Faulkner University

Baseball Magic

George Gmelch

Americans pride themselves on their scientific approach to life and problem solving. But as George Gmelch demonstrates in this article, American baseball players, much like people in many parts of the world, also turn to supernatural forces to ensure success in their athletic endeavors. Gmelch shows that magical ritual, taboos, and fetishes surround aspects of baseball that are least predictable, thus most likely to challenge human control.

On each pitching day for the first three months of a winning season, Dennis Grossini, a pitcher on a Detroit Tiger farm team, arose from bed at exactly 10:00A.M. At 1:00 P.M. he went to the nearest restaurant for two glasses of iced tea and a tuna fish sandwich. Although the afternoon was free, he changed into the sweatshirt and supporter he wore during his last winning game, and one hour before the game he chewed a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco. After each pitch during the game he touched his letters (the team name on his uniform) and straightened his cap after each ball. Before the start of each inning he replaced the pitcher's rosin bag next to the spot where it was the inning before. And after every inning in which he gave up a run, he washed his hands.

When asked which part of the ritual was most important, he responded, "You can't really tell what's most important so it all becomes important. I'd be afraid to change anything. As long as I'm winning, I do everything the same. Even when I can't wash my hands (this would occur when he had to bat), it scares me going back to the mound. I don't feel quite right."

Trobriand Islanders, according to anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, felt the same way about their fishing magic. Among the Trobrianders, fishing took two forms: in the inner lagoon where fish were plentiful and there was little danger, and on the open sea where fishing was dangerous and yields varied widely. Malinowski found that magic was not used in lagoon fishing, where men could rely solely on their knowledge and skill. But when fishing on the open sea, Trobrianders used a great deal of magical ritual to ensure safety and increase their catch.

Baseball, America's national pastime, is an arena in which players behave remarkably like Malinowski's Trobriand fishermen. To professional baseball players, baseball is more than just a game. It is an occupation. Since their livelihoods depend on how well they perform, many use magic to try to control or eliminate the chance and uncertainty built into baseball.

To control uncertainty, for example, New York Yankees Wade Boggs eats chicken before every game (that's 162 meals of chicken per year), and he has been doing that for nine years. Chicago White Sox pitcher Jason Bere listens to the same song on his Walkman on the days he is to pitch. His teammate, Ozzie Guillen, doesn't wash his underclothes after a good game. San Francisco Giant pitcher Ron Bryant added a new stick of bubble gum to the collection in his bulging back pocket after each game he won. Jim Ohms, my teammate and pitcher on the Daytona Beach Islanders, put another penny in the pouch of his supporter after each win. Clanging against the hard plastic genital cup, the pennies made an audible sound as he ran the bases toward the end of a winning season.

Whether they are professional baseball players, Trobriand fishermen, soldiers, or even students taking final exams, people resort to magic in situations of chance, when they believe they have limited control over the success their activities and the outcome is important. In technologically advanced societies that pride themselves on a scientific approach to problem solving, as well as in simple societies, rituals of magic are common. Magic is a human attempt to impose order and certainty on an otherwise uncertain situation. This attempt is irrational in that there is no causal connection between the rituals and instruments of magic and the desired consequences of the magical practice. But it is rational in that it creates in the practitioner a sense of confidence, competence, and control, which in turn helps them successfully execute their activity and achieve the desired result.

I have long had a close relationship with baseball, first as a participant and then as an observer. I devoted much of my youth to the game and played professionally as first baseman for five teams in the Detroit Tiger organization in the 1960s. It was shortly after the end of my last baseball season, that I took an anthropology course called "Magic, Religion, and Witchcraft." As my professor described the magic practiced by a tribe in Papua New Guinea, it occurred to me that what these so-called "primitive" people did wasn't all that different from what my teammates and I had done to give themselves luck while playing professional baseball.

In baseball there are three essential activities; pitching, hitting, and fielding. Each varies in the amount of chance and uncertainty associated with it. The pitcher is the player least able to control the outcome of his own efforts. His best pitch may be hit for a home run, while his worst pitch may be hit directly into the hands of a fielder for an out or be swung at and missed for a third strike. He may limit the opposing team to a few hits yet lose the game, or he may give up a dozen hits and still win. One has only to look at the frequency with which pitchers end a season with poor won-lost records but have good earned run averages, or vice versa. For example, in 1990 Dwight Gooden gave up more runs per game than his teammate Sid Fernandez but had a won-lost record nearly twice as good. Gooden won 19 games and lost only 7, while Fernandez won only 9 games while losing 14. They pitched for the same team-the New York Mets - and therefore had the same fielders behind them. Regardless of how well he performs, on every outing the pitcher depends upon the proficiency of his teammates, the ineptitude of the opposition, and caprice.

