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The Religion & Culture Web Forum

September 2004
Commentary

"Conjuring Curses and Supplicating Spirits: Baseball's Culture of Superstitions"

by Joseph L. Price (Whittier College)

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Oh, Curses! Last October, long after the Cubs have usually begun their annual hibernation, they held on to the Central Division lead and growled Bravely past Atlanta to go fishing for Marlins in the NL Championship Series. Simultaneously, fulfillment of the fantasies of Red Sox faithful, some in the fifth generation since their ancestors' hopes had been realized, seemed possible. Pedro would pitch a seventh game, certainly propelling the Sox to the real Series. A replay of 1918 hovered as baseball's two cosmic curses seemed to converge: Boston's suffering since the departure of the Bambino, and the Cubs looking for a Scapegoat for their failures since '45. In the 1918 World Series the Red Sox had beaten the Cubs, ushering in the end of the war to end all wars. Now, the prospect of the Cubs and Sox—the red ones—meeting in the Series in the new millennium generated similar cosmic conflicts: The search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq must be the fuse for Armageddon: The end of the world must be at hand, and the perfect kingdom must be near.

The Cubs, of course, have not appeared in a World Series since the hurling of the curse of the Billy Goat by the high priest of Cubs' fans in 1945. Then, Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, an official watering hole for bleacher bums and sports writers, was forbidden from bringing his pet Billy goat named Murphy into Wrigley Field by a seat usher or, or according to other accounts, by P.K. Wrigley himself. The ticket that Sianis sought to use for Murphy was Box 65, Tier 12, Seat 5. Whatever the case, Murphy was denied entry because the animal's smell could not be masked even by Doublemint. Kicking mad, it is said, Sianis cursed: “No Billy goat in the Friendly Confines?! Then there will never be never be a World Series played at Wrigley Field again.” And so it has been for lo these six decades.

For the Red Sox, the curse of the Bambino has proven even more tantalizing since it has prevented their winning a Series every year since their early September victory over the hapless Cubs in 1918. The sale of Ruth to Jacob Ruppert and the Yankees by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee in 1920 has been called “baseball's Original Sin” [by John Spalding] since Frazee himself had yielded to the temptation of the Big Apple. He wanted to transfer the paradise of Fenway to Broadway to produce a musical that just said “No,” to Nanette, twice, in fact.

For decades, Red Sox devotees have sought to determine the precise origin of the curse of the Bambino. What is for sure is that in the half dozen years before the Babe's departure from Beantown, the Red Sox had won the World Series on average every other year. And Babe carried that success with him to New York, helping the Yankees to climb Jacob's ladder to the top of the American League.

Last year, the wisdom of Yankees prophet Yogi once again prevailed during baseball's high holy days: the games in October weren't over until they were over. The games weren't over even when fat ladies started to cackle on the corner of Clarke and Addison one night, followed shortly thereafter by a soprano chorus going coloraturo on the prematurely painted World Series logo on the grounds at Fenway. No, the late innings' curse for the Cubs prevailed again, with Bartman robbin' Moses of a fair catch of a foul ball, followed in the Big Apple by Pedro mimicking the late-inning limp of Buckner. Moses would not get a chance to part the Red Sox.


The Character of Curses and Their Function in Baseball

Curses live, not because they are empirically powerful but because they are believed by influential individuals who inspire communities to accept their attitudes and actions. Curses derive their power from a spiritual sensibility that is often denigrated by opponents as relying on superstition. Yet the religious underpinnings of cursing recur throughout religious traditions across centuries, continents, and cultures. In religious terms, curses are “closely related to blessing” in the sense that the same people usually are empowered to do both and that the forms of curses and blessings are similar. In other words, religious leaders are the ones empowered to do both since some religious traditions consider curses uttered by unauthorized pretenders to be “magical or sacrilegious.” Specifically, gods, priests, shamans, and other spiritual leaders who have gained prominence through advanced age or public suffering exercise legitimate power to invoke “misfortune, including death or destruction, upon people or things” (Little, 182).

The religious power of curses also draws upon their character as speech acts: When delivered by a properly recognized authority, curses perform the act that they prescribe. In ancient Semitic languages, for instance, curses were thought to contain and convey the power of the act that they signified. Utterance enacted. Thus, the person at whom a curse was hurled would actually, physically duck, so that the curse would fly over his or her head.

Another distinct characteristic of curses is their function: They can serve to harass enemies or combatants, to enforce law or tradition, to demand doctrinal or moral conformity, and to protect sacred sites and relics (Little, 182). In dealing with enemies, one technique of curses is to paralyze opponents by causing dissent, or to destroy them by separating them from their source of energy and power. Curses are also used to teach a lesson about the need for moral action, as Moses did in demanding the freedom of his kinsmen and as Jesus did in cursing the tree that provided no shade. Although curses often declaim destruction, they frequently function as “instruments of negotiation,” as suggested by Moses' success. (But in baseball the duration of the Cubs and Red Sox failure makes one wonder what they must be negotiating or, at the very least, who their agents might be!) As another distinct set of curses, protective ones often seek sanction for sites associated with the deceased, to respect their place of death or to secure the memorial of their burial.

