Superstition runs rampant in our society — don’t cross paths with a black cat, or walk under a ladder, or spill salt — but even for those that believe, it typically doesn’t affect how they do their jobs. In baseball, however, it goes beyond the way players and managers go about their business — it takes on a life all its own.
From Roger Clemens rubbing the bust of Babe Ruth in the Yankees bullpen before each start to Jim Deshaies of the Houston Astros conducting a curse-breaking ceremony in the Astrodome clubhouse during a lengthy losing streak. From Carlton Fisk’s refusal to appear in the dugout until the national anthem had been performed to Nomar’s virtual Tourette fit between pitches baseball has had its fair share of players that felt their every action — on the field and off — had a direct correlation to their performance between the lines.
So, without further hesitation or any additional obsessive compulsive activity, the curtain is raised on the All-Superstition Squad:
1B – Mike Hargrove (.290-80-686-.396 OBP-.391 SLG-1614 H)
Often referred to as the “Human Rain Delay”, Hargove was a solid big league ballplayer that could hit — when he finally made his way to the box. The man was like Nomar Garciaparra on crack. Check out the routine — Hargrove walked up the first base line to take three practice hacks before stepping in, then he would adjust his batting gloves, his jersey top and pants, wipe his face, and then push down on his helmet until it fit just right. And after he took ball one — it happened again. After every single pitch, Hargrove meticulously conducted his little ritual. At least Nomar does it quickly.
2B – Johnny Evers (.270-12-538-.356 OBP-.334 SLG-1659 H)/Jim Davenport (.258-77-456-.318 OBP-.367 SLG-1142 H)
So many players have populated the game through the years with so many quirks that we had to have one position with a platoon — also a staple in baseball history. Our left-handed swinging second sacker won an MVP, resides at Cooperstown, and is best remembered for being part of the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” double play team with the Chicago Cubs. But the little “Trojan” was all about preservation — on days he swung the bat particularly well in batting practice, Evers would leave the field to “save” such cuts for game action. And while Evers was saving what he perceived to be perfection, Davenport went with a more slovenly approach. The right-hander once homered twice in a game only to realize he’d forgotten to do up one button — and it remained unbuttoned for the remainder of his career — but with only 77 big flies over thirteen seasons, perhaps Davenport’s superstition didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped.
3B – Wade Boggs (.328-118-1014-.415 OBP-.443 SLG-3010 H)
Most fans know about Boggs eating chicken before each game but that, friends, was just the beginning. Boggs would leave home for the park at 1:47, at 4:37 he’d sprint to third (careful to step on second along the way) and took exactly 150 ground balls, wouldn’t step into the batting cage for BP until 5:17, and ran wind sprints at 7:17 — every day. Some players moonlight as amateur groundskeepers between pitches to kill time, but for Wade, it was a necessity. Boggs had to swipe the dirt with his left foot, tap his glove a few times, then adjust his hat — between each pitch. Prior to each at-bat, Boggs would scribble “chai” — the Hebrew word for life — into the dirt with his cleat for good luck. And finally, the gum in his mouth would live on with a hit but be discarded for a fresh piece if Boggs was retired.
SS – Nomar Garciaparra (.316-213-875-.364 OBP-.528 SLG-1622 H)
Nomahhhh! The former Red Sox shortstop currently mans first for the boys in blue but his idiosyncrasies have been evident since he took home AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1997. Garciaparra has to touch each step up the dugout stairs with both feet and then the real show begins — Nomar’s pre-pitch inclinations are best described by the LA Times but it’s a mesmerizing blur of helmet, wristband, and batting glove modification that serves as a precursor to the “Garciaparra Gambol”. Nomar’s feet rise up and down with toes tapping all about — and it happens before every single delivery. But, as previously stated, Nomar’s habits are mercurial when compared to the methodical Mike Hargrove.
C – Mickey Tettleton (.241-245-732-.369 OBP-.449 SLG-1132 H)
The switch-hitting catcher never topped 11 homers in five big league seasons before he exploded for 26 in 1989 for Baltimore. Every morning for breakfast, Tettleton would enjoy a bowl of Fruit Loops, and once that was revealed by Mickey’s wife, “Fruit Loops” became the moniker of the slugging catcher. And if Tettleton was swinging the bat well he would do his best to dress in the same manner each day — socks, stirrups, and all in the same order. Perhaps the power of the toucan translated to power at the plate, too, because Tettleton hit 33 homers his first five years in the majors, began eating Fruit Loops, and hit 212 over his final nine seasons. “Fruit Loops” averaged 23 bombs per those last years earning three Silver Sluggers and two All-Star berths along the way.
LF – “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (.356-54-785-.423 OBP-.517 SLG-1772 H)
The “Shoeless” one is best remembered for his nickname and lifetime suspension following the 1919 “Black Sox” World Series scandal but Joe Jackson was as superstitious as they come. Jackson named all of his bats — Blond Betsy, Caroliny, Ol’ Genril, and Big Jim — and believed that bats only had so many hits in them before they were discarded. However, the bat his friend Charlie Ferguson fashioned for him, Black Betsy, named after Betsy Ross so that the bat would get the respect of the flag, lasted his entire thirteen year career thanks to many a rub down with tobacco juice and was sold at auction for over a half-million dollars in August 2001. It didn’t end there — Jackson was known to sleep with his bats to “unite” with them, would rub them down with sweet oil and wrap them in cotton cloths when not in use, and took them home to South Carolina in the winter because “bats don’t like to freeze no more than me.” Jackson also believed hair pins were lucky — amassing collections of rusty pins that were kept in the back pocket of his uniform — only to toss them out and begin anew once a slump set in.
