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 a.m. At 1 p.m. he went to the nearest restaurant for two glasses of iced tea and a tuna fish sandwich. Although the afternoon was free, he changed into the sweatshirt and supporter he wore during his last winning game, and one hour before the game he chewed a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco. During the game he touched his letters (the team name on his uniform) after each pitch and straightened his cap after each ball. Before the start of each inning he replaced the pitcher's rosin bag next to the spot where it was the inning before. And after every inning in which he gave up a run he would wash his hands.
I asked him which part of the ritual was most important. He responded, "You can't really tell what's important so it all becomes important. I'd be afraid to change anything. As long as I'm winning, I do everything the same. Even when I can't wash my hands [this would occur when he ahd to bat], it scares me going back to the mount . . . I don't feel quite right."
Trobriand Islanders, according to anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, felt the same way about their fishing magic. Among the Trobrianders, fishing took two forms. In the inner lagoon, fish were plentiful and there was little danger; on the open sea, fishing was dangerous and yields varied widely. Malinowski 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, Trobrianders used a great deal of magical ritual to ensure safety and increase their catch.
Baseball, the American national sport, is an arena in which the players behave remarkably like Malinowski's Trobriand fishermen. To professional baseball players, baseball is more than a game. It is an occupation. Since their livelihood depends on how well they perform, they use magic to try to control or eliminate the chance and uncertainty built into baseball.
To control uncertainty, ex-San Francisco Giant pitcher Ron Bryant added a new stick a bubble gum to the collection in his bulging back pocket after each game he won. Jim Ohms, my teammate on the Daytona Beach Islanders in 1966, used to put another penny in the pouch of his upporter after each win. Clanging against the hard plastic genital cup, the pennies made an audible sound as the pitcher ran thebases toward the end of a winning season. Fred Caviglia, a former Kansas City minor-league pitcher, used to eat the same food before each game he pitched.
Whether they are professional baseball players, Trobriand fishermen, soldiers or farmers, people resort to magic in situations of chance, when they belive they have limited control over the success of their activities. In technologically advanced societies that pride themselves on a scientific approach to problem solving, as well as in simple societies, rituals of magic are common.
Magic is a human attempt to impose order and certainty on a chaotic, uncertain situation. This attempt is irrational in that there is no causal connection between the instruments of magic and the desired consequences of the magical practice. But it is rational in that it creates in the practitioner a sense of confidence, competence and control, which in turn is important to successfully executing a specific activity and achieving a desired result. Magic and Uncertainty
THERE ARE THREE essential activities in baseball: pitching, hitting and fielding. The first two, pitching and hitting, involve a great deal of chance and are comparable to the Trobriand fishermen's open sea; in them, players use magic and ritual to increase their chances for success. The third activity, fielding, involves little uncertainty, and is similar to the Trobriander inner lagoon; fielders find it unnecessary to resort to magic.
The pitcher is the player least able to control the outcome of his own efforts. His best pitch may be hit for a home run, and his worst pitch may be hit directly into the hands of a fielder for an out or be swung at and missed for a third strike. He may limit the opposing team to a few hits yet lose the game, or he may give up a dozen hits and win.
Frequently pitchers perform well and lose, and perform poorly and win. One has only to look at the frequency with which pitchers end a season with poor won-lost records but good earned-run averages (a small number of runs given up per game), or vice versa. For example, in 1977 Jerry Koosman of the New York Mets had an abysmal won-lost record of 8 and 20, but a competent 3.49 earned-run average, while Larry Christenson of the Philadelphia Phillies had an unimpressive earned-run average of 4.07 and an excellent won-lost record of 19 and 6. Regardless of how well he performs, the pitcher depends upon the proficiency of his teammates, the inefficiency of the opposition, and caprice.
An incredible example of bad luck in pitching occurred some years ago involving former Giant outfielder Willie Mays. Mays intentionally "dove for the dirt" to avoid being hit in the head by a fastball. While he was falling, the ball hit his bat and went shooting down the leftfield line. Mays jumped up and ran, turning the play into a double. Players shook their heads in amazement - most players can't hit when they try to, but Mays couldn't avoid hitting even when he tried not to.
Hitting is also full of risk and uncertainty - Boston Red Sox outfielder and Hall of Famer Ted Williams called it the most difficult single task in the world of sports.
Consider the forces and time constraints operating against the batter. A fastball travels from the pitcher's mound to the batter's box, just 60 1/2 feet, in three to four-tenths of a second. For only 3 feet of the journey, an absurdly short 2/100ths of a second, the ball is in a position where it can be hit. And to be hit well, the ball must be neither too close to the batter's body nor too far from the "meat" of his bat. Any distraction, any slip of a muscle or change in stance can throw a swing off.
