Superstitions and Baseball


In 14 years as a Major League Baseball player Nomar Garciaparra stepped to the plate 5,586 times.[1] After every pitch, he would step out of the batter’s box, adjust each of his batting gloves then touch his nose.[2] Once back in the box, he dug each foot into the dirt, tapped his toes and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.[2]

Routines like this one become superstitions for players as they play every day from March until mid-October. In his book, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Alan Schwarz wrote, “no corner of American culture is more precisely counted, more passionately quantified than the performance of baseball players.”[3] The emphasis placed on statistics allows players to develop superstitious behaviors.

Crash Davis, a character in the film Bull Durham, said, “I told him that a player on a streak has to respect the streak. If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid or not getting laid or because you wear women’s underwear then you are.”[4]

Baseball players know that streaks such as Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played are rare,[5] therefore they do whatever they can, especially if it is something within their habits and routines, to maintain their own streaks.

Thesis and Supporting Paragraph

Players develop superstitious behaviors as a coping mechanism for the uncertainties that come from the grind of a long season. The emphasis placed on statistics is a motivator of superstitions among baseball players and this paper will explore why a correlation between baseball players and superstitions exists.

Baseball is different from all the other sports. There is no shot clock or playbook. The season begins in the spring and ends just as winter begins. Success is measured in failure. Baseball Hall of Fame member Ted Williams once said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”[6]

Research Questions

  1. What causes superstitious behavior?
  2. What role does the emphasis placed on numbers and player performance play in the creation of player superstitions?
  3. Why do players believe they are superstitious?

Literature Review

Janet Goodall, of the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick published an academic journal titled Superstition and Human Agency. Immediately, she acknowledged that little agreement has been made regarding the definition of a superstition.[7] Goodall chose to state the definition found in the dictionary as

1a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation; and b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition. 2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.[7]

In a study of Japanese and American baseball players, Santa Clara University professors Jerry Burger and Amy Lynn noted that superstitious behaviors rally luck, whereas rituals are used to calm the individual player and provide him or her with a predictable routine.[8] This type of behavior can become calming and predictable resulting in a superstitious routine commonly seen before a game.[8] In Burger and Lynn’s comparison of Japanese and American professional baseball players, a majority reported they were superstitious, but didn’t believe that it affected the outcome of the game.[8] However, the more players believe luck affected the outcome during the game the more likely they were to engage in superstitious behavior.[8]

Steven Streeter wrote in an essay in Baseball and Philosophy that the subtle effect of superstitious behavior in baseball has a positive effect on a player’s performance; however, he said this effect is difficult to measure.[9] Superstitions, according to Streeter, “thrive where mysterious twists and variables are abundant” and with so many variables from game to game and even from pitch to pitch baseball is the prime platform for superstitious behaviors.[9] He also noted that players understand the power of superstitions and follow certain rules: “no talking about a no-hitter while it is progress, no changing your routine while on a hitting streak, no wearing the unlucky number 13 and no lending your bat to another player.”[9]

Author Neil Feit wrote an opposing essay to Streeter discussing how superstition belief does not help player performance because “it is not supported by adequate evidence.”[10] He solidified his point by saying that there are routines that are done prior to game time like stretching and batting practice that are non-superstitious.”[10]

In a survey of top-class athletes in the Netherlands by Michaela Schippers and Paul Van Lange, these athletes have an abundance of warm-up rituals.[11] Schippers and Van Lange reached the conclusion that when an athlete was on an inferior team facing a superior opponent the team was more likely to engage in superstitious rituals.[11] They also concluded that athletes were more committed to their superstitions when the outcome of the game was believed to be high like they were in a championship game.[11]

Research Question I: Causes of superstitious behavior

“I was once on a flight coming home from a conference and it was a very turbulent flight,” Connecticut College psychologist Stuart Vyse told CBS News’ Sunday Morning.[12][12]

Cornell University psychology professor Tom Gilovich concludes that superstitions have the power to overcome a person’s rational brain.[12]

For Vyse, in that one moment his rational brain was taken over by what was another person’s possible superstition. Vyse concluded the story saying, “And then I realized, ‘Well, wait a second – if the plan goes down all the rows are going down, not just the 13th row. But I think it shows that we’re all vulnerable to it.”[12]

One episode of the History Channel’s documentary series titled Your Bleeped Up Brain covered the topic of superstitions. The documentary concludes that when humans see something that we cannot explain we are not content to let it remain a mystery.[13] Therefore it is human nature to create an explanation and fill in the blanks.[13] Then those created explanations become the foundation of human superstitions.[13]

