29 April 2015
In the Dugout: A Field Study of the Routines, Rituals, and Superstitions of College Baseball Players
Baseball is known as one of America’s favorite pastimes. According to 2014 espn.com article, there were 23.5 million viewers tuned in to game seven of the 2014 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals. There are millions of baseball fans around, but do many of them know the reasons for much of what goes on during their favorite sport? As an amateur fan of baseball myself, I have realized that there are many things unknown to me and many others about this popular sport – the lingo, rituals, actions, etc. This folk group – consisting of professionals, amateurs, and recreational players – is such an intricate collection of people that I wish to be a bigger part of. In order to cure ignorance, further research into what goes on behind the scenes and in the player’s heads before, during, and after a baseball game seemed necessary. To understand an action, one must first understand the thoughts and beliefs behind it. I hope to find if there is any consistency with baseball rituals and to discover if there is practical reasoning behind these routine actions while also finding if there may be some correlation to the improvement of an athlete’s performance.
There is an abundance of information and lists about the weird, wacky, and whimsical routines and beliefs of professional baseball players. People love to follow their favorite athlete and therefore anything an athlete does that is the least bit out-of-the-ordinary or interesting will likely be recorded and mass communicated. A simple Google search will result in a multitude of hits titled “Top 40 Strangest Rituals of the Pros” or “Ten Baseball Superstitions that Will Make You Laugh Out Loud.” When digging through these outrageously titled articles, one can actually find legitimate sources, new insights, and a wealth of folkloric information.
Beginning with rituals, Merriam-Webster defines the term as something “always done in a particular situation and in the same way each time,” (“ritual”). An anthropological view of rituals defines them as “prescribed behaviors in which there is no empirical connection between the means … and the desired end …” (Gmelch 2). In everyday life, many people have morning rituals, bedtime rituals, and even rituals in the workplace or at school, but the more user-friendly term “routine” is most commonly used. In baseball, there are thousands upon thousands of rituals that have been recorded, and there is a lot of variety, but also a lot of commonality. This ambiguity is because every player seems to add their own unique quirk to a few common base ritualistic behaviors.
Most rituals can be categorized into several broad groups. The largest group of rituals would be the at-bat rituals. This is the most highly individualized and varied category of rituals because there is an infinite number of different combinations and moves one could do. Subcategories can include how the batter approaches the box, what they do when they first enter the box, what they do between each pitch while still in the box, or what they do when leaving the box. The most variety can be found immediately before batters enter the box and between each pitch. Frequently, players will always enter the box with the same foot (Reuter). Another common approach to the box is major leaguers draw words in the dirt, like the Hebrew term “Chia” meaning life, done by Hall of Famer Wade Boggs (Reuter). In general, a form of “tugging the sleeves, tap[ping] of the bat and patting the helmet in the batter box” is pretty standard when in the box or just outside of it (Brennan). More individualized rituals of professionals inside the batter’s box include adjusting batting gloves between each pitch or spitting into ones hands and clapping (Reuter). The most highly conserved and varied practice would be performing a combination of tagging the base (touching it with the bat or ones foot), twirling the bat, moving the arms, and adjusting or touching a part of their uniform. Boston Red Sox player Nomar Garciaparra “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” (Reuter). It is as if there is a magical base formula where players can plug-and-chug their individual parts. Through casual watching of games this season, I noted that Reds player Skip Schumaker sets the bat between his legs and unstraps then re-straps both batting gloves, while Cardinal Matt Carpenter will simply rock backwards and arch his back between each pitch. An interesting nugget about at-bat rituals is that if at any time the player is interrupted or does not “feel right” they would almost always start the ritual completely over. No matter what. This could be a contributor as to why baseball is such a slowly played game.
The next category is pre-game rituals. The most common of these would be the meal before-hand. Many Pros either eat the same breakfast or the same dinner before each game. Boston Red Sox player “Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game during his career” (Gmelch 2). Also, Stan Musial would eat the same breakfast of “an egg, then two pancakes, then … another egg” before each game (Reuter). Some teams even eat the same meal together or have some form of food/drink together before a game. According to an April 2011 Bleacher Report article, the 1894 Baltimore Orioles team would drink one cup of turkey gravy together before they went out to batting practice before each game (Reuter).
