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Wednesday, November 30, 2005 - Page updated at 05:52 PM


10 great moments in baseball superstition history

Seattle Times staff reporter

1 - One of the earliest examples of obsessive adherence to superstition occurred in 1927, when Pirates manager Donnie Bush wanted star outfielder Kiki Cuyler, a future Hall of Famer, to move from third to second in the batting order. Cuyler refused to do so because of his superstitious devotion to hitting third — and superstitious fear of moving to the No. 2 hole. Bush — already upset with Cuyler for not sliding hard enough for the manager's liking to break up a double play earlier in the season — suspended Cuyler just before the World Series. The Pirates, batting just .223 as a team, were swept by the Yankees — and Cuyler was traded to the Cubs in November.

2 - Ron Wright of Kamiakin High, once a top prospect in the minor leagues, got in the habit of shaving his forearms when he played for the Macon Braves in Class AA. He originally shaved to facilitate a bandage wrapping for a jammed left wrist, but began hitting so well that he incorporated the manscaping into his routine for years.

"I'll keep shaving them until I have a bad year," Wright said in a 1997 interview.

There is no official word on the status of Wright's forearms when he finally made his major-league debut, with the Mariners in 2002, after eight years kicking around the minors.

Called up when Edgar Martinez went on the disabled list, Wright started one game as designated hitter, on Aug. 13. In his major-league debut, Wright struck out against Texas Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers. In his second at-bat, he grounded into a triple play. In his third at-bat, he grounded into a double play. Three at-bats, six outs, surely a major-league record for singular futility. Wright was sent back down to Class AAA Tacoma shortly thereafter without another plate appearance, and has never returned to the major leagues.

3 - Back in 1984, Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola noticed a large banner at the Metrodome that said "FRANKIE SWEET MUSIC VIOLA." He also noticed that whenever the banner appeared, he seemed to pitch well, and, in fact, never lost. According to Sports Illustrated, the banner's creator, a fan named Mark Dornfield, introduced himself to Viola in 1987, and the two talked for two hours. That season, Viola went 15-0, with four no-decisions (all Twins victories) in banner games.

The Twins made the World Series that season, and Viola learned that Dornfield didn't have a ticket. That prompted Kathy Viola, Frank's wife, to call Dornfield up and offer him tickets to Games 1 and 7. As SI reported, "With the banner proudly unfurled, Viola won both games and was named Series MVP."

4 - Teams and players have come to dread being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and for good reason. In 2002, researchers at the magazine pored over 47 years worth of covers, and reported that 37.2 percent of the time (913 out of 2,456 covers to that date), something negative happened to the cover subjects. That includes nearly 12 percent that suffered injuries or death.

The so-called "Sports Illustrated Jinx" starts with Milwaukee Braves slugger Eddie Mathews, who was on the very first SI cover while the Braves were in first place. Mathews promptly hurt his hand, missed seven games, and the Braves fell out of first place.

5 - Baseball fans are intimately familiar with the Curse of the Bambino, which mercifully ended its reign when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series — 84 years after Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

Most baseball fans are also acquainted with the Curse of the Billy Goat, which according to legend was bestowed upon the Cubs when Chicago tavern owner William "Gus" Sianis was upset that his pet goat was denied entrance into a World Series game in 1945. Sianis supposedly declared that no World Series would ever again be played at Wrigley Field, and despite numerous efforts by the Cubs and their fans to lift the curse, the World Series has continued to evade the Cubbies.

6 - Only hard-core fans, and devotees of Japanese baseball, are aware of the Curse of Colonel Sanders. The victims are the Hanshin Tigers, who are the Japanese equivalent of the Cubs and Red Sox — one title in 68 years. That came in 1985, and in celebration, fans resembling Tigers stars leaped into Osaka's toxic Dotonbori River in celebration. However, no one could be found who resembled the Tigers' burly American star Randy Bass, so resourceful fans went to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, stole a statue of Colonel Sanders, and tossed it in the river.

In subsequent years, the Tigers plummeted back to the basement, and according to legend will not win another championship until the Colonel is found. Numerous efforts to recover the statue have been undertaken, to no avail.

7 - Countless players observe the time-honored superstition of not stepping on the foul line (except for the ones who observe the time-honored counter-superstition of stepping ON the foul line).

Mel Stottlemyre, the Yankees' longtime ace and current pitching coach, told how he came to believe in the power of foul-line avoidance. He said that a Yankees coach, Jim Hegan, told him one day before a game with the Twins that it was a silly belief, and that stepping on the foul line would have no effect on his performance.

Stottlemyre thought he might have a point, and cavalierly stepped on the foul line as he went out to face the Twins. Here's his account of that day's game in "The Baseball Almanac":

"The first batter I faced was Ted Uhlaender, and he hit a line drive off my left shin. It went for a hit. Carew, Oliva and Killebrew followed with extra-base hits. The fifth man hit a single and scored and I was charged with five runs. I haven't stepped on a foul line since."

8 - "The Baseball Almanac," written by Dan Schlossberg, gives perhaps the most comprehensive examination of baseball superstitions available anywhere.

Here is a small sample of some of the superstitions, jinxes, hoodoos and curse-breakers he lists from the course of baseball history:

• Touch cross-eyed person (Chris Von Der Ahe, 1887).

• Yellow dog mascot (Cincinnati Reds, 1887).

• Pebbles in pocket (Jack Glasscock, 1890s).

• Wooden horseshoes with four-leaf clover, jade monkeys and totems, batboy Eddie Bennett (Babe Ruth, 1920s).

• Someone touching his glove (Van Lingle Mungo, 1938).

• Rub batboy's head (Dolf Camilli, 1938).

• Stick of gum in back pocket for each win, stuffed bear in uniform (Ron Bryant, 1960s).

• Kukailimoku war god statue (Milt Wilcox, 1975).

• College long johns (Rick Cerrone, 1979).

• Two dollar bills in back pocket (Al Holland, 1984)

9 - One classic baseball superstition requires that teammates must not talk to a pitcher who is working on a no-hitter. It's an obligation that usually results in the pitcher sitting in isolation on the bench in the latter innings, as illustrated below. The Yankees' Don Larsen, en route to the only World Series perfect game in baseball history in 1956, tested this superstition in the seventh inning, when he sidled over to teammate Mickey Mantle and said, "Hey, Mick — look at that. Two more innings. Wouldn't it be something?" Mantle got up and walked away without responding.

President Ronald Reagan deferred questions about upcoming elections by citing his days broadcasting Cubs games. Asked in 1984 if he thought the presidential election would be close, he said he never mentioned no-hitters on broadcasts as they unfolded. "I kind of feel the same way about campaigning," he said.

Some current broadcasters follow Reagan's philosophy of avoiding mention of no-hitters, but not the Mariners' Dave Neihaus, who has called more than a dozen.

"I start mentioning it from the sixth inning on," he said. "I don't think you're doing your job if you're not telling the true story."

10 - Former pitcher Charlie Kerfeld, now a Mariners scout, was a renowned flake who gained some national attention for his lucky "Jetsons" T-shirt. Kerfeld, who pitched four seasons, mainly for the Astros, said he bought it in San Diego while out learning to surf on an off-day, and rolled off six or seven wins in a row.

"That was it," he said. "I just kept wearing it every day. Everyone thought I was nuts anyway, so it really didn't matter. It worked good for me."

He kept wearing the Jetsons shirt, Kerfeld said, "Until I couldn't get anyone out anymore. 'Til they wouldn't let me pitch."

And now? "It's still in my closet somewhere. It has some rat holes in it. My wife won't let me take it out, but it's in there."

Larry Stone

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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