Hitting is also full of risk and uncertainty-Hall of Famer Ted Williams called it the most difficult single task in the world of sports. Consider the forces and time constraints operating against the batter. A fast ball travels from the pitcher's mound to the batter's box, just sixty and one-half feet, in three- to four-tenths of a second. For only three feet of the journey, an absurdly short two-hundredths of a second, the ball is in a position where it can be hit. And to be hit well the ball must be neither too close to the batter's body nor too far from the "meat" of his bat. Any distraction, any slip of a muscle or change in stance, can throw a swing off. Once the ball is hit chance plays a large role in determining where it will go into a waiting glove, whistling past a fielder's diving stab, or into the wide open spaces. In a quirky example of luck, some years ago Giant outfielder Willie Mays "dove for the dirt" to avoid being hit in the head by a fast ball. While he was falling, the pitch hit his bat and the ball went shooting down the left field line. Mays jumped up and ran, turning the play into a double, while the pitcher looked on in disgust.

Batters also suffer from the fear of being hit by a pitch-specifically, by a fast ball that often travels at speeds exceeding ninety miles per hour. Throughout baseball history the great fast ball pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson have thrived on this fear and on the level of distraction it causes hitters.

In fielding, on the other hand, the player has almost complete control over the outcome. Once a ball has been hit in his direction, no one can intervene and ruin his chances of catching it for an out. Infielders have approximately three seconds in which to judge the flight of the ball, field it cleanly, and throw it to first base. Outfielders have almost double that amount of time to track down a fly ball. The average fielding percentage (or success rate) of .975, compared with a .250 success rate for hitters (the average batting percentage), reflects the degree of certainty in fielding. Compared with the pitcher or the hitter, the fielder has little to worry about. He knows that in better than 9.7 times out of 10 he will execute his task flawlessly.

In sum, pitching and hitting involve a great deal of chance and are comparable to the Trobriand fishermen's open sea; fielding, on the other hand, involves little uncertainty and is similar to the Trobriander's inner lagoon. In keeping with Malinowski's hypothesis about the relationship between magic and uncertainty, I found that baseball players use magic for hitting and pitching, but not for fielding. Indeed, I observed a wide assortment of magic-rituals, taboos, and fetishes-associated with both hitting and pitching, but never observed the use of any directly connected to fielding. I have known only one player, a shortstop with fielding problems, who reported any ritual connected with fielding. Now let us look at the kinds of magic practiced by ballplayers.

Ritual The most common form of magic in professional baseball is personal ritual - a prescribed behavior that players scrupulously observe in an effort to ensure that things go their way. These personal rituals, like those practiced by Trobriand fishermen, are performed in a routine, unemotional manner, much as players do non-magical things to improve their play: rubbing pine tar on their hands to improve their grip on the bat, or rubbing a new ball to make it more comfortable and responsive to the pitcher's grip. Rituals are infinitely varied since ballplayers may formalize any activity that they consider important or somehow linked to performing well.

Many hitters go through a series of preparatory rituals before stepping into the batter's box. These include tugging on their caps, touching their uniform letters or medallions, crossing themselves, tapping or bouncing the bat on the plate, swinging the weighted warm-up bat a prescribed number of times, and smoothing the dirt in the box. Mike Hargrove, former Cleveland Indian first baseman, had more than a dozen individual elements in the batting ritual. And after each pitch he would step out of the batter's box and repeat the entire sequence. His rituals were so time consuming that he was called "the human rain delay." Hargrove defended his routine, saying it was important to getting his concentration back after each pitch.

Rituals may become so important that they override practicality. Catcher Matt Allen, for example, was wearing a long sleeve turtle-neck shirt on a cool evening in the New York-Penn League when he had a three-hit game. "I kept wearing the shirt and had a good week," he explained. "Then the weather got hot as hell, 85 degrees and muggy, but I would not take that shirt off. I wore it for another ten days-catching-and people thought I was crazy."

A popular ritual associated with hitting is tagging a base when leaving and returning to the dugout between innings. Mickey Mantle habitually tagged second base on the way to or from the outfield. Another player stepped on third base on his way to the dugout after the third, sixth, and ninth innings of each game. Asked if he ever purposely failed to step on the bag, he replied, "Never! I wouldn't dare. It would destroy my confidence to hit." A hitter who is playing poorly may try different combinations of tagging and not tagging particular bases in an attempt to find a successful combination.

