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In our 21st century modern society, we like to think of ourselves as intelligent and rational. We think more about watching magic with an understanding that there is an unseen slig

In our 21st century modern society, we like to think of ourselves as intelligent and rational.  We think more about watching magic with an understanding that there is an unseen slight of hand.  Yet most of us continue to believe in and use magic daily.  Whether you call it superstition, karma or luck, it all falls under anthropology’s definition of magic.  What forms of magic have you learned that you use?  Why do you use it?  Why do you think it is so hard for us to stop using magic?



Article 32

Baseball Magic George Gmelch

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 10:00 a.m. At 1:00 p.m. he went to the nearest res- taurant for two glasses of iced tea and a tuna sandwich. Although the afternoon was free, he changed into the sweatshirt and supporter he wore during his last win- ning game, and, one hour before the game, he chewed a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco. After each pitch during the game he touched the letters on his uni- form and straightened his cap after each ball. Before the start of each inning he re- placed the pitcher’s resin 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 said, “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.”

Trobriand Islanders, according to an- thropologist 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. Ma- linowski 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, Trobrian- ders 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 re- markably like Malinowski’s Trobriand fishermen. To professional ballplayers,

baseball is more than just a game. It is an occupation. Since their livelihoods de- pend on how well they perform, many use magic to try to control the chance that is built into baseball. There are three essen- tial activities of the game—pitching, hit- ting, and fielding. In the first two, chance can play a surprisingly important role. The pitcher is the player least able to con- trol the outcome of his own efforts. He may feel great and have good stuff warm- ing up in the bullpen and then get into the game and not have it. He may make a bad pitch and see the batter miss it for a strike out or see it hit hard but right into the hands of a fielder for an out. His best pitch may be blooped for a base hit. He may limit the opposing team to just a few hits yet lose the game, or he may give up a dozen hits but still win. And the good and bad luck don’t always average out over the course of a season. Some pitchers end the season with poor won-loss records but good earned run averages, and vice versa. For instance, this past season Andy Benes gave up over one run per game more than his teammate Omar Daal but had a better won-loss record. Benes went 14–13, while Daal was only 8–12. Both pitched for the same team—the Arizona Dia- mondbacks—which meant they had the same fielders behind them. Regardless of how well a pitcher performs, on every outing he depends not only on his own skill, but also upon the proficiency of his teammates, the ineptitude of the opposi- tion, and luck.

Hitting, which many observers call the single most difficult task in the world of sports, is also full of risk and uncertainty. Unless it’s a home run, no matter how well the batter hits the ball, fate deter- mines whether it will go into a waiting

glove, whistle past a fielder’s diving stab, or find a gap in the outfield. The uncer- tainty is compounded by the low success rate of hitting: the average hitter gets only one hit in every four trips to the plate, while the very best hitters average only one hit every three trips. Fielding, as we will return to later, is the one part of base- ball where chance does not play much of a role.

How does the risk and uncertainty in pitching and hitting affect players? How do they try to exercise control over the outcomes of their performance? These are questions that I first became interested in many years ago as both a ballplayer and an anthropology student. I’d devoted much of my youth to baseball, and played professionally as first baseman in the De- troit Tigers organization in the 1960s. It was shortly after the end of one baseball season that I took an anthropology course called “Magic, Religion, and Witch- craft.” As I listened to my professor de- scribe the magical rituals of the Trobriand Islanders, it occurred to me that what these so-called “primitive” people did wasn’t all that different from what my teammates and I did for luck and confi- dence at the ball park.


The most common way players attempt to reduce chance and their feelings of uncer- tainty is to develop and follow a daily rou- tine, a course of action which is regularly followed. Talking about the routines ball- players follow, Pirates coach Rich Don- nelly said:

They’re like trained animals. They come out here [ballpark] and ev-



erything has to be the same, they don’t like anything that knocks them off their routine. Just look at the dugout and you’ll see every guy sitting in the same spot every night. It’s amazing, everybody in the same spot. And don’t you dare take someone’s seat. If a guy comes up from the minors and sits here, they’ll say, ‘Hey, Jim sits here, find another seat.’ You watch the pitcher warm up and he’ll do the same thing every time. And when you go on the road it’s the same way. You’ve got a routine and you adhere to it and you don’t want anybody knocking you off it.