Once th ball is hit, chance plays a large role in determining where it will go - into a waiting glove, whistling past a fielder's diving stab or into the wide-open spaces. While the pitcher who threw the fastball of Mays was suffering, Mays was collecting the benefits of luck.
Batters also suffer from the fear of being hit by a pitch - by a fastball that often travels at speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour. Throughout baseball history the great fastball pitchers - men like Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, and currently Nolan Ryan of the California Angels - have thrived on this fear and on the level of distraction it causes hitters.
In fieldings, on the other hand, the player has almost complete control over the outcome. Once a ball has been hit in his direction, no one can intervene and ruin his chances of catching it for an out. Infielders have approximately 3 seconds in which to judge the flight of the ball, field it cleanly and throw it to first base. Outfielders have almost double that amount of time to track down a fly ball. The average fielding percentage of .975, compared with a .250 success rate for hitters (the average batting percentage), reflects the degree of certainty in fielding. 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.
In keeping with Malinowski's hypothesis about the relationship between magic and uncertainty, my research shows that baseball players associate magic with hitting and pitching, but not with fielding. Despite the wide assortment of magic - which includes rituals, taboos and fetishes - associated with both hitting and pitching, I have known only one player, a shortstop with fielding problems, who reported any ritual even remotely connected with fielding. Rituals and Taboos
THE MOST COMMON form of magic in professional baseball is personal ritual - a prescribed form of behavior that players scrupulously observe in an effort to ensure that things go their way.
These rituals, like those of Malinowski's Trobriand fishermen, are performed in a routine, unemotional manner, much as players do nonmagical things to improve their play: rubbing pine tar on the hands to improve a grip on the bat, or rubbing a new ball to make it more comfortable and responsive to the pitcher's grip. Rituals are infinitely varied, since ballplayers may formalize any activity that they consider important to performing well.
Rituals usually grow out of exceptionally good performances. When a player does well he seldom attributes his success to skill alone. Although his skill remains constant, he may go hitless in one game and in the next get three or four hits. Many players attribute the inconsistencies in their performances to an object, item of food or form of behavior outside their play. Through ritual, players seek to gain control over their performance. In the 1920s and '30s sportswriters reported that a player who tripped en route to the field would often retrace his steps and carefully walk over the stumbling block for "insurance."
The word "taboo" comes from a Polynesian term meaning prohibition. Failure to observe a taboo or prohibition leads to undesirable consequences or bad luck. Most players observe a number of taboos. Taboos usually grow out of exceptionally poor performances, which players often attribute to a particular behavior or food.
Certain uniforms may become taboo. If a player has a poor spring training season or an unsuccessful year, he may refuse to wear the same number again. During my first season of professional baseball I ate pancakes before a game in which I struck out four times. Several weeks later I had a repeat performance, again after eating pancakes. The result was a pancake taboo - I never ate pancakes during the season from that day on.
Another personal taboo, against holding a baseball during the national anthem (the usual practice for first basemen, who must warm up the other infielders), had a similar origin.
Fetishes or charms are material objects believed to embody supernatural powers that aid or protect the owner. Good-luck fetishes are standard equipment for may ballplayers. They include a wide assortment of objects: horsehide covers from old baseballs, coins, bobby pins (Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell collected these), crucifixes and old bats. Ordinary objects acquire power by being connected to exceptionally hot batting or pitching streaks, especially ones in which players get all the breaks. A player who is in a slump might find a coin or an odd stone just before he begins a hitting streak, attribute an improvement in his performance to the influence of the new object, and regard it as a fetish.
While playing for Spokane, a DOdger farm team, 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 borrowed shoes. After he bought them from his teammate, they became a prized possession. The Rituals of Pitchers
BECAUSE MOST PITCHERS play only once every four days, they perform rituals less frequently than hitters. The rituals they do perform, however, are just as important. A pitcher cannot make up for a poor performance the next day, and having to wait three days to redeem oneself can be miserable. Moreover, the team's win or loss depends more on the performance of the pitcher than on any other single player. Considering the pressures to do well, it is not surprising that pitchers' rituals are often more complex than those of hitters.
A 17-game winner last year in the Texas Ranger organization, Mike Griffin begins his ritual preparation a full day before he pitches by washing his hair. The next day, although he does not consider himself superstitious, he eats bacon for lunch. When Griffin dresses for the game he puts on his clothes in the same order, making certain he puts the slightly longer of his two outer, or "stirrup," socks on his right leg. "I just wouldn't feel right mentally if I did it the other way around," he explains. He always wears the same shirt under his uniform on the days he pitches. During the game he takes off his cap after each pitch, and between innings he sits in the same place on the dugout bench.