Winning- and losing-streak rituals are the last categories I will define. These are also rather broad categories. Players having a personal and positive streak or a team that is enjoying a winning streak will do just about anything to keep that streak going. Many players chose to wear a certain article of clothing and will continue to wear their lucky item until the streak is broken without ever washing the item (BR 2). Also, men will often grow out a certain area of facial hair until a streak is over. Some players have claimed to chew the same piece of gum until the streak is over, usually storing said piece of gum under the bill of a hat or helmet (Reuter). On the opposing side, teams on a losing streak will usually attribute this to a curse of some sort. The most famous being the Boston Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” when they traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, and what followed was an 86-year period of failures to win a World Series (Gmelch 2). Other examples of curses include the Black Sox (currently today’s Chicago White Sox) “Curse of Shoeless Joe” and the Chicago Cubs’ “Curse of the Billy Goat” (BR 2). According to Lightfoot the “Curse of Shoeless Joe” is attributed to the 1919 World Series that several of the players tried to throw. They took money to purposefully throw the game (225). The “Curse of the Billy Goat” was described to me by J.J. Guenther as the time in the 1940s when a local tavern owner’s pet goat was causing discomfort among fans at the World Series game. The owner was asked to leave and apparently cursed the Chicago Cubs. All of these “curses” are attributed to a time when the team could not win a World Series.
There are some rituals out there that are so off-the-wall and outrageous that they straddle the line between true ritual and publicity stunt. Jason Giambi, in order to break a slump, would wear a gold thong under his uniform, while outfielder Rico Carty would light 5 candles and place them in the bathtub and toilet of his hotel room the night before a game in hopes of a five-hit game the next day (Reuter).
It is also worth mentioning several baseball rituals that are consistent throughout all of baseball. The singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch is done at every single baseball game. This song is also universal it seems, in such a way that people who are not fans of baseball will know all or most of the lyrics. According to a 2008 mlb.com article, this song was coined by Jack Norworth who “saw that sign while riding a New York subway in 1908,” (Newman). The sign they are talking about read the seven-line lyrics of the chorus. He was inspired to write an entire song around this chorus he found, and it soon became a quintessential part of the baseball experience.
Rituals are idiosyncratic, for I found no two that were exactly alike. That is, unless it is one of the common rituals I stated earlier such as things one should not say. Even if a player was imitating the movements of another, he would still individualize his actions to his own personal taste. There is so much conservation and variation in baseball rituals it would take a whole novel to catalogue them all, and even then the book could never be completely finished.
Baseball players seem to ritualize just about any behavior they can – be it their food ways, the way they get dressed, or the way they play the game – because they want to feel like they have as much control as possible in a game where control is almost nonexistent, and success rides on the backs of a number of different factors. In a game where success is failing about seventy percent of the time, luck and a confident mind set play a huge role. Gmelch says that “the uncertainty is compounded by the low success rate of hitters … the very best hitters average only one hit every three trips [to the plate]” (1). It is also important to note that most baseball players have some personal stake in the outcome of the game. Young children simply want to win, high school players are looking to do well enough to earn college scholarships, collegiate players want to be drafted, and “[s]ince [professional baseball players’] livelihoods depend on how well they perform, many use magic to try to control the chance that is built into baseball” (Gmelch 1).
Rituals also seem to serve a luck functions for players. They all come about because of some action that had an exceptionally positive result. When a player performs in an outstanding manner, they attribute this to an arbitrary object or action as opposed to the idea that they have reached a higher skill level than in previous games because the latter seems more improbable to them. So by repeating a positive action, a good performance is sure to follow. This seems a ridiculous idea but experts say that rituals do in fact bleed into the realm of the irrational. “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 decides to repeat what he did today in an attempt to bring more good luck,” (Gmelch 2). On a more relatable level, people do this very action in their everyday lives. If one does well on a test and they were chewing gum, they will most likely chew gum for future tests as well. As another example, some people will attribute a particularly good day to the clothes they are wearing.
Concentration and focus also seem to be some other roles rituals play – especially with the at-bat rituals that seem to be all about getting comfortable and “in the zone.” It is said that hitting a baseball is “the single most difficult task in the world of sports…” (Gmelch 1). To complete such a daunting task, it seems logical that concentration is absolutely essential to having any semblance of success. Gmelch says that “routines are comforting … [and they can aid in] helping the player concentrate” (1). Pre-game rituals have the exact same effect here. They provide a situation that eases a player into the right mind set needed for peak performance.