Routines are comforting, they bring order into a world in which players have little control. And sometimes practical el- ements in routines produce tangible ben- efits, such as helping the player concentrate. But what players often do goes beyond mere routine. Their actions become what anthropologists define as ritual—prescribed behaviors in which there is no empirical connection between the means (e.g., tapping home plate three times) and the desired end (e.g., getting a base hit). Because there is no real connec- tion between the two, rituals are not ra- tional, and sometimes they are actually irrational. Similar to rituals are the non- rational beliefs that form the basis of ta- boos and fetishes, which players also use to reduce chance and bring luck to their side. But first let’s look more closely at rituals.

Most rituals are personal, that is, they’re performed by individuals rather than by a team or group. Most are done in an unemotional manner, in much the same way players apply pine tar to their bats to improve the grip or dab eye black on their upper cheeks to reduce the sun’s glare. Baseball rituals are infinitely var- ied. A ballplayer may ritualize any activ- ity—eating, dressing, driving to the ballpark—that he considers important or somehow linked to good performance. For example, Yankee pitcher Denny Nea- gle goes to a movie on days he is sched- uled to start. Pitcher Jason Bere listens to the same song on his Walkman on the days he is to pitch. Jim Ohms puts another penny in the pouch of his supporter after

each win. Clanging against the hard plas- tic genital cup, the pennies made a noise as he ran the bases toward the end of a winning season. Glenn Davis would chew the same gum every day during hitting streaks, saving it under his cap. Infielder Julio Gotay always played with a cheese sandwich in his back pocket (he had a big appetite, so there might also have been a measure of practicality here). Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game dur- ing his career, and that was just one of dozens of elements in his pre and post game routine, which also included leav- ing his house for the ballpark at precisely the same time each day (1:47 for a 7:05 game). Former Oriole pitcher Dennis Martinez would drink a small cup of water after each inning and then place it under the bench upside down, in a line. His teammates could always tell what inning it was by counting the cups.

Many hitters go through a series of pre- paratory rituals before stepping into the batter’s box. These include tugging on their caps, touching their uniform letters or medallions, crossing themselves, tap- ping or bouncing the bat on the plate, or swinging the weighted warm-up bat a pre- scribed number of times. Consider Red Sox Nomar Garciaparra. After each pitch he steps out of the batters box, kicks the dirt with each toe, adjusts his right batting glove, adjusts his left batting glove, and touches his helmet before getting back into the box. Mike Hargrove, former Cleveland Indian first baseman, had so many time consuming elements in his bat- ting ritual that he was known as “the hu- man rain delay.” Both players believe their batting rituals helped them regain their concentration after each pitch. But others wonder if they have become pris- oners of their own superstitions. Also, players who have too many or particularly bizarre rituals risk being labeled as “flakes,” and not just by teammates but by fans and media as well. For example, pitcher Turk Wendell’s eccentric rituals, which included wearing a necklace of teeth from animals he had killed, made him a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Some players, especially Latin Amer- icans, draw upon rituals from their Ro- man Catholic religion. Some make the sign of the cross or bless themselves be-

fore every at bat, and a few like the Rang- ers’ Pudge Rodriguez do so before every pitch. Others, like the Detroit Tiger Juan Gonzalez, also visibly wear religious me- dallions around their necks, while some tuck them discretely inside their under- shirts.

One ritual associated with hitting is tagging a base when leaving and returning to the dugout between innings. Some players don’t “feel right” unless they tag a specific base on each trip between the dugout and the field. One of my team- mates added some complexity to his ritual by tagging third base on his way to the dugout only after the third, sixth, and ninth innings. 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.” Baseball fans ob- serve a lot of this ritual behavior, such as fielders tagging bases, pitchers tugging on their caps or touching the resin bag af- ter each bad pitch, or smoothing the dirt on the mound before each new batter or inning, never realizing the importance of these actions to the player. The one ritual many fans do recognize, largely because it’s a favorite of TV cameramen, is the “rally cap”—players in the dugout fold- ing their caps and wearing them bill up in hopes of sparking a rally.

