Saturday, October 6, 2012

Like Stevie Wonder Said... (Part I)

With Halloween just around the corner, there's no better time to talk about superstitions, which have become firmly embedded in baseball culture over the years. Some players will do just about anything to gain that competitive edge--from turning their pockets inside out during a slump to avoiding foul lines when stepping onto the field. Here is the first installment in a continuing series about players past and present who have been known to go to extremes with their superstitious practices:
Hall of Fame outfielder Sam Crawford (who played with the Reds and Tigers from 1899 to 1917) relied heavily upon “lucky” trinkets. As legend has it, Crawford gave teammate Harry Heilmann quite a scare as the two were riding to a home game one day. While stopped at a traffic light, Crawford hopped out of the car and was nearly run over as he frantically searched for an item left on the ground. Assuming it must be something important, Heilmann got out to help as angry drivers sounded their horns and careened around him. “Got It!” Crawford exclaimed suddenly, holding a hair pin. “Don’t you know that?" He said to Heilmann, "A lady’s hairpin means a two-base hit!”

Pepper Martin (sparkplug of the 1934 "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals) also believed that hairpins brought good luck and, when a pair of well-meaning reporters deliberately dumped a bunch of them in the lobby of  a Cincinnati hotel to give Martin a mental boost, outfielder Joe Medwick showed up first and started scooping them up. When beat writer Roy Stockton explained who the items were for, Medwick allegedly barked: "To hell with Martin! Let him find his own hairpins!"
For eighteen seasons, a man named Alexander George Washington Rivers served as Ty Cobb’s personal assistant and Detroit's team mascot. He was also entrusted with the task of “massaging good luck” into the bats of Tiger players. An expert on the topic of bad omens, he advised against the use of broken cups or plates and encouraged players to avoid looking at cross-eyed people on Mondays, which, according to Rivers, would result in "dead bad luck all week." 

 During the 1933 slate, Braves’ slugger Wally Berger adopted the peculiar habit of seeking out a particular refreshment steward (a young African American fellow named Jim Walton) before home games and rubbing the man’s head for luck. Berger hit .309 with 41 extra-base hits and 54 RBI's in 76 home games that season.
Many years later, Derek Jeter developed a similar relationship with Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer. From his earliest days in the majors, Jeter took to rubbing Zimmer’s bald dome before plate appearances. The paternal Zimmer even tolerated having his belly patted by the iconic shortstop and his shins pelted with soft tosses during infield drills. During Zimmer's eight years as bench coach, Jeter captured Rookie of the Year honors, scored 100 or more runs in 7 straight seasons and gathered 190 or more hits six times.
We'll continue to explore the topic of superstitions in baseball as Halloween draws closer...

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