When players are not hitting, some managers will rattle the bat bin, the large wooden box containing the team's bats, as if the bats are in a stupor and can be aroused by a good shaking. Similarly, some hitters rub their hands along the handles of the bats protruding from the bin, presumably in hopes of picking up some power or luck from those bats that are getting hits for their owners.

Rituals usually grow out of exceptionally good performances. When a player does well, he seldom attributes his success to skill alone. Although his skill remains constant, he may go hitless in one game and in the next get three or four hits. Many players attribute such inconsistencies in their performances to an object, the food they ate, or some behavior outside their play. Through ritual, players seek to gain control over their performance. Outfielder John White explained how one of his rituals started:

I was jogging out to center field after the national anthem when I picked up a scrap of paper. I got some good hits that night and I guess I decided that the paper had something to do with it. The next night I picked up a gum wrapper and had another good night at the plate . . . I've been picking up paper every night since.

Like many hitters, John abandoned this ritual and looked for a new one when he stopped hitting.

Because most pitchers play only once every four days, they perform rituals less frequently than hitters. But the rituals are just as important, perhaps more so. A starting pitcher cannot make up for a poor performance the next day, and having to wait three days to redeem oneself can be miserable. Moreover, the team's performance depends more on the pitcher than on any other single player. Considering the pressures to do well, it is not surprising that pitchers' rituals are often more complex than those of hitters.

Most baseball fans observe ritual behavior, such as pitchers tugging their caps between pitches, touching the rosin bag after each bad pitch, smoothing the dirt on the mound before each new batter or inning, never realizing that these actions may be as important to the pitcher as actually throwing the ball.

Many other rituals take place off the field, out of public view. On the days they are scheduled to appear, many pitchers avoid activities that they believe sap their strength and therefore detract from their effectiveness, or that they otherwise link with poor performance. Many pitchers avoid eating certain foods on their pitching days. Some pitchers do not shave on the day of a game; some pitchers don't shave as long as they are winning. Early in the 1989 season Oakland's Dave Stewart had six consecutive victories and a beard before he finally lost. Ex-St. Louis Cardinal Al Hrabosky took this taboo to extremes; Samson-like, he refused to cut his hair or beard during the entire season, which was part of the reason for his nickname, the "Mad Hungarian."

Mike Griffin begins his ritual preparation a full day before he pitches, by washing his hair. The next day, although he does not consider himself superstitious, he eats bacon for lunch. When Griffin dresses for the game he puts on his clothes in the same order, making certain he puts the slightly longer of his two outer, or "stirrup," socks on his right leg. "I just wouldn't feel right mentally if I did it the other way around," he explains. He always wears the same shirt under his uniform on the day he pitches. During the game he takes off his cap after each pitch, and between innings he sits in the same place on the dugout bench. He believes his rituals give him a sense of order that reduces his anxiety about pitching.

Some pitchers involve their wives or girlfriends in their rituals. One wife reported that her husband insisted that she wash her hair each day he was to pitch. In her memoirs, Danielle Torrez reported that one "rule" she learned as a baseball wife was "to support your husband's superstitions, whether you believe in them or not." I joined the player's wives who ate ice cream in the sixth inning or tacos in the fifth, or who attended games in a pink sweater, a tan scarf, or a floppy hat" (1983:79).

Taboo The word "taboo" comes from a Polynesian term meaning prohibition. Breaking a taboo or prohibition leads to undesirable consequences or bad luck. Most players observe at least a few taboos. Some are careful never to step on the chalk foul lines or lines of the batter's box. One teammate of mine would never watch a movie on a game day, despite the fact that we played nearly every day from April to September. Another teammate refused to read anything before a game because he believed that reading weakened his eyesight when batting.

Many taboos grow out of exceptionally poor performances, which players, in search of a reason or cause, attribute to a particular behavior. During my first season of pro ball I ate pancakes before a game in which I struck out four times. A few weeks later I had a similarly bad game, again after eating pancakes. The result was a pancake taboo: I never ate pancakes during the season from that day on. In earlier decades some baseball players believed that it was bad luck to go back and fasten a missed buttonhole after dressing for a game. They simply left missed buttons on shirts or pants undone. This taboo, however, is no longer observed by today's ballplayers.

There is a taboo against crossing bats, against permitting one bat to rest on top of another. Although this superstition appears to be dying out among ballplayers today, it was religiously observed by some of my teammates. One of my Hispanic teammates became quite annoyed when another player tossed a bat from the batting cage and it landed on top of his bat. Later he explained that the top bat might steal hits from the lower one. In his view, bats contained a finite number of hits, a sort of baseball "image of limited good." For Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner, a charter member of baseball's Hall of Fame, each bat contained only 100 hits and never more. Regardless of the quality of the bat, he would discard it after its 100th hit.

