You needn’t be a diehard sports fan — or intimate with the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder — to know that Major League Baseball is an American pastime steeped in rites, rituals, repetition, routines, quirks, tics, idiosyncrasies and generally eccentric behavior that is carried out by individual players, and sometimes entire teams, in the name of superstition. Sure, there’s the standard textbook stuff — not (or always) stepping on the foul line, wearing a certain piece of (often unwashed) clothing or jewelry as a talisman, not verbally acknowledging a no-hitter, sitting in the same exact spot in the dugout, making a sign of the cross or pointing to the heavens before batting — observed by players to ward off jinxes, break slumps and generally usher in good mojo.
And then there are some players who take baseball’s legacy of superstitious behavior to extreme — even pathological — levels. Below, we’ve rounded up seven (for good luck, of course) major leaguers famous for their particularly peculiar rituals and obsessions.
And, yes, we’re aware that we’ve missed a few (we couldn’t stray from seven) including Mike “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove, Steve “Psycho” Lyons and noted ball whisperer Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Anyone else that you’d like to add to the list?
1. Wade Boggs - Finger lickin’ good
Third baseman Wade Boggs, whose illustrious career with the Boston Red Sox spanned 10 years (he later played with the New York Yankees and Tampa Devil Rays before retiring in 1999), is perhaps the most famous practitioner of one of baseball’s more scrumptious superstitions: eating the same exact meal before every game. Boggs’ comestible of choice? Chicken, fried or otherwise.
Although it’s unclear what his preferred piece of pre-game poultry was (we’re guessing Boggs was a wing man), Bogg’s non food-related quirks are just as legendary. Listed as one of the 10 Most Superstitious Athletes by Men’s Fitness, the “Chicken Man” always practiced batting and wind sprinting at the same time of day (5:17 and 7:17, respectively), left his house at the same exact time on game days and drew the word “Chai” (Hebrew for “life”) in the dirt before coming up to bat. (Boggs is not Jewish, by the way.) In 1984, Boggs published a cookbook with his wife, Debbie, titled, not surprisingly: “Fowl Tips: My Favorite Chicken Recipes.” Read more about curious Boggs’s pre- and post-game rituals.
2. Jason Giambi - Magical mustaches and slump-busting thongs
While the “playoff beard” is a good luck grooming ritual rampant in various major league sports, particularly the NHL, Jason Giambi is perhaps the most prominent MLB hair farmer … but not because he rocks a beard. Immediately after the slumping first baseman grew a mustache during his 2008 season with the New York Yankees, his batting average increased nearly 80 points and, naturally, he was loathe to shave it off. This, of course, sparked a whole craze around Giambi’s magical mustache, complete with a faux mustache giveaway night at Yankee Stadium and the unwavering support of The American Mustache Institute. Aaron Perlut, executive director of the AMI, explained the mystical powers of Giambi’s lip tickler to the NY Daily News: “We believe a mustache brings tremendous power to the man or woman who chooses to wear one. A mustached American is a brave one in today's culture where a mustache is looked down upon. If Mr. Giambi is thinking of shaving, I would remind him that lore holds that every time a mustache is shaved off, an angel dies and falls to Earth.” Alrighty then.
And how can we forget Giambi’s other slump-busting accessory worn during games — a pair of gold lamé thong underwear. Rumor has it that during Giambi’s six-year career with the Yankees, both Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter slipped the blessed panties on for size … and for good luck. "Giambi's a little freaky. I wouldn't go there," remarked former Yankees coach Willie Randolph in 2008.
3. Kevin Rhomberg – The power of touch
Although the MLB career of Cleveland Indians left fielder Kevin “Touch Me, Touch Me” Rhomberg’ was a brief one (41 games from 1982 through 1984), his memory lives on in the annals of bizzaro baseball superstitions: Every single time that Rhomberg was touched or tagged on or off the playing field, he felt the need to return the favor and touch the other person back. Whether or not Rhomberg’s reciprocal touching was an elaborate ritual or a true compulsion, it ultimately effected his game as catchers — well-aware of his odd habit — would touch him while he was batting to break his concentration. Even Rhomberg’s teammates joined in on the mean-spirited antics, touching him and then running and hiding in the clubhouse before he had the chance to return the favor.
According to the Seattle Times, teammate Rick Sutcliffe once reached under a bathroom stall partition to anonymously touch Rhomberg on the toe. This sent Rhomberg into a tizzy that resulted in him touching every single player in the clubhouse. In the minors, another player touched Rhomberg with a ball and then threw it out of the stadium. Rhomberg, like a faithful golden retriever playing fetch, chased after the ball and spent nearly two hours trying to locate it. And if a player ever escaped Rhomberg, he would send that player a letter reading: “This constitutes a touch.” And in addition to his touching, Rhomberg would never turn right and was known to do everything — from making practice swings to tapping his bat on the ground — in multiples of four.
