Why is baseball so rich in superstition? Probably because it's older than most American sports and is so enmeshed in folklore. Many early baseball players weren't the most educated of men, and the idea of rubbing a bat with a hot towel to get out of a slump seemed more effective than, say, adjusting your stance. Remember, back then there were no videos, nor analytical batting coaches like Charley Lau to talk about "a tension-free swing." Even Christy Mathewson, a college man, wrote in his 1912 book Pitching in a Pinch: "[A jinx can] make a bad pitcher out of a good one and a blind batter out of a three hundred hitter."
Some superstitions are endemic to baseball, but others were simply adapted to the sport from sources lost in the murky depths of time. Stepping over the foul line is no doubt an offshoot of the old childhood superstition that says, Step on a crack, break your mother's back. That superstition, incidentally, can be traced to the belief that a crack represented the opening of a grave, and to step on that crack meant you might be walking on the grave of someone in your family. Ask a base coach about this sometime and notice how he nods his head in pensive accord before he spits tobacco juice on your shoes.
The idea of not bathing during a hot streak is an offshoot of the centuries-old superstition about washing away good luck. According to Raymond Lamont Brown, author of A Book of Superstitions, Welsh miners never washed their backs for fear that the roof would fall in on them. Though the percentage of Welsh miners on their roster was small, the Salt Lake Trappers of the Class A Pioneer League adopted the no-wash superstition last summer during their 29-game winning streak, a professional baseball record. No player washed his socks, and some washed nothing at all. When their streak finally ended with a 7-5 loss to the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs on July 27, the rest of the league was relieved in more ways than one.
Even what appears to be a contemporary display of narcissism (not to mention bad taste) might be an update of an ancient superstition. Like one of those ancient tribal warriors who wore amulets to please the gods, former major league in-fielder Tito Fuentes hung as many as a dozen chains around his neck, and each had to be perfectly aligned before he would step into the batter's box. A man of many superstitions, Fuentes also named one of his sons Clinch because he was born on Sept. 29, 1971, the day before Fuentes's team, the San Francisco Giants, clinched the National League's Western Division title. "If we had made it to the World Series and he had been born then, I was going to name him W.S.," said Fuentes.
Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox could match any of the old-timers superstition for superstition. Eating chicken every day barely scratches the superstitious surface for Boggs, whose game-day routine makes a guy like Parcells seem positively spontaneous. Here's the Boggs Log for every Red Sox home night game:
•3 p.m.: Leave apartment for Fenway.
•3:30: Sit in front of locker and change into uniform.
•4:00: Go to dugout and sit down.
•4:10: Warm up arm.
•4:15: Take grounders for 20 to 25 minutes.