Hall of Famer Johnny Evers, of the Cub double-play trio Tinker to Evers to Chance, believed in saving his luck. If he were hitting well in practice, he would suddenly stop and retire to the bench to "save" his batting for the game. One player told me that many of his teammates on the Asheville Tourists in the Class A Western Carolinas League would not let pitchers touch or swing their bats, not even to loosen up. Poor-hitting pitchers were believed to pollute or weaken the bats.

Fetishes Charms or fetishes are material objects believed to embody supernatural powers that can aid or protect the owner. Good-luck fetishes are standard equipment for many ballplayers. They include a wide assortment of objects: horsehide covers from old baseballs, coins, chains, crucifixes, and old bats. Ordinary objects acquire power by being connected to exceptionally hot batting or pitching streaks, especially ones in which players get all the breaks. The object is often a new possession or something a player finds and holds responsible for his new good fortune. A player who is in a slump might find a coin or an odd stone just before he begins a hitting streak, then attribute an improvement in his performance to the influence of the new object, and come to regard it as a fetish.

While playing in the Pacific Coast League, Alan Foster forgot his baseball shoes on a road trip and borrowed a pair from a teammate. That night he pitched a no-hitter, which he attributed to the shoes. After he bought them from his teammate, they became a fetish. The prized rock of Expo farmhand Mark LaRosa has a very different origin and use:

I found it on the field in Elmira after I had gotten bombed [pitched very poorly]. It's unusual, perfectly round, and it caught my attention. I keep it to remind me of how important it is to concentrate. When I am going well I look at the rock and remember to keep my focus, the rock reminds me of what can happen when I lost my concentration. For one season Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds insisted that her field manager rub her St. Bernard "Schotzie" for good luck before each game. When the Reds were on the road, Schott reportedly would sometimes send a bag of the dogs hair to the field manager's hotel room.

During World War II American soldiers used fetishes in much the same way. Social psychologist Samuel Stouffer and his colleagues found that in the face of great danger and uncertainty, soldiers developed magical practices, particularly the use of protective amulets and good-luck charms (crosses, Bibles, rabbits' feet, medals), and jealously guarded articles of clothing they associated with past experiences of escape from danger. Stouffer also found that pre-battle preparations were carried out in fixed "ritual" order, much as ballplayers prepare for a game.

Uniform numbers have special significance for some players. Many have a lucky number that they request. Since the choice is usually limited, players may try to get a number that at least contains their lucky number, such as 14, 24, 34, or 44 for the pitcher whose lucky number is four. Oddly enough, there is no consensus about the effect of wearing number 13. Some players will not wear it, others will, and a few, like Yankees David Cone, request it.

The way in which number preferences emerge varies. Occasionally a young player requests the number of a former star, hoping that-in a form of imitative magic-it will bring him a similar measure of success. Or he may request a favorite number that he has always associated with good luck. Vida Blue, former Athletic and Giant, changed his uniform number from 35 to 14, the number he wore as a high-school quarterback. When the new number did not produce the better pitching performance he was looking for, he switched back to his old number.

Clothing, both the choice of clothes and the order in which they are put on, combine elements of both ritual and fetish. Some players put on their uniform in a specified order. Expos farmhand Jim Austin always puts on his left sleeve, left pants leg, and left shoe before the right. Most players, however, single out one or two lucky articles or quirks of dress rather than ritualizing all items of clothing. After hitting two home runs in a game, for example, infielder Jim Davenport of the San Francisco Giants discovered that he had missed a buttonhole while dressing for the game. For the remainder of his career he left the same button undone. For Brian Hunter of the Cincinnati Reds, the focus is on his shoes: "I have a pair of high tops and a pair of low tops. Whichever shoes don't get a hit that game, I switch to the other pair." At the time of our interview, he was struggling at the plate and switching shoes almost every day. For Birmingham Baron pitcher Bo Kennedy the arrangement of the different pairs of baseball shoes in his locker is critical:

I tell the clubs [clubhouse boys] when you hang stuff in my locker don't touch my shoes. If you bump them move them back. I want the Pony's in front, the turfs to the right, and I want them nice and neat with each pair touching each other. . . Everyone on the team knows not to mess with my shoes when I pitch.