In baseball, curses tend to conform to the first and last of these categories—either dealing with opponents, as the curse of the Bambino is intended to execute, or protecting sacred sites, as the curses against the Cubs and Angels were thought to be directed. Because Anaheim Stadium was thought to have been built on a Native American burial ground, former owner Gene Autry and other team executives believed that the failure of the Angels to win was based on a protective curse initiated by Native Americans.

Another indication of the religious power of curses is the manner of their possible annulment: The rituals for their removal also engage spiritual leaders who, it is thought, have the power to deliver curses. In this regard a number of ceremonial attempts to abrogate or merely dull the power of curses have been undertaken by faithful devotees to the Major League teams. Take first the Angels, since they have now played in and won a Series, a feat denied the Cubs and Red Sox for most of the past century. Gene Autry, that singing cowboy, hired a tribal shaman several years ago to perform a ritual to remove the curse. But during the Cowboy's lifetime, it didn't make a Donnie Moore of difference. The Angels never made it to the Series while the Autrys owned the team. Following Gene's death, Mrs. Autry even considered interring his ashes beneath home plate, thereby respecting the Native American use of the site. Instead, the reversal of the Angels' destiny took the miracle of Mickey Mouse to turn the Big A's burial ground into Fantasyland, to make the Angels' dreams come true, and to “ever let [them] hold [their] banner high.”

In somewhat different ways, the Red Sox diaconate has also attempted to reverse the curse of the Bambino. The Sox have “tried everything from sage-burning ceremonies to an exorcism at Fenway Park performed by … Father Guido Sarducci of ‘Saturday Night Live'” (Spalding). Little did the Red Sox realize that they probably needed a tragic Catholic priest from the Sopranos more than the comic antics of Fr. Guido. More amazing still than these two attempts to exonerate the Red Sox, however, are ones involving the heights of Mt. Everest and the depths of Willis Pond in Sudbury, Massachusetts. One Red Sox penitent reports that “he traveled to Nepal to ask a lama, renowned for his powers, to lift the curse. The lama told him to climb Mount Everest and to place at the summit a Red Sox cap, which the lama had blessed. He was then to return to base camp and burn a Yankees cap as an offering” (Spalding). The Red Sox devotee accomplished the fantastic feat, only to see the Red Sox end the season by blowing their first place lead.

Or consider the efforts of Red Sox novitiates in February 2002. Because the precise origin of the curse of the Bambino is not known, scholars of the pseudopigraphal Gospel According to Fenway have surmised that the curse might have begun before the Ruthian sale. An apocryphal story holds, for instance, that following the Series against the Cubs in 1918, the last year that we have read of Sox post-season success, Ruth rented a cottage adjacent to Willis Pond, and then baptized his piano by pushing it in after a night of partying. Anticipating the diamond anniversary of this Ruthian immersion, a five person scuba team braved the icy pond waters in February to retrieve the instrument so that the Red Sox could play a winning tune again. Alas, the water was so murky that they only discovered a sunken lawn chair. Not fully discouraged, they returned later with sonar equipment to sound the depths, again, but like the Sox October play, to no avail.

In Chicago throughout the past half-century, various attempts have been made to expunge the curse of the Billy Goat. Yet like those related to the desire to reverse Ruth's curse, the Cubs' attempts have also failed. By mid-century, P.K. had wriggled his way into correspondence with Sianis, beseeching him to define the necessary penance and lift the curse. But the Tavern owner replied simply: Forget it. Besides, Sianis said, Murphy had already died of a broken heart.

Almost two decades after Wrigley's rebuff, St. Leo (Durocher) led the Cubs to a nine-game August lead in 1969. Finally, Sianis consented to lift the curse—only to discover that the Mets, not the Cubs, were destined to drink that year from the miraculous trough at Lourdes. And the next year, the goat of cursers, Sianis himself, died, sans Cubbie lamentations. Within three years, however, the curse officially returned when Billy's nephew Sam attempted to take Socrates, the Tavern's new mascot, to Wrigley Field for a mid-summer game while the Cubs led the division by seven lucky games. But apparently fearing that hemlock might displace ivy, the Cubs methodically denied Socrates and Sam revived the curse of the Billy Goat. Since then, however, Socrates has been invited to graze outfield near the walls of ivy on Opening Day in '82 and to open the League Championship Series against the Padres in '84. His sowing of wild oats that afternoon was effective as the Cubs pounded five homeruns and won, by an unlucky score of 13 to zip. But failing to fly to San Diego, Socrates went platonic, as did the Cubs, who lost their mission with the Padres (Dravecky, 93).