Ritualistic behavior often bleeds into that of superstition, and the terms are often intermingled – the difference being that superstitions tend to thrive more in the realm of magic. The term superstition often brings to mind a worrying grandmother warning you of black cats, broken mirrors, and cracks in the side walk, but superstitions run much deeper than this surface, superficial level. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck: a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck,” (“superstition”). Bringing luck sounds familiar does it not? Rituals and superstition are clearly very closely related so it would be reasonable to assume that superstitions are also abundant in the world of baseball.
In dealing with superstitions, three categories can be defined. I have classified and aptly titled these categories as such – things one does not say/do under ANY circumstances, lucky tokens/items, and repetition/continuation of an action. I will start with the first and most heavily stressed category. Research has shown that the single most important thing a player, fan, announcer, or any human being for that matter should not say is “no-hitter.” If a pitcher throws a “no-hitter” this means that he threw a complete game (all nine innings) without giving up any hits. If this phrase is uttered allowed, anyone who knows anything about baseball will cringe and according to several Truman baseball players they would “banish you from the dugout and beat the piss out of you.” This is the most taboo jinx in baseball history. There is a good deal of variation in the general category of what not to say because any combination of words or phrases that signify a team is winning, is going to win, or is even doing really well is highly frowned up and shunned. I remember one of the first baseball games I ever watched with my boyfriend. The St. Louis Cardinals were ahead by several runs toward the last few innings, and I absentmindedly made a comment that they were probably going to win. The silence that ensued was deafening and the look I received was terrifying. One would have thought that I had just said I hated the Cardinals and hoped they would never win again. For the next several days that followed he would inform any fellow baseball player of the colossal mistake I had made, and they would in turn make horrified faces at me and shun me as well. I learned very quickly not to do this again. Reading into this phenomenon, it seems that even sports announcers will avoid the term, taking great lengths to inform viewers about what is happening without ever saying the actual term. There is some cross generic migration with this practice. In theatre, you cannot say “Macbeth” or “Good luck.”
Another superstition in the category of “what not to do” is never stepping on the foul line. When players enter the field most will simply make a conscious effort to step over the line, but there are a select few including Mets player Turk Wendell and Red Sox player Nomar Garciaparra who would take this a few steps further and get a running start in order to hurtle over the foul line. This is very similar to the superstition about not stepping on a sidewalk crack or else you break your mother’s back. The taboo of stepping on X, Y, Z, etc. with something terrible following is a very common occurrence and shows cross generic migration again, in this instance with unwritten sports and playground rules. The most interesting part of this superstition though, is that there are a handful of professional players who will intentionally step on the foul line (Reuter). These players seem to be intentionally trying to ignore superstition and prove they are not ruled by it. But by making it a habit to step on the line every game, they have turned their rebellious act into a superstition itself or at the least a ritual of their own.
The next category of superstitions is tokens. This category seems to be the most relatable to everyday life. In my case, I carry around a buckeye for good luck, given to me by my family. Many people wear a cross, carry a rabbits foot, or hang onto a lucky penny they found heads-up. In the case of baseball players, many wear a lucky article of clothing, such as a hat or helmet, undergarments, socks, etc. Astros pitcher Charlie Kerfeld would wear aJetsons t-shirt under his uniform for every game (Reuter). Facial hair is another lucky “token” per say. Teams on a winning streak, or sometimes individual players, will grow out a moustache or their facial hair in general. The Truman baseball team is almost always forced to stay clean shaven during their season, and only if they are doing well are they allowed to grow out some facial hair. This idea of carrying around a magical item to provide luck has been observed in the military as well, especially during World War II. “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)…,” (Gmelch 3). Again, there is more cross generic migration with superstitions. This particular category of superstition also bleeds into the winning streak category of rituals. Overall, it can be decided that these categories do not have clear cut lines and at times can be somewhat difficult to define.
