Bringing Luck to the Diamond: Superstitions in Baseball

I.U. baseball player Bill Blaise waiting for the home run ball, 1936. (Indiana University Archives, C624, Box 2.)

Opening Day has once again arrived for Major League Baseball, bringing with it the freshness of spring and the warmth of summer. The excitement of a brand new season instills a sense of euphoria in fans, and reminds them the long days of summer are not far behind. An April 4, 1933 clipping from the Indiana Daily Student captured the excitement of a new baseball season for students, declaring unkind those professors who dared schedule exams on the day of the first game.

Nomination for worst professors in April 4, 1933 Indiana Daily Student. (Indiana University Archives, C624, Box 2.)

As teams emerge from their winter hibernation and make their way back to the diamond, they will begin preparing themselves for both the physical and psychological rigors of the game. For superstitious players in particular, the baseball season can be a grueling stretch of routines and beliefs intended to build confidence and ward off bad luck. Baseball superstitions are as old as the game itself, and the very mention of the word brings a feeling of unease among players and fans. While some are humorous, some have become so ingrained in baseball culture they are now enforced as law.  Lyle Green notes some basic superstitions include never stepping on the foul line when walking on and off the field, and above all never mentioning an in-progress no-hitter.

Carl Erskine, a native of Anderson, Indiana, pitched for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948 to 1959. When he was interviewed in 1973 as part of a folklore class at I.U., Erskine detailed the near paranoid levels of superstitions prevalent at the Major League level. Some of the more trivial include the Dodgers’ Leo Durocher, who as third base coach would kick third base before taking his position. Dodgers pitcher Billy Lowes was adamant on sitting in the same spot in the dugout, and always wore the same clothes when he was on the mound. Chicago Cubs first baseman/outfielder Phil Cavaretta would take two warm-up swings of the bat while in the on-deck circle. Before taking a third swing, he would spit in the air, and then hit it.

“Splat, and he was ready to hit,” Erskine recalled.

Though he was surrounded by superstitious players, Erskine himself stated that while he tried avoiding becoming engrossed in superstitions, it was nonetheless challenging to prevent being swept up in them.

“It’s so difficult that I found myself not going to the same seat on the bench, not wearing the same sweatshirt every time I pitched, not walking back the same way each time, to the point where one day I realized…well, I’m being superstitious about not being superstitious,” Erskine said.

Superstitions can be found everywhere on the diamond, including food. Good nutrition undoubtedly keeps the body healthy and in top physical condition, but for the superstitious player it can be the difference between a memorable day at the plate or one better off forgotten. Jay Grohowski, an I.U. baseball player interviewed in 1981, noted the effect something simple like a pre-game hot dog could have on a player’s day.

“You have a hot dog and you go 6-for-8 on a doubleheader, and you go home and…you think, ‘what did I have last game for lunch?’ and you have the same thing again.”

A good meal can certainly keep a player calm, but where the food is consumed can be just as important. Harold Halman, another I.U. baseball player, discussed the role of McDonald’s for a player’s success.

“So happens you go out, the team does well, and you play fairly well, and next day you go there. ‘Let’s all go to McDonald’s, like yesterday,'” Halman said.

Indiana Daily Student clipping welcoming the 1936 baseball season and encouraging fans to bring their favorite razzes to the diamond, April 7, 1936. (Indiana University Archives, C624, Box 2.)

Superstitions can take hold of fans in ways similar to players, though their rituals morph into a communal effort intended to will the home team to victory or support an individual player’s effort. From turning hats inside-out during rallies to tapping bobbleheads, fans become consumed in the moment, and almost work harder than the players themselves to snag victory from the opponent. While Erskine’s mother was listening to her son throw his first no-hitter in 1952, she continued ironing the same tablecloth throughout the entirety of the game, believing any attempt to stop would squander Carl’s efforts.

Clipping from April 4, 1933 Indiana Daily Student heralding a new baseball season. (Indiana University Archives, C624, Box 2.)

“She related my good fortune to what she was doing,” Erskine later said. “She probably felt that she had quite a bit to do with that.”

The beginning of a new baseball season signifies the oncoming days of spending long summer days basking in the sun at the ballpark. For teams and fans looking to keep bad luck at bay, the strains of the game can result in habits and routines seen as bizarre by outsiders but viewed by player’s and lovers of baseball as being essential to keeping a level head when out on the diamond.

Both the the IU Folklore Institute’s student papers collection and the IU Athletics Manager’s Books were mined for this post. If you follow those links, be warned – the student papers collection is HUGE and takes a long time to load. Click “Entire Document” on the left and then walk away for a bit while it loads!