“Over half of Americans have some kind of superstition that they believe in,” Vyse told Sunday Morning.[12] Jeffrey Rudski from Muhlenberg College took it a step farther in his journal Competition, Superstition and the Illusion of Control to state that the most superstitious groups of people include athletes, gamblers, soldiers, financial investors and college students.[14] He acknowledges that the one element these groups have in common is competition. “Some individuals win and others lose, and the majority of participants judge their performance relative to others,” Rudski wrote.[14]

Vyse concludes that superstitions are the electrical and chemical responses the brain uses when it can’t make things happen through the body.[15] Reporter Ben Meyers uses Vyse’s statement to support his conclusion that superstitions are make baseball players feel in control of the uncontrollable.[15] Meyers’ example of where baseball players lack control is that a baseball player can hit a thousand curveballs in the cage, but the pitcher controls when he will see one in the batter’s box.”[15]

Jennifer Winston at the University of Texas in Austin supports Meyers’ hypothesis. She says that superstitions grow out of a person’s need to take charge of situations and to reduce anxiety.[12] “We become very anxious when we lack control. And one of the ways if we can’t regain it objectively is to try and regain it perceptually,” Winston said to Sunday Morning.[12] She continues, “Maybe I can’t actually keep something bad from happening to me. But if I knock on wood, then I’ve done something. Right? I’ve taken action. And that can help someone feel less anxious as a result.”[12]

Sport psychologist Dr. Robert Lustig added that “superstition creates confidence inside a player or coach.”[16] Swiss neurologist Peter Brugger provided the evidence to support Lustig’s conclusion. Brugger decided to see if people who were more likely to believe in the supernatural had better pattern recognition skills than skeptics.[16] The results of Brugger’s study was that people with more dopamine in their brains are more likely to notice patterns where others see none and, by extension, those of us who notice such patterns will most likely to try to ascribe some semblance of meaning to such things.[16]

The conclusion of Brugger’s study was used Psychology Today writer Steven Kotler to say that there is a connection between neurochemicals and athletic performance. The neurochemicals dopamine and norepinephrine are the body’s two main performance-enhancing chemicals, serotonin is a mood booster and there is correlation between positive moods and superior athletic ability.[16] Kotler also says that adrenaline governs the fight or flight syndrome and can boost performance.[16] In layman’s terms, Kotler is saying that those who play sports and are superstitious most likely have more of these performance-enhancing neurochemicals in their systems.[16]

In his writing, Meyers stated that the creation of superstitions is similar to how religions originated.[15] In the opening scene of Bull Durham, Annie Savoy says, “I believe in the church of baseball.”[4] Clyde Crews expands on this notion of baseball as a religion by stating that the sport  incorporates four components found in all the major religious faiths of the world: creed, code, ceremony and community.[17] If superstitions exist in other religions and baseball has four of the major components it is fitting that they exist within the sport as well.

Tom Ciborowoski at the University of Hawaii at Manoa wrote “Superstition” in the Collegiate Baseball Player. One of his major conclusions was that collegiate players have had nearly a lifetime of experience in coping with the ups and downs of luck. “All of them began their careers early, at around 5 or 6 years of age, and continued to play successfully at every increasing level of difficulty” Ciborowoski wrote.[18] He continues to say that “given this extensive experience, it is possible one of the reasons ballplayers engage in so much superstition is because they have had, and continue to have, myriad opportunities to do so.”[18]

Exercise physiologist Elizabeth Quinn addressed the power and value of rituals and superstitions in sports in a short article titled Do superstitions give athletes a performance edge. Quinn’s defines a ritual as “a certain behavior or action that an athlete performs with the belief that these behaviors have a specific purpose, or power, to influence their performance.”[19] A ritual is different from a superstition because, according to Quinn, superstition is generally something that is initially developed in hindsight, almost by accident and then required in future events.[19] Quinn’s final conclusions is “the real value in superstition and ritual is the boost of confidence and the sense of control that they provide an athlete. If you believe that doing a specific action or behavior will make you perform better, then you probably will perform better.”[19]

Research Question II: Role of numbers

In Bull Durham, Crash Davis is a minor-league, veteran catcher who is brought to the team in order to teach the upcoming pitcher the lessons of the game. One of those lessons was:

Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits at 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season – that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork,  you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes, you get a dying quail, just on more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.[20]

William Harris, writing for the Discovery Channel’s How Stuff Works, addressed the physics behind baseball, but his first point was that “baseball is a game of numbers, and even though few ball players hold a degree in mathematics, every one is a practiced mathematician on the field.”[20]

The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics author Alan Schwarz concludes that “baseball and its statistics are inseparable, as lovingly intertwined as the swirls of a candy cane.”[3] Schwarz proceeds to say that baseball and statistics have always been intertwined and that most fans believe that baseball’s infatuation with statistics is a modern phenomenon.[3]

One of Schwarz’s arguments is that no other sport has anywhere near such reverence for its statistics.[3] “Few fans or journalists, if any, could name last year’s basketball assist leader or Walter Payton’s lifetime rushing total,” Schwarz wrote.[3] “Baseball’s reams of numbers, meanwhile, form a captivating universe that has spawned a science all its own: saber metrics.”[3]

Peter Bendix, a former Tampa Bay Rays baseball operations intern, said, “Sabermertics has taken several long-held pieces of conventional wisdom about baseball and turned them on their heads.”[21]

Psychologist Dr. Richard Lustberg said, “Superstitions are a coping mechanism to deal with the pressure to succeed. Athletes begin to believe – they, in fact, want to believe – that their routine of choice is enhancing their performance.”[22]

Along the same lines as Lustberg, Indiana University head baseball coach Tracy Smith said that superstitions exist in baseball because the game is built around failure. “When you have success, you want to have an explanation,” he said.[23]

Nic Johnston, a collegiate baseball player, said that even though he is not superstitious that because “baseball is such a game of ebb and flow” superstitions exist.[24]

For some players, their career numbers speak to the success of their superstitions. The best example is Wade Boggs.

In 2005, Boggs was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.[2] He had 3,010 hits over the course of his 18-year career with a .328 career average.[2] In five seasons of his career, Boggs had season averages that were higher than .350.[2] This means that there were five seasons when Boggs failed six and a half times out of ten better than the anticipated seven out of ten.

But Boggs was extremely superstitious. He ate chicken every day of his career.[2] He had a precise schedule: leaving for the ballpark at 1:47 and running pregame sprints at 7:17 before a night game.[2] His routine at the plate started when he was in Little League.[2] Boggs, then it can be concluded, was superstitious starting when he was six years old.

Even though Boggs was superstitious, it was not motivated by his desire to have the best career numbers. Although one of his superstitions was based on the significance he gave to the number seven.[2] He aspired to have seven hits in as many at-bats, a feat accomplished only twice in major league history.[2] Boggs, according to the contributors of Jinxed, said that “superstitions are a form of mind relaxation. They distract you from the day-to-day grind and make the day flow that much easier.”[2]

Everyone knew about Boggs’ superstitions, but former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, “You hit like Wade Boggs did and I wouldn’t change anything either.”[2] Even if that means eating chicken every day for 18 years.

It appears that while numbers are significant to journalists and fans, they are not the main motivator for a player’s superstitions.

Research Question III: Players superstitious beliefs

Between pitches, infielder Joe McEwing had a set routine. He’d step out of the box and take a deep breath and swing, “all the while reminding myself to stay focused and clear my mind from what just happened on that previous pitch,” he said to the contributing writers of Jinxed.[2] “Get everything completely out of my mind before I step back in.”[2]

McEwing is just one example of why players have superstitious beliefs.

Relief pitcher Scott Eyre developed his superstitions from other player superstitions. The chair at his locker has to be facing toward the door of the clubhouse.[2] That one he stole from Albert Belle when they both played for the Chicago White Sox in 1997 and 1998.2 He walks to the bullpen after his team bats in the first inning.[2] That one he got from his days in Toronto.[2]

Another superstition that Eyre picked up while he was in Toronto was from Dan Plesac – he never goes to the bullpen without a Diet Coke.[2] He doesn’t even drink the can of soda, but he knows it works.[2] “One day in Toronto I was late getting dressed and didn’t take it to the bullpen with me,” Eyre told Jinxed.[2] “You know what happened? I got lit up. That’s the last time I’ll do something stupid like that.”[2] Eyre essentially believes that not doing his superstitious behavior is detrimental to his performance and stupid.

