Some Superstitions of the Year 1886
Baseball players are less given to superstitious than they were a century ago, but fans (and journalists) have continued to give voice to them, even if accompanied by a wink and a nudge. The Curse of the Bambino or that of the Billy Goat (Murphy’s Hex)? Merkle’s Revenge, or Rocky Colavito’s, or Steve Bartman’s? The Sports Illustrated Cover Curse? Bo Jackson’s Revenge? Or the latest one, circulating in Toronto this year—Taylor Swift’s concert schedule? But all of these pale in absurdity to the hoodoo obsessions of old-time players. The section below is excerpted from Preston D. Orem’s invaluable 1967 booklet–self-published, and exceedingly scarce–Baseball from the Newspaper Accounts (1886). As he noted in the foreword, “The material in this book, as well as in the prior books which covered the years from 1845 to 1885 inclusive, was principally obtained from the contemporary newspaper accounts published the day after the game or other event.” Portions of the passage below may well offend modern readers, but they accurately reflect the attitudes of the period.
Baseball players have always been very superstitious but the year 1886 probably set a record for this sort of thing, as there were “Mascottes” and “Hoodoos” galore.
There were a number of general superstitions commonly believed in by most players. For instance meeting a funeral procession on the way to a game meant good luck; but to break through the line of the procession meant extremely bad luck.
Seeing a cross-eyed person was bad, being in the same room with one was worse, but to have a cross-eyed man sit down at the dining table with a club was absolutely disastrous. One antidote was known; to turn around immediately and spit over the left shoulder before speaking. When this was done on the main street of a large city it was a funny sight, amazed the pedestrians, and was a bit unsanitary. The antidote in a hotel dining room was frowned upon by the management as the other guests failed to understand the necessity of such a procedure.
Packing up the bats before the game was over was a “hoodoo.”
Drinking a glass of beer in a saloon before a game was an experimental practice. The glass was set aside and used again the next day if the game was won. If the game was lost another saloon and glass was tried. But against a “Jonah” club this idea would never work.
Sometimes a person would bring a team bad luck so that the club could never win when the person was present; this was very hard to combat although if the team played badly enough the crank might not come back. On the other hand the manager might mete out fines for poor play and the crank might show up again anyway.
Many players would turn shirts inside out; sleep on the same side every night, with head in a certain position; wear the same pair of sox without laundering. All continued while the team was winning.
In 1885 Willie Hahn, the famous Chicago mascot, was a little boy in short clothes, just able to talk when the White Stockings adopted him and won the championship. The players hired an open landau, bedecked it with flowers, put Willie in it and hauled him all over Chicago in triumph. As the White Stockings won again in 1886 Willie had a permanent home.
So the Detroit managers said that any sort of a mascot that the players would believe in would help win games. A colored boy born with all his teeth was found and, sure enough, the Detroit players would not exchange him for his weight in gold.
A number of teams had small Negroes as mascots and would rub their hands in their hair for help in making a base hit. It was however very bad luck if a visiting player were mean enough to touch the hair of their mascot. For this reason some teams went to the trouble of maintaining their boy in a closed hack at the ball park and he would have to duck out as the players wanted to rub his top piece.
Mascots were short lived as such. The Phillies had a big “buck” Negro for quite a long time however. One peculiarity of this Mascotte was that, as long as he remained sober the team won, either at home or away. But this was very hard on the mascot as he was extremely fond of his liquor in large quantities and would get drunk whenever he had a chance to do so, which brought the Phillies nothing but bad luck until he was sober again. So Philadelphia hired a man just to watch the Negro’s every step and keep him out of temptation and sin.
The Giants thought they would surely win the pennant if they opened the season by playing the Jaspers of Manhattan College. Even although they had opened with the Jaspers from 1883 on and never won the championship yet this superstition continued. In 1886 New York had a little dog which had wandered upon the diamond for a time. Although fed beefsteak every day the animal was unproductive of much good luck. But after the dog was given away the New York players thought the reason they could not do better was the lack of a mascot so Mutrie was on the lookout for most anything in that line.
The St. Louis Browns, when the bell rang for their practice, always formed a line abreast across the field and went across to first base that way before dispersing to their positions. Gleason was always careful to walk astride of the right foul line when coming upon the field. Bushong caught with a pair of gloves so dilapidated that even the patches were patched but he would not part with them. They were his “mascots.”
Brouthers of Detroit always laid his gloves in a certain spot as he went to the bench or to bat and allowed no one to interfere with them.
