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Jack McCallum
February 08, 1988
There's no end to the crazy things athletes will—or won't—do to charm Dame Fortune
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February 08, 1988

Green Cars, Black Cats And Lady Luck

There's no end to the crazy things athletes will—or won't—do to charm Dame Fortune

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Esposito has grown no less superstitious in his executive days, and the same can be said of his boyhood chum Lou Nanne, a former Minnesota North Star forward and defenseman and, until last week when he resigned, that club's general manager. Nanne suffers—or at least he did suffer—from something that might be called superstition sickness. During the final weeks of the 1986-87 season, when the North Stars were playing so poorly that they ultimately failed to qualify for the playoffs, Nanne lost 12 pounds in 10 days. His superstitious rituals and agonizing obsessions, coupled with his team's failures, were the primary cause.

Even Nanne can't remember all the superstitions he followed. He left his office only through a certain exit. He changed seats in the press box after every goal scored by the opposition, circling his new chair four times before sitting down. Conversely, when things were going well for the Stars, he sat immobile even if his leg went to sleep. He drove himself crazy trying to remember what sport coat he had worn with what shirt and tie when the Stars had won a certain game months earlier. Nanne had been extremely superstitious as a player, too—he wouldn't ever tighten his skates, for example, until certain other players had tightened theirs—but this was worse, much worse, because he had no physical outlet for his obsessions.

"My doctors gave me an ultimatum," said Nanne, who finally visited the Mayo Clinic for a checkup at the end of the season. "Either I had to learn to handle my job better or I had to quit." Which is exactly what he did last Thursday, citing concern about his health.

Cases of irrational belief in omens of misfortune (albeit less extreme than Nanne's) can be found throughout the wide world of sport. Witness the following:

•The alltime superstitious tennis player was probably Art (Tappy) Larsen, the U.S. champion in 1950. Larsen selected a daily lucky number and changed his clothes that number of times. He also clung to the belief that a good-luck eagle resided on his left shoulder. He got his nickname from his conviction that good luck would follow him if he tapped on objects. During matches he tapped the baseline, tapped the umpire's stand, tapped the net with his racket. Sometimes he even tapped his opponent. He has a modern-day counterpart, of course, in John McEnroe, who has tapped a watercooler or two.

•Many golfers are superstitious about color. This is only natural, since golf is the sport for human peacocks. Hubert Green avoids yellow, which, according to ancient superstition, is the color of jealousy, inconstancy and treachery. Judas is frequently shown dressed in yellow. Unfortunately, Green, like so many golfers, likes green. As a public service we would like to remind golfers that green is unlucky because it's the color of gnomes and leprechauns. So put away all those lime-green pants, lime-green shirts, lime-green golf shoes, lime-green golf bags, lime-green golf hats, etc. It's considered particularly bad luck to wear green to the christening of a child, though one can't imagine who would do that except for a golfer en route to an early-afternoon tee time.

Golfers are also frequently superstitious about coins. Jack Nicklaus once said that he didn't "feel secure" unless he started a round with three pennies in his pocket (and something more than that in his bank account). Al Geiberger always marked his ball on the green with a penny, and if he was playing well, he made sure the same side was always up or that Lincoln's eyes always pointed toward the hole.

•Most of boxing's superstitions have to do with hexes and curses and are frequently more prefight hype than anything else. But old-timers swear that the late cornerman Benjamin (Evil Eye) Finkle had magical powers. Finkle was noted for three curses: the Whammy, the Zinger and the Slobodka Stare. Finkle earned his reputation in 1937, when he worked middleweight Solly Krieger's corner during his upset of Billy Conn.

The contemporary fighter best known for his superstitions is former lightweight champion Livingstone Bramble (now known as Ras-I Aluja Bramble). Funny, but all his witchcraft and voodoo didn't do him much good against Edwin Rosario, who took his title.

•Andretti's fear of green, shared by many other auto racers, may stem from a couple of sources. Ray Gilhooley was driving a green Isotta at Indianaplolis during the 500 in 1914, when he blew a tire and lost control; Joe Dawson, trying to avoid Gilhooley, drove his car into the wall and was badly hurt. Indy historian Bob Laycock says that another explanation goes back to the early days of racing, when the natural vegetation surrounding the course made green cars hard to see. A more mystical interpretation holds that driving a green car means you will soon be lying under green sod.

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