Most rituals grow out of exceptionally good performances. When a player does well, he seldom attributes his success to skill alone. He knows that his skills were essentially the same the night before. He asks himself, “What was different about today which explains my three hits?” He decides to repeat what he did today in an attempt to bring more good luck. And so he attributes his success, in part, to an ob- ject, a food he ate, not having shaved, a new shirt he bought that day, or just about any behavior out of the ordinary. By re- peating that behavior, he seeks to gain control over his performance. Outfielder John White explained how one of his rit- uals started:

I was jogging out to centerfield af- ter 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


Article 32. Baseball Magic

and had another good night at the plate… I’ve been picking up paper every night since.

Outfielder Ron Wright of the Calgary Cannons shaves his arms once a week and plans to continue doing so until he has a bad year. It all began two years before when after an injury he shaved his arm so it could be taped, and proceeded to hit three homers over the next few games. Now he not only has one of the smoothest swings in the minor leagues, but two of the smoothest forearms. Wade Boggs’ routine of eating chicken before every game began when he was a rookie in 1982. He noticed a correlation between multiple hit games and poultry plates (his wife has over 40 chicken recipes). One of Montreal Expos farmhand Mike Sacco- cio’s rituals also concerned food, “I got three hits one night after eating at Long John Silver’s. After that when we’d pull into town, my first question would be, “Do you have a Long John Silver’s?” Un- like Boggs, Saccocio abandoned his ritual and looked for a new one when he stopped hitting well.

When in a slump, most players make a deliberate effort to change their rituals and routines in an attempt to shake off their bad luck. One player tried taking dif- ferent routes to the ballpark; several play- ers reported trying different combinations of tagging and not tagging particular bases in an attempt to find a successful combination. I had one manager who would rattle the bat bin when the team was not hitting well, as if the bats were in a stu- por and could be aroused by a good shak- ing. Similarly, I have seen hitters rub their hands along the handles of the bats pro- truding from the bin in hopes of picking up some power or luck from bats that are getting hits for their owners. Some play- ers switch from wearing their contact lenses to glasses. Brett Mandel described his Pioneer League team, the Ogden Rap- tors, trying to break a losing streak by us- ing a new formation for their pre-game stretching.1


Taboos are the opposite of rituals. The word taboo comes from a Polynesian term

meaning prohibition. Breaking a taboo, players believe, leads to undesirable con- sequences or bad luck. Most players ob- serve at least a few taboos, such as never stepping on the white foul lines. A few, like the Mets Turk Wendell and Red Sox Nomar Garciaparra, leap over the entire basepath. One teammate of mine would never watch a movie on a game day, de- spite the fact that we played nearly every day from April to September. Another teammate refused to read anything before a game because he believed it weakened his batting eye.

Many taboos take place off the field, out of public view. On the day a pitcher is scheduled to start, he is likely to avoid ac- tivities he believes will sap his strength and detract from his effectiveness. Some pitchers avoid eating certain foods, others will not shave on the day of a game, re- fusing to shave again as long as they are winning. Early in the 1989 season Oak- land’s Dave Stewart had six consecutive victories and a beard by the time he lost.

Taboos usually grow out of exception- ally poor performances, which players, in search of a reason, attribute to a particular behavior. During my first season of pro ball I ate pancakes before a game in which I struck out three times. A few weeks later I had another terrible game, again after eating pancakes. The result was a pancake taboo: I never again ate pancakes during the season. Pitcher Jason Bere has a taboo that makes more sense in dietary terms: after eating a meatball sandwich and not pitching well, he swore off them for the rest of the season.

While most taboos are idiosyncratic, there are a few that all ball players hold and that do not develop out of individual experience or misfortune. These form part of the culture of baseball, and are sometimes learned as early as Little League. Mentioning a no-hitter while one is in progress is a well-known example. It is believed that if a pitcher hears the words “no-hitter,” the spell accounting for this hard to achieve feat will be broken and the no-hitter lost. This taboo is also observed by many sports broadcasters, who use various linguistic subterfuges to inform their listeners that the pitcher has not given up a hit, never saying “no-hitter.”


Fetishes or charms are material objects believed to embody “supernatural” power that can aid or protect the owner. Good luck charms are standard equip- ment for some ballplayers. These include a wide assortment of objects from coins, chains, and crucifixes to a favorite base- ball hat. The fetishized object may be a new possession or something a player found that happens to coincide with the start of a streak and which he holds re- sponsible for his good fortune. 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. Afterwards he bought them from his teammate and they became a fetish. Expo farmhand Mark LaRosa’s rock has a different origin and use:

I found it on the field in Elmira af- ter I had gotten bombed. It’s un- usual, perfectly round, and it caught my attention. I keep it to re- mind 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 lose my concentration.