Tug McGraw, a relief pitcher for the Phillies, slaps his thigh with his glove with each step he takes leaving the mound at the end of an inning. This began as a means of saying hello to his wife in the stands, but has since become a ritual. McGraw now slaps his thigh whether his wife is there or not.
Many of the rituals pitchers engage in - tugging their caps between pitches, touching the rosin bag after each bad pitch, smoothing the dirt on the mound before each new batter or inning (as the Tigers' Mark Fidrych does) - take place on the field. Most baseball fans observe this behavior regularly, never realizing that it may be as important to the pitcher as actually throwing the ball.
Uniform numbers have special significance for some pitchers. Many have a lucky number, which they request. Since the choice is usually limited, pitchers may try to get a number that at least contains their lucky digit, such as 14, 24, 34 or 44 for the pitcher whose lucky number is 4.
Oddly enough, there is no consensus about the dffect of wearing number 13. Some pitchers will not wear it; others, such as Oakland's John (Blue Moon) Odom and Steve Barber, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, prefer it. (During a pitching slump, however, Odom asked for a new number. Later he switched back to 13.)
Vida Blue, formerly with Oakland and now playing for San Francisco, changed his uniform number from 35 to 14, the number he wore as a high-school quarterback. When the new number did not produce the better pitching performance he was looking for, he switched back to his old number.
One of the sources of his good fortune, Blue believed, was the baseball cap that he had worn since 1974. Several American League umpires refused to let him wear the faded and soiled cap last season. When Blue persisted, he was threatened with a fine and suspension from a game. Finally he conceded, but not before he ceremoniously burned the hat on the field before a game.
On the days they are scheduled to appear, many pitchers avoid activities that they believe sap their strength and therefore detract from their effectiveness, or that they otherwise generally link with poor performance. Many pitchers avoid eating certain foods on their pitching days. Some pitchers refuse to walk anywhere on the day of the game in the belief that every little exertion subtracts from their playing strength.
One pitcher would never put on his cap until the game started and would not wear it at all on the days he did not pitch. Another had a movie taboo. He refused to watch movies on the day of the game. And until this season Al Hrabosky, recently traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Kansas City Royals, had an even more encompassing taboo: Samsonlike, he refused to cut his hair or beard during the entire season - part of the reason for his nickname, the "Mad Hungarian." Tapping for a Hit
MANY HITTERS go through a series of preparatory rituals before stepping into the batter's box. These include tugging on their caps, touching their uniform letters or medallions, crossing themselves, tapping or bouncing the bat on the plate, swinging the weighted warm-up bat a prescribed number of times and smoothing the dirt in the batter's box.
Rocky Colavito, a colorful home-run hitter in the 1950s and '60s, used to stretch his arms behind his back and cross himself when he came to the plate. A player in the Texas Ranger organization draws a triangle in the dirt outside the batter's box, with the peak pointing toward center field. Other players are careful never to step on the chalk lines of the batter's box when standing at the plate.
Clothing, both the choice of clothes and the order in which they are put on, is often ritualized. During a batting streak many players wear the same clothes and uniforms for each game and put them on in exactly the same order.
Once I changed sweatshirts midway through the game for seven consecutive games to keep a hitting streak going. During a 16-game winning streak in 1954 the New York Giants 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.
Taking this ritual to the extreme, Leo Durocher, managing the Brooklyn Dodgers to a pennant in 1941, spent 3 1/2 weeks in the same black shoes, gray slacks, blue coat and knitted blue tie.
The opposite may also occur. Several of the Oakland A's players bought new street clothing last year in an attempt to break a 14-game losing streak. Most players, however, single out one or two lucky articles or quirks of dress rather than ritualizing all items of clothing.
After hitting two home runs in a game, infielder Jim Davenport of the San Francisco Giants discovered that he had missed a buttonhole while dressing for the game. For the remainder of his career he left the same button undone.
A popular ritual associated with hitting is tagging a base when leaving and returning to the dugout during each inning. Mickey Mantle was in the habit of tagging second base on the way to or from the outfield.
During a successful month of the season one player stepped on third base on his way to the dugout after the third, sixth and ninth innings of each game. Asked if he ever purposely failed to step on the bag he replied, "Never! wouldn't dare. It would destroy my confidence to hit."
