Playing Lucky Baseball with Lady Luck Sitting in the Catbird Seat
Eddie Collins - Library of Congress
By Kathy Warnes
“I had only one superstition. I made sure to touch all the bases when I hit a home run.” – Babe Ruth
Superstition and baseball players have always played together on the baseball diamond. Babe Ruth and Red Barber had definite ideas about baseball and luck.
Curses, superstitions, and good and bad luck charms have haunted baseball and baseball players since the game developed its identity on Colonial baseball fields. Modern baseball players practice cures against curses as intensely as Salem witch judges sentenced witches in 1692.
The Curse of the Bambino, or Babe Ruth, one of the most famous in the game, is rumored to have started after the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in the 1919-1920 season. Before the sale, the Red Sox enjoyed a successful baseball record, winning the first World Series and garnering five World Series titles. After the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth, they endured a long title drought for 86 years, finally ending in 2004, when they trounced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Some Baseball Superstitions
- Stepping on a base before running off the field at the end of an inning brings good luck.
- Touching the baselines while running off and onto the field between innings is bad luck.
- Lending a bat to a fellow player attracts serious bad luck.
- Sleeping with a bat ends a hitting slump or continues one.
- Sticking a wad of gum on a player’s hat brings good luck.
- Spitting into your hand before picking up a bat brings good luck.
Joe McGinnity, known as Iron Man because he had once worked in an iron foundry, pitched in the big leagues for ten seasons, starting in 1899. He pitched his best season for John McGraw’s 1904 New York Giants, achieving a 35-8 record that helped the Giants win the National League pennant with a 106-47 record
Before they achieved their winning ways, the Giants struggled in the middle of losing streak. No matter how carefully they played, they came out on the short end of the scoreboard. Then, according to one story, one day Iron Man Joe McGinnity burst into the dressing rooms at the Polo Grounds a smile covering his face. “We’ll win today. I just saw a wagon bed of empty barrels,” he said.
Iron Man Joe pitched and won his game and the Giant’s losing streak ended. John McCraw, who understood a thing or two about psychology, wanted to win baseball games. He immediately hired a man to drive a wagon load of empty barrels around the Polo Grounds before every game. The Giants kept on winning.
Leon Kessling “Red” Ames, made his pitching debut with the New York Giants on September 14, 1903, under manager John McGraw. By 1905, he had accumulated 22 wins and a 2.74 Earned Run Average, but then his famous curve ball failed him and he couldn’t win a game. Red looked for help. One day an actress he knew sent him a rabbit’s foot and a necktie containing the most atrocious color combination Red had ever seen. A letter accompanying them instructed him to wear the necktie every day and to carry the rabbit’s foot with him wherever he went. “If you do you’ll win,” the letter said.
Red wore the tie and carried the rabbit's foot. From that point on, he didn’t lose a game until near the end of the season and he wore the necktie until it was in shreds. His career Earned Run Average of 2.63 tied him with Cy Young.
Bob Shawkey of the Yankees wouldn’t consider pitching a game without wearing his famous red flannel shirt, no matter how the thermometer soared. He firmly believed the shirt brought him luck in winning 207 games in his career. On April 18, 1923, he set the record for 15 strikeouts in a single game which held until Whitey Ford broke it in the early 1960s.
Chewing Gum, Chewing Tobacco, Spitting, and Tomato Soup
Eddie Plank ranks third in all time wins for left handers with 326 career victories and he has occupied a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1946. He would never pitch a game unless he ate a plate of tomato soup for lunch.
Urban James Shocker, who pitched for the New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns from 1916 to 1928, always chewed slippery elm and believed that a chaw of it essential to his success on the mound. Between innings he placed a wad of the gum in his glove and left the glove on the ground in front of the dugout. By so doing, according to his theory, he would pitch through the next innings satisfactorily.
Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals and he made the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938. Alexander always worked a slice of chewing tobacco, believing that he would be knocked out of the box unless he chewed it while pitching.
Most baseball players considered a cross eyed man a jinx and firmly believed that spitting in the hair would remove the spell. Christy Mathewson, a Southpaw pitcher for the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds, firmly believed in signs and charms. The story goes that he was out for a stroll one day with a clergyman and in the course of their walk they met a cross-eyed man.
“Quick!” shouted Matty, to the astonished clergyman. “Spit in your hair. There’s a cross-eyed man!
Eddie Collins of the Philadelphia Athletics, played from 1906 to 1930, and managed after that. Although he graduated from Columbia University, Collins still believed in luck. He always stuck a piece of chewing gum on the bottom of his cap when he entered a game. If the pitcher had two strikes on him, Eddie jerked off his cap, yanked the gum from the bottom, stuck it into his mouth and chewed it violently.
The Numbers Game
Larry Walker, right fielder for the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies, and St. Louis Cardinals, had a fixation for the number three. He wore number 33, and he took three practice swings before stepping into the batter’s box. He showered from the third nozzle, and got married on November 3, at 3:33 p.m.
Numbers have made baseball teams and players superstitious about a featured spot on a Sports Illustrated cover. In 2002, Sports Illustrated researchers investigated 47 historical covers and they deduced that in 913 out of 2,456 covers, something unpleasant happened to the featured teams and players. According to the researchers, nearly 12 percent of the cover teams suffered injuries or death.
Even baseball fans practice numbers compulsion when they rise from their seats for the seventh inning stretch. Different stories give different reasons for the seventh inning stretch. One story dates to an 1869 letter that Harry Wright from the Cincinnati Red Stockings wrote, stating that spectators rose in the seventh inning to stretch their legs and walk.
Another story goes that in 1910, while President William Howard Taft attended a Washington Senators game, he developed bleacher backside and stood up to stretch. When the other fans saw the President of the United States stand up, they followed suit.
Whatever the origin of the seventh inning stretches, by 1920, the fans had already practiced them for at least 50 years.
Good Luck Sitting in the Catbird Seat
Baseball announcers also developed their pet phrases and superstitions. For forty years, Walter Lanier “Red” Barber, broadcast play by play games for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Yankees. One of his most popular expressions was “sitting in the catbird seat”, which means sitting pretty like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.
Every season, baseball fans exchange good luck charms and wishes with their teams so everyone can sit in the catbird seat!
Dawidoff, Nicholas. Baseball: A Literary Anthology. Library of America, 2002.
National Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball As America: Seeing Ourselves through Our National Game. National Geographic, First Edition, 2002.
Veesey, George. Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game. Modern Library, 2008.