For one season Marge Schott, former 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 would sometimes send a bag of the dog’s hair to the field manager’s hotel room.

During World War II, American sol- diers 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 de- veloped magical practices, particularly the use of protective amulets and good luck charms (crosses, Bibles, rabbits’ feet, medals), and jealously guarded arti- cles of clothing they associated with past experiences of escape from danger.2

Stouffer also found that prebattle prepa- rations were carried out in fixed ritual-



like order, similar to ballplayers prepar- ing for a game.

Uniform numbers have special signif- icance for some players who request their lucky number. Since the choice is usually limited, they try to at least get a uniform that contains their lucky number, such as 14, 24, 34, or 44 for the player whose lucky number is four. When Ricky Hend- erson came to the Blue Jays in 1993 he paid outfielder Turner Ward $25,000 for the right to wear number 24. Oddly enough, there is no consensus about the effect of wearing number 13. Some play- ers will not wear it, others will, and a few request it. Number preferences emerge in different ways. A young player may re- quest the number of a former star, hoping that—through what anthropologists call imitative magic—it will bring him the same success. Or he may request a num- ber he associates with good luck. While with the Oakland A’s Vida Blue changed his uniform number from 35 to 14, the number he wore as a high-school quarter- back. When 14 did not produce better pitching performance, he switched back to 35. Former San Diego Padre first base- man Jack Clark changed his number from 25 to 00, hoping to break out of a slump. That day he got four hits in a double header, but also hurt his back. Then, three days later, he was hit in the cheekbone by a ball thrown in batting practice.

Colorado Rockies Larry Walker’s fix- ation with the number three has become well known to baseball fans. Besides wearing 33, he takes three practice swings before stepping into the box, he showers from the third nozzle, sets his alarm for three minutes past the hour and he was wed on November 3 at 3:33 p.m. Fans in ballparks all across America rise from their seats for the seventh inning stretch before the home club comes to bat be- cause the number seven is lucky, although the origin of this tradition has been lost.

Clothing, both the choice and the order in which they are put on, combine ele- ments of both ritual and fetish. Some players put on their uniform in a ritualized 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 ar- ticles or quirks of dress for ritual elabo- ration. After hitting two home runs in a

game, for example, ex-Giant infielder Jim Davenport 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 outfielder Brian Hunter the focus is shoes, “I have a pair of high tops and a pair of low tops. Which- ever 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 crit- ical:

I tell the clubies [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— players may wear the same clothes day af- ter day. Once I changed sweatshirts mid- way through the game for seven consecutive nights to keep a hitting streak going. Clothing rituals, however, can be- come impractical. Catcher Matt Allen 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.” Also taking a ritual to the extreme, Leo Durocher, managing the Brooklyn Dodgers to a pennant in 1941, is said to have spent three and a half weeks in the same gray slacks, blue coat, and knitted blue tie. During a 16-game winning streak, the 1954 New York Gi- ants 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. Losing often produces the opposite effect. Several Oakland A’s players, for example, went out and bought new street clothes in an attempt to break a fourteen-game losing streak.

Baseball’s superstitions, like most ev- erything else, change over time. Many of the rituals and beliefs of early baseball are no longer observed. In the 1920s and 1930s sportswriters reported that a player who tripped en route to the field would of- ten retrace his steps and carefully walk over the stumbling block for “insurance.” A century ago players spent time on and off the field intently looking for items that would bring them luck. To find a hairpin on the street, for example, assured a batter of hitting safely in that day’s game. Today few women wear hairpins—a good rea- son the belief has died out. To catch sight of a white horse or a wagon-load of bar- rels were also good omens. In 1904 the manager of the New York Giants, John McGraw, hired a driver with 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 back- waters until the 1960s. A gray haired manager of a team I played for in Drum- mondville, Quebec, would drive around the countryside before important games and during the playoffs looking for a white horse. When he was successful, he would announce it to everyone in the clubhouse.

