Reggie Miller, zealously cling to superstitions that started in their high school days. Miller wears tape on his left wrist for luck. He also wears tape on his right wrist but. he says, "only to keep my shooting hand straight." He has two sweatbands over the tape on his left wrist but none over the tape on the right, because he feels it would throw his shot off.
Person's superstition is much sweeter—he must have two candy bars before a game. They may be two KitKats, two Snickers or one of each, but he has to have two of them. Before the Pacers' opening game in Philadelphia this season, Person was sitting on the team bus ready to leave for the Spectrum when he realized he didn't have his lucky bars. He fast-broke back into the hotel gift shop, bought them and got back before the bus departed.
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, is one of those who insists that he had routines, not superstitions. Call them what you will, Wooden could be counted on to turn toward his wife, Nell, who always sat in the same seat at Pauley Pavilion, and give her the high sign with his right hand, just before the tip-off. And during the game he always clung to a rolled-up program. "I wrote my game notes on it," he says, routinely.
But Wooden would have a hard time explaining away one of his lesser-known rituals as routine. On his daily walk around the UCLA campus he would look for hairpins on the ground. When he found one, he would stick it in a tree. "There's a tree trunk on campus stuck full of hairpins," says the Wizard. "It must amaze people when they come upon it." Oddly enough, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, another renowned college basketball coach, also used to scour the ground for hairpins. And these are two guys whose teams were known for their heads-up play.
Pins have always been considered magical, probably because they are made from shiny material. The rationale for picking up hairpins, writes Potter, "dates back to the days of witchcraft, when it was believed that witches used odd bits of metal to cast magic spells. If you didn't pick up a fallen pin, a witch might." As the rhyme goes: "See a pin and pick it up/All the day you'll have good luck." With a lifetime winning percentage of .813 in 40 years of high school and college coaching, Wooden certainly had his share of lucky days.
We mention this final basketball superstition somewhat reluctantly, only because it might become a presidential campaign issue somewhere down the road. USC coach George Raveling says that one William Warren Bradley, erstwhile Princeton Tiger and New York Knick and now the esteemed senior senator from New Jersey, would never go out on the court without washing his hands. What's the story, Senator? Was it a Lady Macbeth kind of thing? A spokesman in Bradley's office says, "He felt he had a better touch when his hands were clean." The Miami Herald may not let it drop so easily.
Aside from baseball players, no group of athletes is more superstitious than hockey players, particularly goalies. Former Vancouver Canucks goalie Cesare Maniago had lucky socks. Gary Smith, who played for several different NHL teams, would remove all 30 pounds of gear and put it back on again between periods. Even Ken Dryden—lawyer, author, intellectual, consumer activist—superstitiously avoided watching the referee make his pregame inspection of the goal judges' lights. "I just consider it unlucky to see the red fight before the game," Dryden once said.
Other hockey players, forwards especially it seems, are superstitious about the route they skate in pregame warmups. Former Buffalo Sabre forward Craig Ramsay explains his, ahem, routine: "I'd stay near the boards and not touch any lines. Then on the first pass I'd go between the face-off dot at center ice and our logo. The next time through, I'd go between the other side of the logo and the big face-off circle. It was quite involved." And just about everyone whacks the shin pads of the goalie before a game.
The Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky has undoubtedly influenced hundreds of junior players to tuck the right side of their jersey behind their hip pad, something the Great One has done since long before he was so great. It's pure superstition, unlike, say, Boston Celtic Larry Bird's practice of rubbing his hands on his sneakers, which, he says, actually gives him "a better feel" for the ball.
But Gretzky is not in the same league as former All-Star center Phil Esposito, now the general manager of the New York Rangers. Espo rose to the top of the superstition game during his playing days. He posted countless good-luck charms around his locker (a hemlock sprig, a shamrock, etc.). He always followed the same pattern of dressing. He always took his gum from a new pack and his tape from a fresh roll. And he was a strong believer in one of history's most storied superstitions, the evil eye, or malócchio, as it was known in the Italian neighborhood of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where Espo was raised. If Espo cast his evil eye on someone, so he believed, bad luck would surely follow.
Esposito has grown no less superstitious in his executive days, and the same can be said of his boyhood chum Lou Nanne, a former Minnesota North Star forward and defenseman and, until last week when he resigned, that club's general manager. Nanne suffers—or at least he did suffer—from something that might be called superstition sickness. During the final weeks of the 1986-87 season, when the North Stars were playing so poorly that they ultimately failed to qualify for the playoffs, Nanne lost 12 pounds in 10 days. His superstitious rituals and agonizing obsessions, coupled with his team's failures, were the primary cause.
Even Nanne can't remember all the superstitions he followed. He left his office only through a certain exit. He changed seats in the press box after every goal scored by the opposition, circling his new chair four times before sitting down. Conversely, when things were going well for the Stars, he sat immobile even if his leg went to sleep. He drove himself crazy trying to remember what sport coat he had worn with what shirt and tie when the Stars had won a certain game months earlier. Nanne had been extremely superstitious as a player, too—he wouldn't ever tighten his skates, for example, until certain other players had tightened theirs—but this was worse, much worse, because he had no physical outlet for his obsessions.
"My doctors gave me an ultimatum," said Nanne, who finally visited the Mayo Clinic for a checkup at the end of the season. "Either I had to learn to handle my job better or I had to quit." Which is exactly what he did last Thursday, citing concern about his health.
