Take, for instance, the number 13.
Triskaidekaphobia – the fear of anything associated with the number 13 – is prevalent in society. Many tall buidings choose to skip floor 13 and go right from 12 to 14. Friday the 13th has become a day that is noted and highlighted in social media posts, though it’s usually just another uneventful day on the calendar.
In sports, players try to avoid being issued the dreaded number. That seems silly, given the success that many of their peers and predecessors have had with it.
Basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain had his number 13 retired by five different teams. When asked if he thought it was unlucky, he always anwered, “Yeah, for my opponents!”
Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca seems to be the only one who was caught up in the 13 curse. He was wearing the “unlucky” number in October 1951, when he served up the ball that Bobby Thomson hit over the fence in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds for “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that launched the New York Giants straight into the World Series.
If the fear of 13 was the only superstition in sports, that would be nice, but there are plenty more.
Some are mild; like growing a playoff beard, not mentioning a no-hitter while it’s happening, or Tiger Woods’ insistence on wearing a red shirt for luck. Some take it to another level entirely.
Even Hall of Famers aren’t immune from them.
Michael Jordan wore the same basketball shorts that he was issued in college, at the University of North Carolina, underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform during every single NBA game he played, on his way to six championships. To hide the light blue UNC shorts, he wore his Bulls shorts longer, starting a new trend in the pros.
Wade Boggs was sure to eat at least one piece of chicken before every game he played in his three decade career as one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. (He even wrote a chicken cookbook, called – appropriately -“Fowl Tips.”) The former Red Sox and Yankee standout also took batting practice at exactly the same time (5:17PM) before each night game.
Hockey goal tender Patrick Roy influenced a generation of players, like recently retired Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, many of whom copied Roy’s interesting routine of talking to, caressing, and even kissing the goal posts, in order to create a stronger bond with them.
Superstition seemed to have worked for all of them.
Over the years I’ve met some players who had quirky little habits and routines that might seem odd outside the locker room, but are considered totally normal inside the ballpark.
One of the strangest of all came from my mentor, Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto. He was one of the most superstitious men who ever lived.
He wouldn’t remove it until the team lost, then he’d start again with the next win.
That’s fine if you’re with a team that has normal win/loss cycles, but with the Yankees, it can turn into something completely different.
After one streak of more than ten wins in a row, the gum on Rizzuto’s cap had decayed so much that mold was growing on it. Not only did it look disgusting, it emitted an odor so powerful that his team mates refused to sit near him on the dugout bench.
After the streak was broken a few games later, Phil couldn’t remove the wad of fossilized, messy goo from the top.
He had to order a new cap.
Rizzuto transitioned to the role of Yankee broadcaster after his playing career, and the stories of his superstitions became the stuff of legend. He chuckled along with the jokes made at his expense.
In 2006, Scooter had the last laugh.
His old cap from the 1950s, with the petrified gum still attached, sold at auction for thousands of dollars.
Whether they are effective or or not, superstitions are part of our lives. Beliefs about black cats, ladders, and lucky rabbit feet aren’t going away any time soon. They are harmless diversions, and in sports they can also prove quite entertaining. I, for one, welcome them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to circle my keyboard three times, whistle “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and drink a cup of Yoo-Hoo before clicking “send.”