One belief that appears to have died out recently is a taboo about crossed bats. Some of my Latino teammates in the 1960s took it seriously. I can still recall one Dominican player becoming agitated when another player tossed a bat from the batting cage and it landed on top of his bat. He believed 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.” It was once commonly believed that when the hits in a bat were used up no amount of good hitting would produce any more. Hall of Famer Honus Wagner believed each bat contained only 100 hits. Regard- less of the quality of the bat, he would dis- card it after its 100th hit. This belief would have little relevance today, in the era of light bats with thin handles—so thin that the typical modern bat is lucky to survive a dozen hits without being broken. Other superstitions about bats do survive, how-


Article 32. Baseball Magic

ever. Position players on the Class A Asheville Tourists, for example, would not let pitchers touch or swing their bats, not even to warm up. Poor-hitting players, as most pitchers are, were said to pollute or weaken the bats.


The best evidence that players turn to rit- uals, taboos, and fetishes to control chance and uncertainty is found in their uneven application. They are associated mainly with pitching and hitting—the ac- tivities with the highest degree of chance—and not fielding. I met only one player who had any ritual in connection with fielding, and he was an error prone shortstop. Unlike hitting and pitching, a fielder has almost complete control over the outcome of his performance. Once a ball has been hit in his direction, no one can intervene and ruin his chances of catching it for an out (except in the un- likely event of two fielders colliding). 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. With odds like that there is little need for ritual.

Clearly, the rituals of American ball- players are not unlike that of the Trobri- and Islanders studied by Malinowski many years ago.3 In professional base- ball, fielding is the equivalent of the inner lagoon while hitting and pitching are like the open sea.

While Malinowski helps us under- stand how ballplayers respond to chance and uncertainty, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner sheds light on why personal

rituals get established in the first place.4

With a few grains of seed Skinner could get pigeons to do anything he wanted. He merely waited for the desired behavior (e.g. pecking) and then rewarded it with some food. Skinner then decided to see what would happen if pigeons were re- warded with food pellets regularly, every fifteen seconds, regardless of what they did. He found that the birds associate the arrival of the food with a particular action, such as tucking their head under a wing or walking in clockwise circles. About ten seconds after the arrival of the last pellet, a bird would begin doing whatever it as- sociated with getting the food and keep doing it until the next pellet arrived. In short, the pigeons behaved as if their ac- tions made the food appear. They learned to associate particular behaviors with the reward of being given seed.

Ballplayers also associate a reward— successful performance—with prior be- havior. If a player touches his crucifix and then gets a hit, he may decide the gesture was responsible for his good fortune and touch his crucifix the next time he comes to the plate. If he gets another hit, the chances are good that he will touch his crucifix each time he bats. Unlike pi- geons, however, most ballplayers are quicker to change their rituals once they no longer seem to work. Skinner found that once a pigeon associated one of its ac- tions with the arrival of food or water, only sporadic rewards were necessary to keep the ritual going. One pigeon, believ- ing that hopping from side to side brought pellets into its feeding cup, hopped ten thousand times without a pellet before fi- nally giving up. But, then, didn’t Wade Boggs eat chicken before every game,

through slumps and good times, for sev- enteen years?

Obviously the rituals and superstitions of baseball do not make a pitch travel faster or a batted ball find the gaps be- tween the fielders, nor do the Trobriand rituals calm the seas or bring fish. What both do, however, is give their practitio- ners a sense of control, with that added confidence, at no cost. And we all know how important that is. If you really be- lieve eating chicken or hopping over the foul lines will make you a better hitter, it probably will.


Malinowski, B. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (Glencoe, III., 1948).

Mandel, Brett. Minor Players, Major Dreams. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Ne- braska Press, 1997.

Skinner, B.F. Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis (D. Appleton- Century Co., 1938).

Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1953).

Stouffer, Samuel. The American Soldier. New York: J. Wiley, 1965.

Torrez, Danielle Gagnon. High Inside: Mem- oirs of a Baseball Wife. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983.


1. Mandel, Minor Players, Major Dreams, 156.

2. Stouffer, The American Soldier 3. Malinowski, B. Magic, Science and Re-

ligion and Other Essays 4. Skinner, B.F. Behavior of Organisms:

An Experimental Analysis

Department of Anthropology, Union College; e-mail [email protected]

Revised version of “Superstition and Ritual in American Baseball” from Elysian Fields Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1992, pp. 25-36. © September 2000, McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, with permission of the author, George Gmelch.


Baseball Magic



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