Another component of a hitter's ritual may be tapping the plate with his bat. A teammate of mine described a variation of this in which he gambled for a certain hit by tapping the plate with his bat a fixed number of times: one tap for a single, two for a double and so on. He even built in odds that prevented him from asking for a home run each time at bat. The odds of hitting a home run with four taps were 1 in 12.
There is a taboo against crossing bats, against permitting one bat to rest on top of another. Although this superstition appears to be dying out among professional ballplayers, it was religiously observed by some of my teammates a decade ago.
For Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner, a charter member of baseball's Hall of Fame, each bat contained only a certain number of hits, and never more than 100. Regardless of the quality of the bat, he would discard it after its 100th hit.
Hall of Famer Johny Evers, of the Chicago Cubs' double-play trio Tinker to Evers to Chance, believed in saving his luck. If he was hitting well in practice, he would suddenly stop and retire to the bench to "save" his batting for the game. Universal Taboos
FOOD OFTEN forms part of a hitter's ritual repertoire. Eating certain foods before a game is supposed to give ball "eyes" - that is, the ability to seek the gaps between fielders after being hit.
In hopes of maintaining a batting streak, I once ate chicken every day at 4 p.m. until the streak ended. Hitters - like pitchers - also avoid certain foods that are believed to sap their strength during the game.
There are other examples of hitters' ritualized behavior. I once kept my eyes closed during the national anthem in an effort to prolong a batting streak. And a teammate of mine refused to read anything on the day of a game because he believed that reading weakened his eyesight when batting.
These are personal taboos. There are some taboos, however, that all players hold and that do not develop out of individual experiences or misfortunes. These taboos are learned, some as early as Little League.
Meantioning a no-hitter while one is in progress is a widely known example. It is believed that if a pitcher hears the words "no-hitter," the spell will be broken and the no-hitter lost. Until recently this taboo was also observed by sports broadcasters, who used various linguistic subterfuges to inform their listeners that the pitcher had not given up a hit, never mentioning "no-hitter."
Most professional baseball coaches or managers wil not step on the chalk foul lines when going onto the field to talk to their pitchers. Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson jumps over the line. Others follow a different ritual. They intentionally step on the lines when they are going to take a pitcher out of a game. Like Skinner's Pigeons
HOW DO THESE rituals and taboos get established in the first place? B. F. Skinner's early research with pigeons provides a clue. Like human beings, pigeons quickly learn to associate their behavior with rewards or punishment. By rewarding the birds at the appropriate time, Skinner taught them such elaborate games as table tennis, miniature bowling or playing simple tunes on a toy piano.
On one occasion he decided to see what would happen if pigeons were rewarded with food pellets every 15 seconds, regardless of what they did. He found that the birds tended to associate the arrival of food with a particular action - tucking the head under a wing, hopping from side to side or turning in a clockwise direction. About 10 seconds after the arrival of the last pellet, a bird would begin doing whatever it had associated with getting the food and keep it up until the next pellet arrived.
In the same way, baseball players tend to believe there is a causal connection between two events that are linked only temporally. If a superstitious player touches his crucifix and then gets a hit, he may decide the gesture was responsible for his good fortune and follow the same ritual the next time he comes to the plate. If he should get another hit, the chances are good that he will begin touching the crucifix each time he bats and that he will do so whether or not be hits safely each time.
The average batter hits safely approximately one quarter of the time. And, if the behavior of Skinner's pigeons - or gamblers at a Las Vegas slot machine - is any guide, that is more often than necessary to keep him believing in a ritual.
Skinner found that once a pigeon associated one of its actions with the arrival of food or water, sporadic rewards would keep the connection going. One bird, which apparently believed hopping from side to side brought pellets into its feeding cup, hopped 10,000 times without a pellet before it gave up.
Since the batter associates his hits at least in some degree with this ritual touching of a crucifix, each hit he gets reinforces the strength of the ritual. Even if he falls into a batting slump and the hits temporarily stop, he will persist in touching the crucifix in the hope that this will change his luck.
Skinner's and Malinowski's explanations are not contradictory. Skinner focuses on how the individual comes to develop and maintain a particular ritual, taboo or fetish. Malinowski focuses on why human beings turn to magic in precarious or uncertain situations. In their attempts to gain greater control over their performance, baseball players respond to chance and uncertainty in the same way as do people in simple societies.
It is wrong to assume that magical practices are a waste of time for either group. The magic in baseball obviously does not make a pitch travel faster or more accurately, or a batted ball seek the gaps between fielders. Nor does the Trobriand brand of magic make the surrounding seas calmer and more abundant with fish. But both kinds of magic give their practitioners a sense of control - and an important element in any endeavor is confidence.