Circumventing appeals to the Sianis family to reverse the curse, other efforts have been made for the Cubs to make it to the Series. For one, the Cubs themselves have made on-field efforts to improve their play and overcome their full fall futility. About the time that Billy Sianis died, they acquired an all-star first baseman only to find that instead of overcoming the curse of the goat he was becoming a hobbled Billy (Buckner) in such a way to make himself a goat for the Red Sox. In a more comprehensive effort, in the spring of 2004 the Illinois legislature passed an official resolution that the “Cubs' Curse shall be no more.” And earlier in the winter of 2004, Cubs fans, like the February divers in Massachusetts, turned from the symbolic elements within the curse itself to more practical, ritual means of annulling the curse's power. At Harry Caray's sports bar in Chicago, the Bartman ball was subjected to cursing by the supplicant Cubs. In December 2003, Grant DePorter, Managing Partner of the restaurant, purchased the ball at Internet auction for the tidy sum of $113,824.16. For two months the ball was displayed inside a case protected by 13 surveillance cameras, two anti-theft alarms, and security guards on duty around the clock. During the ball's exhibition, almost 30,000 fans cursed it, suggesting ways for it to fulfill its destiny—destruction: Among their demands, “roast it, incinerate it, crush it, drown it, drop it into a bucket of acid, split it in two with an ax, put it in front of a firing squad, launch it into outer space, shove it into a shredder, scatter its remains at sea, even freeze it in liquid nitrogen and shatter it into a million pieces” (Huffstutter, A20). DePorter himself remarked, “This ball is baseball's anti-trophy. I had a pit in my stomach, for sure” he confessed, “because it was so expensive. But what would happen if we didn't destroy it and some Marlins fan got ahold of it? What if someone used it to psych out the Cubs next year? No, it's got to go,” he concluded.

And it did. On Thursday evening, February 26, 2004, at a street party in Chicago, much of the nation, joined by bar patrons in 50 countries throughout the world, watched a live telecast on MSNBC as the Bartman ball was exploded by Michael Lantieri. A life-long Cubs fan, Lantieri had been the mechanical effects supervisor for the “Jurassic Park” film, and with the assistance of Rawlings sporting goods, he had practiced destruction on similar baseballs by various means. One person who did not attend the party was Steve Bartman himself, since he had suffered death threats like those directed to the ball itself.


The Culture of Curses

Curses in baseball derive their power not from the utterance itself, nor from the prestige or notoriety of the performer, but from an underlying culture of superstition. Beyond baseball, superstitions are often identified as folk beliefs that contradict reason and appeal to magic while the established beliefs of a culture are accepted as true religion (O'Neil 163). The affirmation of a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for instance, might contradict reason as much as the acceptance of telepathic forms of faith healing celebrated by shamans. But the dominant Christian culture identifies the dogma of real presence as orthodox belief and a matter of faith, while it decries as mere superstition structurally similar beliefs associated with shamanistic acts. In other words, “superstition” is a pejorative label attached to beliefs that are not accepted within the dominant religious tradition.

Related to baseball, several years ago a major feature in Sports Illustrated focused on the culture of superstition in sports, and it suggested that “superstition envelops [baseball] like a shroud.” Among baseball's fervently held superstitions, for instance, are the beliefs that “it's bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first batter” or for a pitcher to catch a ball thrown by the second baseman between plays. Other rules apply in areas beyond the reach of umpires: “Don't cross bats. Don't wash your uniform or change your sanitary socks during a winning streak. Step over the baseline, not on it” (Jack McCallum, 89).

Some superstitions, of course, are “endemic to baseball” while others have been adapted from various childhood games and religious practices throughout the history. For example, says McCallum, “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 that you might be walking on the grave of someone in your family” (McCallum, 89). Even the childhood crack-hopping game is derived from religious attitudes about death. Somewhat similarly, the ritual of not washing articles of clothes during a winning streak is connected to the idea that both banes and blessings might be washed away by the cleansing power of water. Several years ago, on-field opponents and even fans of the Salt Lake City Trappers were olfactorily relieved when the Trappers, who had practiced the no-wash rule, lost a game after a professional record 29 wins in a row.