The idea of a lucky number or repetition with numbers can also be found in baseball lore as well as most other sports lore. Turk Wendell wore the number 99 to honor Charlie Sheens character in the movie Major League, and he even “signed for $9,999,999.99 prior to the 2000 season,” (Reuter). According to a 2010 Bleacher Report article, “Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs would take exactly 150 ground balls during practice” (Reuter). Larry Walker was by far the most obsessed with numbers. He wore the number 33 throughout his entire baseball career, “[he] set his alarm for 33 minutes past the hour each day, took his practice swings in sets of three and was even married on November 3rd at 3:33 PM,” (Reuter). Path repetition, such as walking out on to the field or leaving the field on the exact same path was common as well.
In general, people use superstitious beliefs in an attempt to start or continue a winning streak or to end a losing streak. It is all about ensuring success. Like I said earlier, success is something hard to come by in baseball. I would go so far as to claim that rituals and superstitions are bidirectional. Because of a certain superstition a player has, he will in turn make a ritual out of that action. On the other hand, if a player performs a routine and he ends up playing well, he will most likely continue with that routine and associate it with a magical reality. Superstition and ritual go hand in hand and seem to be performed for the same basic reasons.
After my research yielded such rich and abundant information, it was time to conduct a study of my own with the Truman baseball team. I sent out a questionnaire with basic demographic information along with ten short answer questions asking about routines, lucky charms, and inspirations to each player on the team. I received 15 emails back. Also, in the email I asked the players if they wanted to help me a step further and do an in-person interview. There were 10 other players who were able to set up interviews with me. I asked the boys to meet at my boyfriend’s apartment because I knew they would feel more comfortable with a teammate around. We sat on the couch with the television on, so any silence from me pausing to take notes would be less uncomfortable. I also had some store bought cookies for the interviewees to eat, all in hopes they would be more comfortable around me.
In preparation for the interviews, I asked my boyfriend to go over my questions and make sure the lingo I used was right, and I also had him brief me on some general rules, terms, and ways of baseball so that I would not sound completely ignorant on the topic. He also had to brief me on the real names of players and their nicknames. Not a single boy on the team goes by his God-given first name. Many of them go by a last name, or usually a variation of the last name, like “Schmidty,” “Baino,” or “Hoff” for Schmidt, Bainbridge, and Hoffman. A combination of first and last names was also popular in the case of “T-bell” or “T-hill” for Trevor Bell and Tyler Hill. Then there were the laughable, endearing nicknames such as “Boobie” and “Mongo” that had no relation to the names Blake and Alex. I suppose this is also a little piece of folklore I did not intend to find, but it is very intriguing. I saw this border patrolling phenomenon first hand when the boys introduced themselves to me. They gave me their birth names, but when another player entered the room they would be referred to by their nickname. It was interesting to see when some of the boys I did not know well talked about a teammate. They would refer to said teammate by their birth name, but when I was talking to boys I knew well, they would use the nickname to refer to another boy. So in some cases I was included in the group, but in others I was still on the outside. In almost every case the nickname had been made up within the first year these boys started college – the “nicknaming” of a teammate had become an unconscious ritualistic behavior.
The boys ranged from ages nineteen to twenty-three, had a variety of different majors, and were from a wide range of areas – Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Even with this wide range of demographics, the consistency with the responses was incredible. The three responses that were the most consistent were “don’t step on the foul line…ever” “don’t say ‘no-hitter,’” and “never talk to a starting pitcher.” This is consistent with my research because the first two were the results with the least amount of variation. In the case of “no hitter,” there was absolutely no variation; every single person I asked gave me this response.
At-bat rituals as well as routines between pitches were another consistent area of responses. Each person had a varied routine, but the consistency was in the general action itself – everyone did something that was repeated. Junior third baseman Trevor Bell said he would spit into his hands, rub his hands together, grab his right pant leg, and then touch the back left corner of the plate with the bat. Junior outfielder T.J Wood said he would lay the nobs of the bat on his back leg, stretch his back out, turn his back toward the plate, scratch his front foot back, then forward, and back again, then dig in the dirt with his back foot, flip his bat around once, grab his back pant leg, click his feet together, and put the bat on his shoulder. Catcher Mike Monfre demonstrated his routine to me as such “I don’t wear gloves first-off, I grab dirt, rub my hands, grab the bat, step in, then my back foot swipes up and back, then digs in, and then touch the far side with my toe.” Some boys had very short rituals while others had very elaborate ones, but either way the consistency was there in that each player had a specific action that they did every single time. When the players were in the infield or outfield they did not have any ritualistic behavior. Looking back on my research this rang true and was consistent across the board.
