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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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That superstition itself is dying—Mario's nephew John Andretti, for example, is one of the top drivers whose cars have a lot of green on them—but still, the late Jimmy Clark of Great Britain is one of the few to win Indy in a green car (in 1965). Clark later died during a Formula Two race in Germany. The car he was driving that day was gold and red.

•The Spectrum in Philadelphia may have been home to more pregame superstitions than any arena in the country. The NHL Flyers may have started it all on Dec. 11, 1969, when they played a tape of Kate Smith belting out God Bless America. They had remarkable success in games at which Smith sang, particularly in 1974 and '75, when they won Stanley Cups. Even after she died, more than a year ago, Smith continued to serve as Lady Luck for the Flyers. Before Games 3 and 6 of last season's Stanley Cup finals against Edmonton, the Flyers played a tape of Smith's God Bless America, and on both occasions, they scored come-from-behind victories. Smith's record at the Spectrum, live and on tape, stands at 58-9-2.

The NBA 76ers, meanwhile, found a good-luck charm of their own in jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., a friend of former Sixer Julius Erving. Washington's record during Philly's championship season of 1982-83 was 10-0. He hasn't been as successful since—the Sixers say they haven't kept track of his won-lost record—and it's widely believed that Philly now needs a shooting guard more than a saxophonist.

Superstitions like these will always have a place in sport, if only because an athlete's life-style makes him vulnerable to them. "Athletes do the same thing day after day," says Nanne. "They practice at the same time, they eat at the same time, they play at the same time. Important parts of their lives are very ordered, and so, perhaps, they want to bring that same kind of order into every aspect of their lives. Little rituals become little obsessions. Obsessions become superstitions."

Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Murphy has a little obsession that even a superstitious turn-of-the-century ballplayer might have looked at askance: He's convinced that wearing black silk underwear helps his pitching. (At least two other major league pitchers share Murphy's attachment to a certain undergarment: Houston Astros space cadet Charlie Kerfeld often wears a Jetsons T-shirt on the mound, while Montreal pitcher Bryn Smith wears one bearing the logo of the rock group Rush.) Murphy relies on the silk undies only while he's in action. "Right now I'm wearing an ordinary pair of J.C. Penney cottons," said Murphy during a recent interview. But, since he's a frequently used reliever who's never sure when manager Pete Rose is going to call on him, he puts on his silk skivvies at the ballpark 162 times a year.

"I look at it as my security blanket," says Murphy. "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 the hitters, warm up, etc.—and putting on the underwear is part of that, part of my mental preparation."

What loyalty. What devotion. What faith. Bet you'd stick with the black-undies routine even if your pitching started going bad, right Rob?

"Are you kidding me?" said Murphy. "I'd take 'em off in a minute."

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