Slugger Jim Thome needed help relaxing when he was batting when he first entered the minor leagues.[2] The inspiration for his superstition – pointing the bat at the pitcher – came from the movie The Natural.[2] Thome didn’t really want to point his bat because he didn’t want to appear as if he was showing up the pitcher, but gave it a try anyway.[2] That night, he hit a homerun in his first at-bat.[2] Then he doubled down the right field line.[2] His fear of showing up the pitcher ended up working out positively for him as Thome has hit 423 home runs in his major league career.[2]

Relief pitcher Steve Kline told Jinxed, “I’m really big on superstitions. If I don’t do that stuff, I feel as if I didn’t so something that day.”[2]

The story behind former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Rob Murphy’s superstitions is humorous. He wore women’s black silk panties under his uniform.[2] One time when he was asked why, “Murphy grinned slyly and said, ‘I’ve worn them ever since my girlfriend found them in the glove compartment, and they weren’t hers.”[2] In reality, the underwear was give to him by a friend and wore them one day as a gag.[2] When he pitched well that day, he continued to wear the underwear.[2] “I look at it as my security blanket,” Murphy said. “You can’t see them; nobody but me knows they’re on. But they’re important. I have certain things I do to get ready for the game – go over hitters, warm up, etc.  – and putting on the underwear is part of that, part of my mental preparation.”[2] But if he was wearing them and he pitched badly, he’d have no problem taking them off right away and throwing them in the trash.[2]

Players aren’t the only people in baseball with superstitions. Managers have them, too. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will either print the names on the lineup card or write them in cursive.[2] His rationale, if he prints and the team wins, he continues to print until they lose.[2] Once the loss occurs he switches to cursive.[2]

During his time with the Philadelphia Phillies Terry Francona would empty a packet of Metamucil into a half-full bottle of water, shake it and chug the concoction as way to settle his stomach.[2] He continued this routine when he took over for the Boston Red Sox in 2004.[2] When the Red Sox fell down three games to none to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series that year, general manager Theo Epstein was feeling a little nauseous.[2]

Before Game 4, when the Red Sox had nothing left to lose, Epstein asked Francona to mix him a drink.[2] The two drank the Metamucil concoction and the Red Sox won that night.[2] The next night, the two gathered for their Metamucil cocktail and the Red Sox won again.[2] It continued for eight straight days until the Boston Red Sox eliminated the Yankees in the greatest comeback in baseball history and swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.[2]

Metamucil is a fiber laxative and Epstein said, “We went undefeated, but I paid the price. It usually hit me around the eighth inning when the other team had runners in scoring position.”[2] Epstein is a found of statistical analysis, but it was the laxative shake that won him the World Series.[2] Francona led the Red Sox to their first World Series win in 86 years and got an endorsement deal with Metamucil.[2]

Superstitions vary from player to player and where they get them differs. The motives behind superstitions and baseball are clear – it helps them focus and think about the game and nothing else.

Overall Analysis

The development of superstitions has little to do with statistics, as much as we would like to think so.  It may simply be confidence combined with a little bit of luck.

Dr. Richard Lustberg said, “If a player has success in sports, it’s more likely because of practice and skill. But if the player attributes his or her success to some type of different act, such as wearing a certain article of clothing or repeating some kind of routine, the player will repeat the act. As a result, the player’s confidence will rise, and this increased confidence allows the player to perform at a higher level.”[22]

Baseball is grueling. The offseason, if your team makes it to the playoffs, is about three and a half months. It’s not as if they are participating in a National Football League game once a week. They must endure the physical and emotional turmoil a multiple game week provides baseball players.

Alan Schwarz believes that luck has always been one of baseball’s most underappreciated concepts.[3] Fans, according to Schwarz, believe that the most special players can virtually will their way to their amazing accomplishments, digging deep within themselves to summon one more amazing performance.[3] For example, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in a World Series game or Ted Williams’s .406 batting average.[3]

Schwarz argues that academia’s brightest minds could sense that something else might be at work when it comes to the performances of these elite players.[3] “Scientists suspected that all of baseball’s hitters and pitchers and base runners might actually be connected by tiny, invisible strings to a far greater power that controlled them high up from the rafters, a force from above that the players and managers were in no position to see,” wrote Schwarz.[3]

When the scientists and professional statisticians looked into the success of baseball players they discovered that luck plays a far greater role than anyone before them could understand or admit.[3] Their findings, “hitters used to hitting .300 didn’t hit .182 in May and .416 in July because of a new stance or extra batting practice or ‘seeing the ball well,’ but because of the pure, inescapable vagaries of chance.”[3]

In the end, Schwarz said, “so much of baseball comes down to randomness.”[3]

Brian Pearl, a minor league baseball player said, “If we have a good game we tend to the same thing we did the day we had that game.”[25] But based on Schwarz conclusions, that good game could have just been luck.