Eddie Whitehead: Breaking I.U.’s Color Barrier in Baseball

Eddie Whitehead, IU Archives, Image no. P0052290

Throughout 2019, Major League Baseball will honor the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth. Robinson made history in 1947 when he broke professional baseball’s color barrier by playing second base for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s courageous actions spurred the racial integration of the sport, ending decades of segregated baseball. In 1956, Robinson’s last year in the majors, Indiana University’s baseball team welcomed its first African American player, catcher Eddie Whitehead. Whitehead, a native of Madison, Indiana, joined as a sophomore and was one of five catchers on the team that year.

Though Whitehead made his debut nearly ten years after Robinson’s debut, a spring break trip through Florida and Georgia from March 26-31, 1956, illustrated the racial disharmony that was still prevalent throughout the country. At the major league level, professional baseball would not be fully integrated until 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to welcome an African American player on its roster. At the collegiate level, a strict “gentleman’s agreement” prohibiting non-professional contests between African Americans and whites was in force in the South, meaning if Whitehead played, the other teams would not play I.U. According to a March 22, 1956 press release, I.U. entered into the six games without knowledge of this agreement, thereby hindering the team’s ability to pull out of the games. After speaking with I.U. President Herman B Wells, Whitehead decided he did not want to ruin the trip for his teammates by not going, so he decided to make the journey, though he did not play as per the agreement.

In a 2017 Indiana University Bicentennial oral history interview, Whitehead’s daughter, Dr. Dawn Whitehead, recalled the stories her father told her about the trip. Traveling through the Jim Crow south was “a profound experience for him,” she said. “He often didn’t get to eat in restaurants with his teammates, and they would bring food out to the bus.” “He would also sometimes not be able to stay in the same hotels where his teammates stayed,” Whitehead recalled.

Listen to Dawn Whitehead share more memories of her father in this clip from her IU Bicentennial Oral History interview:

In a March 27, 1956, Indianapolis Times article, Eddie stated he had to eat in the hotel kitchen in Harriman, Tennessee. In Cedartown, Georgia, he ate in the car. Both times I.U. baseball coach Ernie Andres joined him. “I stayed with Eddie everywhere we went,” Andres said in an April 18, 1997 article in the Indiana Daily Student. “My only fear was that he would get hurt.”

While I.U. played Florida State, Eddie stayed at Florida A & M, a historically black college. While there, he trained with their baseball team and stayed in a dorm room. Dawn Whitehead stated staying at Florida A & M was the fondest memory of the trip for her father. Coach Andres made arrangements for Eddie to stay with African American families while the team played Florida University and Georgia Teachers. “I don’t think I could ever live down here,” Eddie said in the March 27, 1956, Indianapolis Times article. “I just couldn’t. It seems so different. Too many drawbacks.” “People look at you so cold,” Whitehead said in another Indianapolis Times article from March 28, 1956. “Like you’re something different. Like you were inferior.”

Upon the team’s return to Bloomington, Wells expressed outrage at the treatment of Whitehead. “It’s outrageous the indignities now being suffered in the South by Eddie Whitehead,” Wells stated in a March 28, 1956, Louisville Times article. “This is very distasteful to me. I’m opposed to segregation in any form. Indiana is the leader in the nation against segregation in schools as well as in athletics.” Wells received numerous letters regarding the incident. Some came from supporters, while others came from those questioning his reasoning for allowing Whitehead to go when the team knew he wouldn’t be able to play.

Scorecard from the April 24, 1956 game against Butler. Whitehead went 1-for-2 with a run scored and a triple. (Accn. # 2015/027, Box 306, “Baseball 1956.”)

Whitehead played in 12 games during the 1956 campaign. His most notable game that year occurred on April 24 against Butler. He went 1 for 2, with a triple, one base-on-balls, and two RBIs. I.U. defeated the Bulldogs in an 18-5 thrashing. At the conclusion of the season, he was awarded a varsity letter.

Whitehead graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in 1958. He became a banker, a profession in which he remained for thirty years; he also worked on the statistics crews for the Indiana Pacers and the Indianapolis Colts. Whitehead passed away on September 10, 2014, at the age of 77.

IU Baseball goes to…Japan! Part II

Sadly, the Hoosiers did not go forward to win the College World Series, but this in no way takes any of the shine off of their terrific season. Great job, guys!

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So, would you like to hear more about the 1922 baseball trip to Japan?

The team arrived in Japan on Friday, April 14. They went through Customs, where the only problems they ran into was with the tobacco they were carrying. But these college men knew how to get around it — they passed off some of their cigarettes and cigars to the non-smokers of the group and stuffed their pockets with what they thought they could sneak in.

They made their way to the hotel via rikishas and settled in for the night. The next morning, after a  hearty American-style breakfast, they stopped for a quick picture in front of the hotel before heading off to see the Waseda team in a game. “Ruck” reported in his diary that there was a crowd of about 7,000 at the game and when they arrived they were cheered by the crowd. “After the game we waited for the crowd to leave the park…but instead of leaving about 3,000 people surrounded us.” Baseball must have been huge in Japan at this time, as he reports the same numbers at their first practice the following day (as well as the same reception!)