4. Turk Wendell - Animal claw necklaces and toothbrushes
The American and National Leagues aren’t in the habit of handing out MSP (“Most Superstitious Player”) awards — which is kind of a shame because between the years 1999 and 2004, our money would have been on outspoken, now-retired relief pitcher Turk Wendell. Why? Here’s a brief rundown of Wendell’s eccentricities:
- The licorice: While pitching, Wendell was never without four pieces of black licorice shoved into his mouth. Not entirely weird and certainly better than chewing tobacco, right? Sure, but here’s where it gets strange: After an inning ended, Wendell would leap dramatically, kangaroo-style, over the foul line and into the dugout where he’d spit out the licorice and immediately start brushing his teeth. The licorice-chewing, tooth-brushing cycle would continue throughout the entire game.
- The jewelry: An avid hunter, Wendell wore a rather gruesome necklace made from the claws and teeth of animals that he had personally killed as a good luck charm.
- The number “99”: Wendell apparently chose his “99” jersey number in honor of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Charlie Sheen’s character in the 1989 comedy “Major League,” (it seems to us that Wendell had more in common with Dennis Haysbert’s Jobu-worshipping Pedro Cerrano than with Vaughn) and insisted that all of his contracts end in “99” as well. Mercifully, it was only three, not 99, crosses that Wendell drew into the mound before starting an inning.
5. Larry Walker – Third times a charm
It makes a whole lot of sense that Larry Walker, a retired right fielder who played with the Montreal Expos, the Colorado Rockies and the St. Louis Cardinals over a 16-year career, adopted Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” as his official theme song. The dude was absolutely crazy about the number 3.
Going far beyond the rather pedestrian act of picking “33” as his jersey number, Walker married his wife on Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m. (Maybe he didn’t get married in March because of spring training?), took practice swings in multiples of three, set his alarm for 33 past the hour and, while playing for the Expos, purchased tickets for 33 disadvantaged children who, naturally, were seated in section 333 at Olympic Stadium. And when he divorced his aforementioned wife, she, no big shocker here, reportedly walked away with a $3 million settlement, according to the 2005 tome “Jinxed: Baseball Superstitions From Around the Major Leagues.” Over his career, Walker hit a total of 383 home runs, overshooting that magic number by just 50 — a tragedy, really, that leads us to wonder if every home run after 333 was unintentional.
6. Roger Clemens – Babe toucher
So, yeah … as you’ve probably heard, legendary pitcher Roger Clemens allegedly lied to Congress about his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs that allegedly include anabolic steroids and human growth hormones. He also allegedly carried out a rather unsavory, long-term affair with perpetually troubled country singer Mindy McCready that allegedly began when she was only 15 years old.
What’s not alleged (photographic evidence!) is that the 49-year-old Clemens, who played with the Boston Red Sox from 1984 to 1996, partook in few kooky superstitions. During his post-Red Sox career, Clemens played with the Yankees twice — from 1999 to 2003 and then again for his final season in 2007 after a two-year stint with the Houston Astros — and during those six seasons he had a rather intimate relationship with Babe Ruth. Well, a memorial plaque of Babe Ruth to be exact. Before each home game, Clemens would visit the Babe Ruth plaque in Monument Park, wipe his forehead and, with that same hand, touch the plaque (legend says that he wiped his sweaty paw directly on the relief of Ruth’s head). And we’re not sure if he predated Kris Jenner with this one, but the names of all of Clemens’ sons with bikini-rocking wife Debbie start with K: Koby, Kory, Kacy and Kody. The reason? In baseball, the letter “K” stands for strikeout, something that Clemens wasn’t too shabby at during his career. Superstitious, perhaps, but we’re thinking an over-inflated ego was more at play here.
7. Moisés Alou – Pee hands
While some players — we’re looking at you, Nomar Garciaparra — are prone to obsessive, time-consuming rituals that involve fiddling with their batting gloves, Atlanta-born outfielder Moisés Alou never had that problem during his 18-year major league career as he was one of only several bare-handed batters in MLB history. So how did Alou go about toughening up his hands? Urine, apparently.
Yep, it was revealed in 2004 that Alou was in the habit of peeing on his own hands to get a better grip on the bat and to prevent blistering and the formation of calluses. However, according to a Slate article tackling the topic of urine therapy, a tinkle rubbed into the hands isn’t exactly a good way to toughen the epidermis — it actually moisturizes it. Oh well … Alou seemed to think that this rather nasty superstitious practice worked miracles and he wasn’t alone, as retired Yankees catcher Jorge Postada was also a dedicated hand pee-er (but in spring training season only, apparently).
Photo credits: Wade Boggs: ZUMA Press; Jason Giambi: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images; Turk Wendell: Wikimedia Commons; Larry Walker: ZUMA Press; Roger Clemens: Wikimedia Commons