In the end, whether luck has anything to do with it or not, superstitions and baseball correlate because of the need for players to control the uncontrollable. Pearl said, “Baseball players are superstitious because baseball is a grind. It takes so much out of you physically and mentally that you have to find things that you think help you play better.”[25]


Nomar Garciaparra will be eligible to be listed on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2015.[26] But his outrageous batting routine is something emulated by Little Leaguers who grew up during that time. Even though some children may pick up on these superstitions, Brian Pearl said, “I think every player kind of does their own thing and more often than not our superstitions are built off of something that worked for us.”[25]

Crash Davis[4] in Bull Durham wasn’t portrayed as having any superstitions, but as a veteran he understood the importance of a streak and that consistency was key.

In Your Bleeped Up Brain, the narrator said, “Our brains cannot accept the impossible so when no logical explanation is available the brain invents explanations for things we don’t understand. These explanations for the impossible, rational or not, are the key to superstitions.”[13]

I’m inclined to agree with the people from Your Bleeped Up Brain. Success on the baseball field is measured by failing seven times. If Wade Boggs was batting .350 in certain seasons then there must have been a reason why he was so much more successful at connecting the bat to the ball than his peers. His reasoning for that was eating chicken everyday.

Much like how the new Bud Light commercials show fans performing their superstitious behaviors, this paper observes the superstitions and reasoning behind baseball player superstitions. In the end though, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”[27] 


[1]. “Nomar Garciaparra,”, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[2]. Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 99

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 28

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 28

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 8

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 20

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 24

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 26

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 66

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 66

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 37

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 94

Ken Leiker, Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions from Around the League (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), page 94

[3]. Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Kindle ed. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005), Location 61

Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Kindle ed. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005), Location 61

[4]. Ron Shelton, “Bull Durham” (video), 1988

[5]. Consecutive Games Played Record,” Baseball Almanac, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[6]. “Ted Williams Quotes,” Baseball Almanac, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[7]. Janet Goodall, “Superstition and Human Agency”, (2010): page nr.

[8]. Jerry Burger and Amy Lynn, “Superstitious Behavior Among American and Japanese Professional Baseball Players”, Basic and Applied Social Psychology (2005): 71-76.

[9]Eric Bronson, ed., Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2004), page305-307.

[10] Eric Bronson, ed., Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2004), page308-309.

[11] Michaela Schippers and Paul van Lange, “The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport”, (November 2005): page nr.

[12] “Superstitions: Why You Believe,” CBS News, December 10, 2013, accessed December 10, 2013,

[13] “Your Bleeped up Brain: Superstitions” (video), 2013

[14] Jeffrey Rudski, “Competition, Superstition, and the Illusion of Control”, Current Psychology: Developmental (1999): page nr.

[15] Ben Meyers, “Sciences of Baseball: Mind Games,” Newspaper name, 2012, accessed December 08, 2013,

[16] Steven Kotler, “The Neurochemistry of Superstition,” Psychology Today, July 26, 2008, accessed December 08, 2013,

[17] Clyde Crews, “The Metaphysics of Baseball,” America The National Catholic Review, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[18] Tom Ciborowski, “’Superstition’ in the Collegiate Baseball Player”, The Sport Psychologist (1997): 305-17.

[19] Elizabeth Quinn, “Athletes Superstitions and Rituals,” | Sports Meidicine, June 21, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[20] William Harris, “How the Physics of Baseball Works,” HowStuffWorks, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[21] Peter Bendix, “Ask the Professor”, Tufts Journal (2009): page nr.

[22] Wesley Mayberry, “Unearthing Superstitions,” Psychology of Sports, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[23] Tracy Smith, emailed to Megan Filipowski, December 4, 2013.

[24] Nic Johnston, emailed to Megan Filipowski, December 4, 2013

[25] Brian Pearl, emailed to Megan Filipowski, December 3, 2013.

[26] Baseball Hall of Fame, “Future Eligibles,” Baseball Hall of Fame, December 08, 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,

[27] Bud Light, “Outcome – It’s Only Weird If It Doesn’t Work Commerical” (video), August 2013, accessed December 08, 2013,