The first game took place on April 22 in front of a large enthusiastic crowd but home team luck prevailed and Waseda won. The final record of the Waseda series: One victory, one tie, and five defeats. They lost all three games they played against Keio University but soundly defeated the semiprofessional Osaka All-Star team, 9-4.

 Mr. Abé and the IU alumni served as excellent hosts for the team, ensuring they did some sightseeing and experienced Japanese traditions, such as the Japanese tea house. On May 10, Ruck reported they visited the largest temple in Japan, they toured five Imperial Palaces, saw the famous Cherry Dance, and walked by the base of Mount Fuji. To complete the trip, Japan scheduled a large earthquake during their stay. Edna Edmondson wrote about this experience in a series of articles she contributed about the trip to the The Arrow of Pi Beta Phi:

Tokyo even staged for us an earthquake, officially said to be the most severe in that city since 1894. We had already experienced several slight quakes since our arrival and when the first little shake came on this day we looked across the table at each other and smiled making mental note of one more experience to “tell the folks back home.” In a moment, however, this slight shaking increased to a violent jerking. This jerking gave way to a whipping motion as the earth rocked up and down, east and west, and north and south, accompanied by terrifying grinding, and groaning sounds as though the earth itself were writhing in agony.

Want to know more about this amazing trip? We have recently scanned the entirety of the IU administrative correspondence, but recent donations from the family of team member Leonard Ruckelshaus and Edna Edmondson have provided us with a tremendous amount of detail about the trip. Ruck’s diary begins on the day of departure and was faithfully written in through May 27. The donation also included a beautiful scrapbook full of photographs and memorabilia, and many of the photos have been scanned and added to the Archives Photographs Database. And as always, feel free to contact us to schedule a visit to look through materials yourself!

Leonard “Ruck” Ruckelshaus on IU’s Jordan Field, circa 1922.

 

IU Baseball goes to…Japan! Part 1

It has been such an exciting time for IU baseball, what a terrific season! This – along with a recent donation – has prompted me to share a story about another exciting time in IU baseball history.

In December 1921, IU’s baseball coach George Levis received the following letter and proposition from Waseda University’s Iso Abé, Professor of Economics and Sociology:

waseda

The accompanying agreement stated Waseda would pay $11,500 towards the IU team’s traveling expenses, as well as hotel and transportation costs associated with traveling to and from the hotel and ball field! In exchange, Abé proposed IU pay the Waseda baseball team $1,300 when they in turn visited in 1925, as well as the hotel costs for one night in Bloomington. Not a bad deal, right? Right. So university administrators made quick work of figuring out the logistics of such a trip, lining up transportation, securing passports, chaperones, etc.

On March 28, the baseball team began their journey, departing Bloomington via the Monon at 11:30 AM.

IU Baseball heads to the Far East! At the Bloomington train station, March 28, 1922. (Back Row, L to R) Joseph Sloate, Emmons Clay, Clarence E. Edmondson, Mrs. Clarence E. Edmondson, William Lowe Bryan, Mrs. George Levis, Coach George Levis, Leonard Conrad Ruckelshaus, Walter Wichterman, Ward Gilbert, and Robert Kidd. (Front Row, L to R) Rankin Denny, Assistant Coach Roscoe “Cow” Minton, Harry Gause, Leland Macer, Harold Lynch, and Dorsey Kight. Captain James Walker is not pictured.

They traveled across country as minor celebrities to their destination, Seattle, where they would depart for Japan on the SS Keystone State on April 1 to the University of Washington baseball team’s crooning of farewell songs.

diary005

So they were off. The baseball team, chaperones, and then these fellas, “Four I.U. ‘Bums'”. Recognize any of those names? How about #2, the “Chief Bell Boy” of the ship?

The trip took over 2 weeks. Several of the landlubbing Hoosiers suffered terribly from seasickness. Player Leonard “Ruck” Ruckelshaus recorded in his diary, “[Emmons] Clay, Mr. and Mrs. Levis, Mrs. Edmondson, Joe Sloate, and Doresey Kight were very sick. Clay… said he would not cross the ocean again if they made him the Ambassador of England.” But they made it…minus one poor sailor who had a fatal accident and the boys stood by as witnesses to his sea burial.

IU Baseball in Japan...continued! 

The Boys of Summer at IU

During World War II, Indiana University was not unlike other universities and colleges in that nearly every aspect of university operations underwent a number of changes. Personnel-wise, there were fewer men on campus, and many of them who were in Bloomington were in uniform.

Baseball uniforms, that is! Well, at least for one spring month in 1943 and 1944.