Porter, Brooklyn pitcher, had worn a red sleeveless jacket and shirt when pitching for over two years. The outfit did not match the club uniforms but he wore it anyway. When he was slated to pitch in St. Louis one day it was found that the jacket was in a laundry which was closed, it being Sunday. Porter was so affected he cried. Manager Byrne came to the rescue by getting the manager of the laundry to supply the garment in time. The overjoyed Porter won his game.
Pittsburgh had good luck when a Negro girl attended the home games but only provided she sat in a certain seat and wore a certain scarf. The nine was unbeatable if she was Seen before the game sitting in the seat reserved for her and properly attired but unfortunately considered they were “jonahed” if she was not there. Pitt had two pairs of uniform pantaloons for each man, one red and one blue. Each color would be worn as long as the club was successful, then changed if not.
New York refused to have a team picture taken when they were in a winning streak because they thought that bad luck.
Germany Smith of Brooklyn had a personal mascot, a boy that he brought to the field each day and had bat flies which Smith caught. Then Germany felt sure of his hits that day.
Chief Roseman of the Metropolitans always took a position on the forward side of the ferry boat going to Staten Island and looked for a green flag among the many small flags floating over the grounds. If the green one was there the club was sure to win. Apparently it had not been there much in 1885 and 1886. The Indians, as a whole, believed white stockings and blue caps were the only lucky dress that players could wear. If the club saw a load of empty barrels going in the same direction that they were this was also a good luck sign.
Naturally birds were an omen in Brooklyn. When a black pigeon circled around the ball park Brooklyn always won. But when it flew over in company with two white pigeons the score would be close.
Any goat which wandered across a diamond would be adopted at once, as would usually a dog or a cat. The directions in which a flag would be flying determined the results of games.
Pete Browning was the worst fanatic on his practice of any. When going on or off the field he would always walk over and touch third base. He actually believed that the nine would have to be a wonderful success as long as he continued his tagging, and could not win a game otherwise. On one occasion a rival player as a gag loosened the third sack, took it to the bench with him and hid it. Proceedings had to come to a complete stop until the bag had been unearthed, reattached, and properly tagged by Browning.
On the Gladiator’s return from the Springs, Louisville players, on a winning streak without Pete, gave him a somewhat cool reception. Browning was deeply hurt and said: “Yes, but I was touching third base every day for you or you could not have won the way you did.” Pete had actually marked off a diamond in back of the hotel at the Springs, installed a third base bag and, on the days that Louisville was scheduled to play, went out upon his diamond and went right through his regular ceremony.
When manager Hart of Louisville walked into the clubhouse so proudly wearing a beautiful new white plug hat, the players hollered: “A mascot!” As the nine did meet with luck the hat got the credit. Four or five weeks later’Hart exchanged the plug hat for a black mackinaw and the players kicked as they said this bonnet was a “Jonah” so they would lose the next game. And they did! Certain spectators in Louisville always tried to get the same seat to bring the club luck. One elderly man always attended when he could, standing in a certain spot almost directly behind the catcher for luck. Whenever the home team came to bat, as each player came to the plate, the man would close his eyes, clasp his hands, utter briefly a fervent prayer for the Louisville nine.
Foutz always carried a lemon in his pocket during the game wherever he played. Otherwise the Browns could never win.
[To these I add some add some superstitions recorded in an undated news clip, ca. 1890.–jt]
Art Whitney says it is bad luck to wear different sized stockings.
Ed Beecher, of the Buffalos, has a penny fastened to the inside of one of his shoes.
Roger Connor will walk any day to the grounds rather than be compelled to ride in a yellow vehicle.
Connie Mack, of the Buffalos, carries a copper penny in the palm of his big left hand glove.
Tim Keefe reverses his hat when he enters the grounds, and wears it reversed until obliged to put on his playing cap.
Hardy Richardson always puts his foot on second base before he touches a ball in a game, and failure to do so means irretrievable ruin to himself and his colleagues.
Mike Slattery loses confidence if he sees a cross-eyed man during the day of the game, and he immediately hunts up a cross-eyed colored woman to offset the spell.
Henry Gruber, of the Clevelands, thinks that luck will come to him as soon as the grass is long enough for him to chew. In a game he always has a blade of grass in his mouth.
Ed Beatin, of the Clevelands, always puts one foot on the home plate when he gets into the field. He thinks that by doing this he can charm the ball so that he will have the players at his mercy.