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Mudville: April 14, 2024 3:46 pm PDT

Superstition

BY DEB SEYMOUR

The title of a well-known song by Stevie Wonder, Superstition is a critical part of baseball culture and folklore.

From Wade Boggs famously eating fried chicken before every game to Turk Wendell brushing his teeth between each inning he pitched, superstition among athletes in general to baseball players in particular has been around for as long as sports have been played.

And anyone who’s played an organized sport knows this isn’t only true for major league players; it’s true even for recreational league players and certainly for minor leaguers, as well.

Most baseball superstitions come about because of a hot streak, either in hitting, pitching, or winning – and players, managers, coaches, or even fans don’t want the streak to end and hence fixate on a particular ritual or behavior to try to keep it going.

Many of the different oddities and superstitions of MLB players have been catalogued over the years, and we’ll review a number of those.

But some of these superstitions have become so ingrained in the game of baseball, why not ask how and why they originated in the first place?

Some of the more standard baseball rituals that actually represent superstition include:

  • Never stepping on the white chalk lines when entering or exiting the field
  • Never talking about a no-hitter or perfect game when it emerges, until it’s over (even fans tend to obey this one)
  • An older example, no longer seen so much: not talking to the pitcher between innings while he’s pitching
  • Specific behaviors performed in a particular sequence by hitters before entering the batter’s box (now somewhat impacted by the pitch clock)
  • Using the same bat until a hitting slump occurs
  • The rally cap; these days mostly used by fans and not players, themselves

But then we also have specific superstitious rituals performed by players themselves.

In addition to Wade Boggs’ fried chicken ritual, pitcher Matt Garza used to eat Popeye’s chicken every day he was scheduled to start. Derek Holland ate Wendy’s every night before he was scheduled to start. Ryan Dempster used to go to the same Italian restaurant for dinner every night before he was scheduled to start. Jim Palmer ate a stack of pancakes every morning he was going to make a start.

Stan Musial would eat an egg and two pancakes, followed by one more egg, on each game day.  Dick Stuart would put a piece of gum in his mouth and chew it on his way to the batter’s box,  then throw it across home plate before facing first pitch.

1964: Red Schoendienst #2 of the St. Louis Cardinals serves breakfast to his former teammates (L-R) Dick Groat #24, Stan Musial #6, Bob Gibson #45 and Bill White #12 at the ballpark in 1964. Schoendienst became manager in 1965 after playing for the Cards from 1945-1963. (Photo by National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB via Getty Images)

Boggs used to take exactly 150 grounders, no more and no less, in each pre-game warmup. He would also write, with his bat, the Hebrew word for life, “Chai,” in the batter’s box in each plate appearance.

Ken Griffey Jr. once sold a car because he didn’t believe it had any hits in it. Turk Wendell didn’t just brush his teeth between innings, he would chew on exactly four pieces of black licorice at the start of each inning he was about to pitch. Wendell also had a superstition around the number 9, and wore 99 as a player and once signed a contract for $9,999,999.99.

Nomar Garciaparra was notorious for his pre-batter’s box ritual that included refitting his batting gloves and stomping the toes of his spikes on the ground. Craig Biggio never got a new batting helmet during the season – he would wear the same pine tar covered helmet all season long, and slap on additional layers of pine tar.

Every time Joe DiMaggio ran from the dugout to his spot in centerfield, he would make sure he touched second base along the way. Roger Clemens, during his Yankee days, would go out to Monument Park at Yankee Stadium and touch the Babe Ruth plaque for good luck before every home start he made.

Lenny Dykstra used to wear a new pair of batting gloves after each time he made an out at the plate. Mike Hargrove earned the nickname “the human rain delay” because of how long it took him to get ready before entering the batter’s box.

Roger Clemens #22 of the New York Yankees in center rubs the plaque of Babe Ruth after defeating the Boston Red Sox 6-5 in game 7 of the American League Championship Series on October 16, 2003 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

But for most non-player-specific superstitions, it can be pretty difficult to trace back how they came about.

One historic superstition for pitchers was they didn’t shave the day they pitched, probably still true for some present-day pitchers. This one came about back during the days of the straight-edged razor, when the fear of cutting one’s self was very real – and being distracted by the cut while pitching was sufficient a concern that pitchers just didn’t want to have to think about it.

Not talking about a no-hitter or perfect game while it’s in progress has been hypothesized to originate with some team’s radio announcer, who at some point mentioned that a no-hitter was in progress – and then the opposing team got a hit.

The thing about baseball superstitions is that they spread like wildfire. Once one team or group of fans starts doing something (or not doing it), it becomes contagious. Other teams and fans pick up the ritual, and start following it (or not following it), too.

Even the seventh inning stretch has several hypothetical stories behind it. One version has President Grover Cleveland standing up to stretch during the seventh inning of a game he was attending, and fans doing the same out of respect for the president. Another version has it that as far back as in the 1860s, people used to leave their seats for a walk during the seventh inning because – if you think about it – seats in stadiums were nowhere near as comfortable as they are today.

You can imagine how not stepping on the chalk lines likely came about. Probably in some long ago game, a player happened to not step on the lines and went 4-for-4. Or a pitcher didn’t step on the lines and pitched the game of his career. After that, it became a conscious decision to avoid the chalked lines, and the ritual stuck.

As the Grover Cleveland-Seventh Inning Stretch hypothesis represents, it doesn’t take a whole movement of people to turn a random act in baseball into a ritual that’s followed by the masses. One player in one game can perform a ritual, and it spreads throughout the game and then down through history. One person in a crowd attending a game can perform some random act, and it becomes a ritual for all baseball fans.

Max Scherzer #37 of the Detroit Tigers looks on from the dugout while wearing a rally cap during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on August 10, 2014 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Does anyone know the origin of the rally cap?

Many trace awareness of it to the fans of the 1985 Mets, when attendees at Mets games began to turn their baseball caps inside out as a kind of talisman to generate a come-from-behind victory in the late innings of a game. By Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Mets players were also turning their caps inside out while in the dugout to try to achieve a comeback victory.

And given what happened in that series against the Red Sox, well, the rest, as they say, is history.

An interesting rally cap note, however, is that the inside-out cap was actually first spotted in the Texas Rangers dugout in the 1977 and 1978 seasons, when players were trying to make a comeback in a game in which they were trailing.

Many players today wear their socks a certain way, wear their uniform pants a certain way, wear their hair a certain way, or keep their beards a certain way to try to prolong a hitting streak or a pitching streak or a winning streak. Ritual beliefs and behaviors are as much a part of the game of baseball as bats and balls and scoreboards and bleachers.

Superstitions, ultimately, are one way of trying to control the outcome of a complex game in which you cannot actually control the outcome. All you can do is try to throw your best pitch, try to hit the ball hard, and try to make your best play in the field. But if your belief in a talisman or a ritual enables more confidence in trying to do those things, who’s to say there is no value in it?

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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