Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Superstition still reigns in baseball, though these days the line between magical forces and obsessive/compulsive disorder can be unclear. But in the late 1800 and early 1900s, a large percentage of the ball playing population believed beyond question in hexes and hoodoos, and took drastic measures to keep them at bay. This typically involved the deployment of a mascot, including but not limited to:

A raccoon (Baltimore)

A bear cub (Denver)

A wildcat imported from Texas (New York)

A white angora goat (New York)

A life-sized Billiken (a kind of charm doll. Apparently this one brought rain) (New York)

A "homely bull calf" (St. Louis)

A baby (Baltimore - the 1908 headline read: "BALL CLUB ADOPTS BABY") 

Black men; the blind and the cross-eyed being especially popular (note, though, that cross-eyed women spelled trouble). Indeed some pursued Major League Baseball mascot as a vocation, the only way in, perhaps, since they weren't yet allowed to play :

The New York Times, April 1, 1887

Dogs  were a favorite, though they sometimes caused dramatic scenes:

On July 22, 1888 Brooklyn left fielder William “Darby” O’Brien was arrested for allegedly stealing the pet terrier of Miss Louie Jones of Stapleton, Staten Island in order to use him as a mascot.

"Larry," the yellow mangy mut cherised by the Cleveland Americans, was locked up on May 13, 1914, when a hotel porter claimed the team had absconded with his pet.  The team lost to Chicago 3-13 the day Larry sat in jail. Outfielder Jack Graney insisted at the trial that the pooch was his, offering as proof the fact that Larry tried to run to him every time he snapped his fingers.

Young boys also frequently took on a mascot role, with mixed results.

Buster Wilson, yet another New York charm, was popular:

As was Charlie Gallagher, whose fame was aided by the rumor that he'd been "born with teeth":

The New York Times, June 20, 1886

But there were problems, too.

9-year-old Manhattan College mascot Lee Thornton climbed a tree and jumped for a fence in celebration of a victory, only to fall and fatally fracture his skull.  Far Rockaway suffered at the hands of a cunning culprit when they enlisted 16-year-old Joseph Leach, the son of a prominent townsman, as their mascot. Before the game the players "“gave all of their valuables, including watches, jewelry, and money, aggregating $300 in value, into mascot Leach’s custody for safe keeping.” In the fifth inning, they realized he was gone.

The New York Times, July 30, 1893

Speculation was that he'd hightailed it to Chicago.

More traditional amulets were also common, including four-leaf clovers and horse shoes. But no trinket could match the power of the lucky rabbit's foot, though it had to be procured under the right circumstances. According to a 1893 article in the Daily True American, a genuine a rabbit's foot was one "taken from the left hind log of a graveyard rabbit caught in said graveyard at the very witching time of night when churchyards yawn." 

Even those measures, which may strike us as extreme, were not enough, according to some. "This is one definition of a potent rabbit’s foot," the article explains, "but other mascot authorities declare that the foot to be truly efficacious must be taken must be taken from the left hind leg of a graveyard rabbit caught in the dark of the moon at midnight by a cross-eyed colored man who first crawled into the graveyard backward." The proof, they claimed, was in the pudding- Louisville managed to break a miserable losing streak only after they procured fourteen rabbit's feet, at least one of them confirmed as caught in an Indian graveyard by a cross eyed black man in the dark of the moon. (No word on whether he did indeed crawl in backward).  

And doubters be damned--continued bad luck proves nothing about a charm's efficacy, the writer proceeds to explain, but rather suggests incompetence on the part of he who strives to clear the curse. "Failure to carry out the entire programme is doubtless due the occasional failure of a rabbit’s foot to ward off hoodoos."

Perhaps no one  bowed to the fear of hexes more than two of the longest-standing and best managers in deadball era baseball: the New York Giants' John McGraw and the Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack.  In 1911, they faced each other in the World Series, and each armed himself with someone he figured as the ultimate talisman. 

More on that to come...

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