During streaks-hitting or winning-many players wear the same clothes and uniforms for each game. Once I changed sweatshirts midway through the game for seven consecutive games to keep a hitting streak going. During a 16-game winning streak in 1954, the New York Giants wore the same clothes in each game and refused to let them be cleaned for fear that their good fortune might be washed away with the dirt. Taking this ritual to the extreme, Leo Durocher, managing the Brooklyn Dodgers to a pennant in 1941, spent three and a half weeks in the same black shoes, gray slacks, blue coat, and knitted blue tie. The opposite may also occur. Several of the Oakland A's players bought new street clothes in an attempt to break a 14-game losing streak.

Although most taboos are idiosyncratic, there are a few that all players hold and that do not develop out of individual experience or misfortune. These taboos are learned, some as early as Little League. Mentioning a no-hitter while one is in progress is a widely known example. It is believed that if a pitcher hears the words "no-hitter," the spell will be broken and the no-hitter lost. This taboo is still observed by many sports broadcasters, who use various linguistic subterfuges to inform their listeners that the pitcher had not given up a hit, never mentioning "no-hitter."

Such superstitions, like most everything else, change over time. Many of the rituals and beliefs of early baseball are no longer remembered. In the 1920s and 1930s sportswriters reported that a player who tripped en route to the field would often retrace his steps and carefully walk over the stumbling block for "insurance." A century ago players spent time off the field and on looking for items that would bring them luck. For example, to find a hairpin on the street assured a batter of hitting safely in that day's game (today women don't wear hairpins-a good reason why the belief has died out). To catch sight of a white horse or a wagon-load of barrels were also good omens. In 1904 the manager of the New York Giants, John McGraw, hired a driver and a team of white horses to drive past the Polo Grounds around the time his players were arriving at the ballpark. He knew that if his players saw white horses, they'd have more confidence and that could only help them during the game. Belief in the power of white horses survived in a few backwaters until the 1960s. A gray-haired manager of a team I played for in Quebec would drive around the countryside before important games and during the playoffs looking for a white horse. When he was successful, he'd announce it to everyone in the clubhouse before the game.

B.F. Skinner's early research with pigeons sheds some light on how these rituals, taboos, and fetishes get established in the first place. Like human beings, pigeons quickly learn to associate their behavior with rewards or punishment. By rewarding the birds at the appropriate time, Skinner taught them such elaborate games as table tennis, miniature bowling, and how to play simple tunes on a toy piano. On one occasion he decided to see what would happen if pigeons were rewarded with food pellets every fifteen seconds, regardless of what they did. He found that the birds tended to associate the arrival of the food with a particular action-tucking the head under a wing, hopping from side to side, or turning in a clockwise direction. About ten seconds after the arrival of the last pellet, a bird would begin doing whatever it had associated with getting the food and keep at it until the next pellet arrived.

In the same way, baseball players tend to believe there is a causal connection between two events that are linked only temporally. If a superstitious player touches his crucifix and then gets a hit, he may decide the gesture was responsible for his good fortune and follow the same practice the next time he comes to the plate. If he should get another hit, the chances are good that he will begin touching the crucifix each time he bats and that he will do so whether or not he hits safely each time.

The average batter hits safely approximately one quarter of the time. And if the behavior of Skinner's pigeons or of gamblers at a Las Vegas slot machine is any guide, that is more than enough to keep him believing in a ritual. Skinner found that once a pigeon associated one of its actions with the arrival of food or water, sporadic rewards would keep the connection going. One pigeon, apparently believing that hopping from side to side brought pellets into its feeding cup, hopped ten thousand times without a pellet before finally giving up.

Since the batter associates his hits at least to some degree with his ritual touching of a crucifix, each hit he gets reinforces the strength of the ritual. Even if he falls into a batting slump and the hits temporarily stop, he may continue to touch his crucifix in the hope that it will change his luck. If the slump lasts too long, however, he will soon change his behavior and look for a new practice to bring back his luck.

Skinner and Malinowski's explanations are complementary. Skinner's research throws light on how a ritual develops and why a particular ritual, taboo, or fetish is maintained. Malinowski focuses on why human beings turn to magic in situations of chance and uncertainty. In their attempts to gain greater control over their performance, baseball players respond to chance and uncertainty in the same way as people in tribal societies. It is wrong to assume that magical practices are a waste of time for either group. The magic in baseball obviously does not make a pitch travel faster or more accurately, or a batted ball seek the gaps between fielders. Nor does the Trobriand brand of magic make the surrounding seas calmer and more abundant with fish. What both kinds of magic do is give their practitioners a sense of control, and with that confidence, at very little cost.

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