Cases of irrational belief in omens of misfortune (albeit less extreme than Nanne's) can be found throughout the wide world of sport. Witness the following:
•The alltime superstitious tennis player was probably Art (Tappy) Larsen, the U.S. champion in 1950. Larsen selected a daily lucky number and changed his clothes that number of times. He also clung to the belief that a good-luck eagle resided on his left shoulder. He got his nickname from his conviction that good luck would follow him if he tapped on objects. During matches he tapped the baseline, tapped the umpire's stand, tapped the net with his racket. Sometimes he even tapped his opponent. He has a modern-day counterpart, of course, in John McEnroe, who has tapped a watercooler or two.
•Many golfers are superstitious about color. This is only natural, since golf is the sport for human peacocks. Hubert Green avoids yellow, which, according to ancient superstition, is the color of jealousy, inconstancy and treachery. Judas is frequently shown dressed in yellow. Unfortunately, Green, like so many golfers, likes green. As a public service we would like to remind golfers that green is unlucky because it's the color of gnomes and leprechauns. So put away all those lime-green pants, lime-green shirts, lime-green golf shoes, lime-green golf bags, lime-green golf hats, etc. It's considered particularly bad luck to wear green to the christening of a child, though one can't imagine who would do that except for a golfer en route to an early-afternoon tee time.
Golfers are also frequently superstitious about coins. Jack Nicklaus once said that he didn't "feel secure" unless he started a round with three pennies in his pocket (and something more than that in his bank account). Al Geiberger always marked his ball on the green with a penny, and if he was playing well, he made sure the same side was always up or that Lincoln's eyes always pointed toward the hole.
•Most of boxing's superstitions have to do with hexes and curses and are frequently more prefight hype than anything else. But old-timers swear that the late cornerman Benjamin (Evil Eye) Finkle had magical powers. Finkle was noted for three curses: the Whammy, the Zinger and the Slobodka Stare. Finkle earned his reputation in 1937, when he worked middleweight Solly Krieger's corner during his upset of Billy Conn.
The contemporary fighter best known for his superstitions is former lightweight champion Livingstone Bramble (now known as Ras-I Aluja Bramble). Funny, but all his witchcraft and voodoo didn't do him much good against Edwin Rosario, who took his title.
•Andretti's fear of green, shared by many other auto racers, may stem from a couple of sources. Ray Gilhooley was driving a green Isotta at Indianaplolis during the 500 in 1914, when he blew a tire and lost control; Joe Dawson, trying to avoid Gilhooley, drove his car into the wall and was badly hurt. Indy historian Bob Laycock says that another explanation goes back to the early days of racing, when the natural vegetation surrounding the course made green cars hard to see. A more mystical interpretation holds that driving a green car means you will soon be lying under green sod.
That superstition itself is dying—Mario's nephew John Andretti, for example, is one of the top drivers whose cars have a lot of green on them—but still, the late Jimmy Clark of Great Britain is one of the few to win Indy in a green car (in 1965). Clark later died during a Formula Two race in Germany. The car he was driving that day was gold and red.
•The Spectrum in Philadelphia may have been home to more pregame superstitions than any arena in the country. The NHL Flyers may have started it all on Dec. 11, 1969, when they played a tape of Kate Smith belting out God Bless America. They had remarkable success in games at which Smith sang, particularly in 1974 and '75, when they won Stanley Cups. Even after she died, more than a year ago, Smith continued to serve as Lady Luck for the Flyers. Before Games 3 and 6 of last season's Stanley Cup finals against Edmonton, the Flyers played a tape of Smith's God Bless America, and on both occasions, they scored come-from-behind victories. Smith's record at the Spectrum, live and on tape, stands at 58-9-2.
The NBA 76ers, meanwhile, found a good-luck charm of their own in jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., a friend of former Sixer Julius Erving. Washington's record during Philly's championship season of 1982-83 was 10-0. He hasn't been as successful since—the Sixers say they haven't kept track of his won-lost record—and it's widely believed that Philly now needs a shooting guard more than a saxophonist.
Superstitions like these will always have a place in sport, if only because an athlete's life-style makes him vulnerable to them. "Athletes do the same thing day after day," says Nanne. "They practice at the same time, they eat at the same time, they play at the same time. Important parts of their lives are very ordered, and so, perhaps, they want to bring that same kind of order into every aspect of their lives. Little rituals become little obsessions. Obsessions become superstitions."
Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Murphy has a little obsession that even a superstitious turn-of-the-century ballplayer might have looked at askance: He's convinced that wearing black silk underwear helps his pitching. (At least two other major league pitchers share Murphy's attachment to a certain undergarment: Houston Astros space cadet Charlie Kerfeld often wears a Jetsons T-shirt on the mound, while Montreal pitcher Bryn Smith wears one bearing the logo of the rock group Rush.) Murphy relies on the silk undies only while he's in action. "Right now I'm wearing an ordinary pair of J.C. Penney cottons," said Murphy during a recent interview. But, since he's a frequently used reliever who's never sure when manager Pete Rose is going to call on him, he puts on his silk skivvies at the ballpark 162 times a year.
"I look at it as my security blanket," says Murphy. "You can't see them. Nobody but me knows they're on. But they're important. I have certain things I do to get ready for the game—go over the hitters, warm up, etc.—and putting on the underwear is part of that, part of my mental preparation."
What loyalty. What devotion. What faith. Bet you'd stick with the black-undies routine even if your pitching started going bad, right Rob?
"Are you kidding me?" said Murphy. "I'd take 'em off in a minute."