CF – Larry Walker (.313-383-1311-.400 OBP-.565 SLG-2160 H)
The greatest Canadian position player in history was a right fielder but played 61 in center so he gets the nod on this superstitious squad courtesy of his obsession with the number 33. Walker’s fascination with the number had nothing to do with Patrick Roy like Justin Morneau, but was simply a constant presence throughout his career. Of course he wore the number 33, took warm-up hacks in multiples of three, set his alarm clock for 33 minutes past whatever hour he needed to rise, left 33 tickets for disadvantaged kids at Olympic Stadium while he played in Montreal — in Section 333, was married at 3:33 p.m., and the kicker of all kicker’s — his ex-wife got $3 million in the divorce settlement.
RF – Kevin Rhomberg (.383-1-3-.423 OBP-.447 SLG-18 H)
Clearly, Rhomberg would not qualify as the most talented player on this squad but it’s about witchcraft — so the captaincy goes to a man that only played 41 games in a major league uniform — but soon you’ll know why. Rhomberg had a thing about touching — if someone touched him, he had to touch them back. Let the fun begin. If he was tagged out on the bases, Rhomberg waited till the end of the inning and chased down the infielder to tag him back. In a bathroom stall at Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium, Rick Sutcliffe reached under to touch one of Rhomberg’s toes which lead to a Rhomberg romp around the clubhouse, touching everyone in sight. In a game at Yankee Stadium the umpire called time to demand the Yankees players stop touching the poor man. While mates with the Tribe, Bert Blyleven jumped out of a cab the two had shared after having touched the outfielder and later took a phone call from Rhomberg’s wife begging him to let her husband touch him so he could sleep that night. And once in the minors, former Indians third baseman Brook Jacoby tagged Rhomberg out and proceeded to throw the ball out of the stadium. Rhomberg looked for it for two hours.
Ladies and gentlemen — your captain.
SP – Mark Fidrych (29-19, 3.10-412.1 IP)
“The Bird” burst onto the scene for a poor Tigers team in 1976 but won 19 games and the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. Fidrych was a fun-loving flake of a kid who would often wait to congratulate teammates that made great plays before heading into the dugout but his superstitions were almost as fun to watch as his pitching. Fidrych would often talk to the ball in the hopes of getting it to do his bidding, he would manicure the mound with his bare hands, and wanted nothing to do with a ball after he’d surrendered a hit with it. According to the Seattle Times Fidrych would say “It had a hit in it,” and that “I didn’t want to see that ball again.” Going on to say he wanted it to go back into a ball bag to “goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe it will learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time.”
RP – Turk Wendell (36-33, 3.93 ERA-33 SV-645.2 IP)
Wendell was a decent reliever for most of his eleven seasons in the majors but it was his antics rather than his arm that first caught the attention of the baseball world. Out on the mound, Wendell wore a necklace made of teeth from animals he’d hunted and killed while he chewed four pieces of black licorice, stood while the catcher squatted and squatted when the catcher stood, and after setting down his final batter dove directly into his ritual. Wendell would cross the foul line not by jumping but rather leaping over it, something once described as a “three foot kangaroo hop”, wrap his arm in a towel to keep it warm, and spit out the candy to brush his teeth. When his club was finished hitting Wendell would reinsert some Twizzlers then head out to the hill to do it all over again.
MNG – John McGraw (2763-1948, .586-10 NL pennants-3 World Series)
“Little Napoleon” was the iron-fisted skipper of many legendary New York Giants ballclubs and a man that Connie Mack once paid the ultimate compliment when he remarked “There has been only one manager, and his name is John McGraw.” But for all “Mugsy’s” accomplishments at the helm of the G-Men, his superstitious nature still dictacted some of his decision-making. For instance, McGraw once hired a farmer by the name of Charlie Faust after he came to the manager and told him a fortune teller saw success for him as a pitcher for the Giants. Faust couldn’t play but his arrival coincided with a Giants winning streak so his two career innings and 4.50 ERA will forever be part of the 1911 pennant winner’s story. McGraw also once hired a brewery to cart out their horse-drawn beer wagon to run across the field at the Polo Grounds for ten consecutive days because the first time it happened one of his players excelled at the plate. Oh, and Mr. McGraw was known to pick up a penny or a hair pin if he found them lying in the street — so long as they were face up.
Would Wade Boggs have won all those batting titles and reached 3000 hits without the chicken and the number 7? Thinking yes on this one. Would Mark Fidrych have come out on top 19 times if he’d given the ball the silent treatment? Probably. And would John McGraw have led the New York Giants to all those victories and pennants short of trotting horses onto the field and picking up pennies? Most certainly. But that’s rationality talking — the difference, and the real story, is that they believed it. To quote Kevin Costner as Crash Davis in Bull Durham, “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are! And you should know that!”
We hope after examining this club, you do, too.
Sources: thebaseballgod.com, blackbetsy.com, CBC Sports, IMDb, LA Times, rays.tbo.com, Seattle Times, Revised version of “Superstition and Ritual in American Baseball” from Elysian Fields Quarterly, Volume 11, No. 3, 1992, pp. 25-36.