IDS, April 3, 1943. The “Business and Economics Building” is now known as Woodburn Hall.

At the January 11, 1943 Athletics Committee meeting, IU Athletics Director Zora Clevenger reported that seven professional baseball “clubs” as well as the President of the American Association had contacted him inquiring about the use of the fieldhouse (now the Wildermuth Fieldhouse) for spring training. Teams included the Indianapolis Indians, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers, Montreal Royals, and the Toledo Mud Hens. The Committee recommended Clevenger and IU baseball coach Paul “Pooch” Harrell work with the administration to come to mutually agreeable terms with the Indianapolis Indians and another team.

Within the week, IU President Herman B Wells reported that the members of the Executive Committee had approved the proposal for the Indianapolis Indians and Cincinnati Reds to come to campus. Trustee Feltus must have been a baseball fan – notations on memos regarding the plans indicate he said “we should have them by all means.”

It is not known what terms the university reached with the teams, but in response to a letter of inquiry from the Muncie Star regarding the arrangements, Vice President and Treasurer Ward Biddle stated, “Neither the University nor the City have been asked to defray any expenses in connection with bringing these ball clubs to Bloomington, and we are expecting that we will be reimbursed by them for out-of-pocket expenses in connection with their training.”

The Indiana Daily Student was all atwitter about this development. The Reds were the first to arrive on campus with team news coverage beginning in February followed by near daily reports regarding the teams’ arrivals, preparations, practices, and exhibition games.

The reporters of the IDS were not alone – this was terrific excitement for Bloomington. The Jaycee’s gave a baseball banquet on March 18 for the Reds at Alumni Hall; tickets could be had for $2 per person. Speakers included Warren Giles, general manager for the Reds, Reds Manager Deacon Bill McKechnie, Ownie Bush, Indianapolis Indians owner, Clevenger, and President Wells. The IDS reported that a few of the more popular Reds players – which at that time included 1939 MVP Bucky Walters and 1940 MVP Frank McCormick — would be asked to “spin a baseball yarn, or two.” Mickey McCarty, managing editor of the Indianapolis News and former editor of the IDS, would serve as master of ceremonies. Due to the shortage of service staff on the war-time campus, the Association of Women Students President Leona Menze called together the sorority presidents to devise a plan to assist. Together they launched “a patriotic program designed to bring in members of every house as volunteer workers for the day.” Payment was given in the form of War Savings Stamps and the participants wore special armbands.

The Reds’ groundskeeper came to campus prior to the team in order to prep Jordan Field (now home to the IMU parking lot), though the team planned to begin training in the Fieldhouse until weather improved. Work included raising the pitching mound, enlarging the infield, and in general, just smoothing out the field.

The team was housed at the Graham Hotel in town (now the Graham Plaza at 205 N. College), from which they walked to the 10th Street stadium (current home to the Arboretum) to use the locker facilities before heading over to the Fieldhouse for four hours of daily practice. The IDS reported that during the Reds first practice “several hundred male students” gathered to watch.

The first members of the Indianapolis Indians began arriving on March 27 with the entire team due to land in Bloomington by April 1 or shortly thereafter. Those familiar with Southern Indiana springs can guess that the weather was the biggest hurdle facing the two teams (well, with the exception of Reds player Bucky Walters, who tripped over a hurdle and bruised his heel whilst warming up one day). The Indians first outdoor drill was cut short when the winds became too much for the players.

On April 8, however, the IDS reported on the first exhibition game held the previous day between the Reds and Indians on Jordan field. The Reds triumphed over the Indians, 8-6, in front of a capacity crowd of 2,000 students, townspeople, visitors, soldiers, and Marines. The Indiana weather became a factor for the next Reds exhibition game. The Chicago Cubs traveled from their spring training home of French Lick but alas, the game was cancelled due to rain. With that sad note, the Reds training camp came to a close and the Indians were left with ample Fieldhouse space for their next few weeks of conditioning.

The Indians run laps in the Fieldhouse, March 28, 1943.

In what must have been crazy-exciting for the IU team, the Indians scheduled an exhibition game with the “Harrellmen” on April 13. But once again, the weather interfered – it snowed. In April. They rescheduled for the 15th but were thwarted by more snow. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to reschedule a third time, as the Indians departed campus on the 20th, bound for Terre Haute where they planned to play the Minneapolis Millers in two exhibition games. (Weather cooperated in 1944, however, and the IU team defeated the Indians, 5-3!)

The professional teams were wholly satisfied with the campus facilities and both returned the following year, much to the enjoyment of Bloomington baseball fans.

Want to read some more about this brush with baseball fame? The IDS is available on microfilm in the Government Information and Kent Cooper Services on the 2nd floor of the Wells Library. Also, as I researched for this story, I copied the bulk of the newspaper articles and they are available in the Archives – contact us for access!