The pitchers in-between pitch routines were similar to those of the guys’ at-bat – they all did some form of moving their feet or arms and adjusting their uniforms. Senior John Scofield had a fairly simple routine of stepping behind the mound, stretching out his arms, and then adjusting his hat. Freshman Matt Tometz said “I use my right cleat and move it from right to left on top of the mound to remove the dirt before each pitch.” Senior Brett Gerstner would simply adjust his cap after every pitch. Junior Shane Schmidt told me that his high school teammate, Brett Shores, would spit into each hand and smack them together before each pitch. Joey Gardner told me about his friend from high school, pitcher Jake Ivory who would draw his sister’s initials, who had passed away, into the mound before each game. Several Truman team members told me that senior Cody Gardner would open his mouth very wide as he was winding up to pitch. This was interesting in that Cody did not acknowledge that he did this, it was completely unconscious. Again, whether the routine was short and sweet or long and distracting, the repetition of the routine was there.
A few of the guys wrote things under the bill of their hats. They told me that with every new baseball cap they got they would repeat this. Monfre wrote “NO PRESSURE NO DIAMONDS,” “Luke 1:37,” and “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” Bell wrote the initials and numbers of three of his past teammates that had passed away, the quote “Today is not past, tomorrow is not promised” and “FTD” which stands for “F*ck The Doubters.” Shane Schmidt would always write a “$$.” Most of the guys had emotional reasons for writing under their cap but others simply wrote the same number or symbol for the sake of repetition or just because it was something they had always done.
Only three guys claimed to have food related pre- or post-game rituals. Bell said he had to eat eggs and toast before every game and if the team was on a winning streak he had to eat the same dinner after each game won. Gerstner said he would eat Subway before each game and senior Tyler McCreary said he would not eat anything before a game because it would make him sick. Many of the boys had lucky clothing, such as undershirts and gloves, and Wood wore dress socks to every game and the same pair of shorts he had from his sophomore year of high school under his uniform pants.
I found the general consensus to be that most of the guys remembered starting these rituals around the beginning of high school, but I am hesitant to state this because no one seemed certain when they gave this answer. Their “answer” usually sounded like questions and ended with a shoulder shrug. To add even more confusion, most of them could not remember why they did these specific actions, other than “they were comfortable.” A few boys had specific attributions to learning this habit from a childhood coach, but other than that every time I asked why they started these routines or where they learned them from, the majority told me they could not place it. It is strange and intriguing that no one knew how their elaborate ritual of moves came to be.
Is there any real evidence as to whether superstition and rituals actually improve a player’s performance? There is no scientific proof that I was able to find, but I believe the folkloric evidence is proof enough. It is evident that rituals, routines, and keeping up with superstitious beliefs make a player feel calmer and more relaxed in a stressful situation, and less stress can lead to better performance. It is important to note that every player I spoke with knew that their ritual or superstition did not actually provide magical results – but that did not matter. The importance of the action was not in the truth behind it, but in belief of the confidence it will instilled in the player. Each of them knew their beliefs were ridiculous, but it was completely acceptable because everyone else believed in something equally as ridiculous. Do not confuse this with peer pressure or the bandwagon fallacy, this is more than that. This phenomenon is about bonding with the team, and selflessly wanting team success as opposed to simply wanting to appear “cool” and “hip.” Each individual was validated by their team mates through their rituals and superstition, and this gave them the power to perform well. This is what folklore is all about. Dr. Davis told us that it was not about the truth behind the story, but rather the function of the story, and this study is a prime example of that idea.
I have learned more than I thought I would with this project, and I was surprised at the amount of information I was able to gather. I conclude that the performance of rituals and beliefs in superstitions all boil down to the idea of control. Everyone wants to be in control of a situation, and in life, many situations leave us powerless. The stability and order offered by a routine and beliefs in superstition provides the feeling of security and comfort in one’s life. Control “spurs people to concoct false patterns and meaning from the noise of life’s chance events,” (Lightfoot). And in the world of sports, winning is everything, and players will try every possible thing, no matter how ridiculous, to win.
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Wood, T.J. Personal interview. 5 March 2015