“For the athlete, superstitions are a crutch, a secret weapon, a way to get a little edge” (McCallum, 88). In this regard, former Yankees pitcher Lefty O'Doul commented on his practice of stepping over the baseline: “It's not that if I stepped on the foul line I would really lose the game, but why take a chance” (quoted in Dravecky, 19). Even saintly Christy Mathewson wrote in his 1912 book Pitching in a Pinch that a jinx or curse can “make a bad pitcher out of a good one and a blind batter out of a three hundred hitter” (quoted in McCallum, 89). After going hitless in a game some years ago, White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso figured that his bad luck resulted from his uniform. So still in cleats, he showered with it on. The next day after he got three hits, eight of his teammates joined him fully clothed in the shower. Yet as much as athletes might “indulge their superstitions,” they avoid calling their actions and attitudes superstitious. Some think of them as habits, even the detailed, timed pre-game ritual of Wade Boggs, who cycled repeatedly through a dozen recipes so that he could eat chicken before each game. He also practiced a five-hour routine that determined actions at certain times and places, including the time that he'd leave his home for night games, the length of time that he'd sit in front of his locker, and his running of wind sprints at 7:17. In addition, he made sure that as he finished taking grounders in infield practice, he'd leave the field by stepping on third, second, and first, in that order, followed by taking two steps in the coach's box and loping in four strides to the dugout. Not superstition, he said, merely habit. Or consider the categorical, paradoxical dismissal of superstition by former Mets manager Bobby Valentine. Following Shawn Estes's loss of a no-hitter after the Shea Stadium scoreboard flashed the notice of his quest, Valentine was asked whether Estes had been jinxed by the Jumbo-Tron's insensitivity to the norm of not mentioning a no-hitter in progress. “I don't believe in superstitions,” Valentine remarked. “They're bad luck” (Dravecky, 23).

Rejecting superstitions because of his faith in God rather than faith in luck, former pitcher Dave Dravecky is an evangelical Christian perhaps best known for making a comeback from cancer, then breaking his arm, ending his career and requiring pitching-arm amputation. Although he took no part in superstitious behavior, as he puts it, he had a routine of stepping off the mound, rubbing the ball with both hands, kicking the pitching rubber, and peering home to get the sign from his catcher. His purpose in going through the same motions, pitch after pitch, he said, had nothing to do with superstition. Instead, his series of actions was a ritual, he said. For rituals, the orthodox affirm, give players “a sense of control and stability in an unstable environment” while superstitions appeal to luck (Dravecky, 22). The distinction between superstitious behavior and ritual, however, is akin to that between superstition and “true belief.” Orthodox believers pejoratively apply the label of superstition to empowering rituals practiced by those whom they call agnostics, atheists, and apostates. But in baseball's superstitious culture, the bad luck of a batting slump or losing streak is not credited to the lack of personal self-control or the failure to execute a play; instead, it is identified with the inability to perform rituals properly.


Conclusion:

In baseball, the culture of curses thrives because of the larger system of superstitions from which it draws its energy and support. Belief in curses identifies a cosmic cause for failure, thus absolving players for their ineptitude and fans for their lack of faith or dutiful support. Belief in curses also cuts the sainted players some slack: Although Johnny Blanchard, a third-string catcher for a Yankee dynasty, earned almost a fist-full of championship rings, neither Ted Williams nor Carl Yastrzemski ever won a World Series ring, while neither Ernie Banks nor Ron Santo ever even came to bat in a post-season game. The curse means that receiving just rewards is not the issue, because it's not Ted Williams's or Ernie Banks's fault that their teams never prevailed. Rather, it's a force of the demonic, of a consequence of a curse.

In the spirit of the Billy Goat and the Bambino, curses have been conjured against the Cubs and the Red Sox, and with supplication faithful devotees of both teams have sought the spirits' annulment of the hexes.

Following the detonation of the Bartman ball during Spring Training, the Cubs will have no one to blame this year, although I would have preferred that they feed the shards of the obliterated ball to the Billy goats at Lincoln Park Zoo near Wrigley Field. Nonetheless, as a theologian and a Cubs fan, I'm still a bit wary about this season because this year Sports Illustrated's annual baseball preview featured Kerry Wood on its cover and ran the lead story: “Hell Freezes Over. The Cubs will win the Series this year.” Here's hoping the cover curse of Sports Illustrated doesn't become a scapegoat for Cubs futility if Hell remains Chicago hot again this summer.


References:

Dravecky, Dave, and Mike Yorkey. Called Up: Stories of Life and Faith from the Great Game of Baseball. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Dufresne, Chris. “The Hex Files,” Los Angeles Times, May 27: D-1, 10-11.

Huffstutter, P. J. “Cursed Ball About to Get Whacked.” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2004, A-1, 20.

Little, Lester K. “Cursing.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor-in-chief (New York: Macmillan, 1987) Vol. 4: 182-185.

Jack McCallum, “Green Cars, Black Cats, and Lady Luck: Superstition in Sports” (February 8, 1988) 68, 6: 86-94.

O'Neil, Mary R. “Superstition.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor-in-chief (New York: Macmillan, 1987) Vol. 14: 163-166.

Spalding, John D. “Undoing Baseball's Original Sin,” Beliefnet, 14 October 2003.

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