No masking horror of Friday the 13th
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th fits squarely into the realm of sports superstitions, curses, and all things unlucky.
On Sept. 9, 1969, the Cubs faced the Mets at Shea Stadium. Six days earlier, Chicago had been five games up on New York in the National League pennant race. But by the 9th, the lead was down to 1 1/2 games. As the day's leadoff batter, Don Kessinger, stepped into the box against Mets ace Tom Seaver, a black cat scooted out from under the stands, and took good long glares at Kessinger and Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, awaiting his turn on the on-deck circle.

Then the cat ambled over to the visitors' dugout, headed for Leo Durocher, raised its tail, and hissed at the manager.

"I knew right away we were in trouble," said Santo. "I wanted to run and hide."

Seaver pitched the Mets to a 7-1 win that day, giving the Mets a two-game series sweep and reducing the Cubs' lead to a half-game. Chicago ended the season in second place, eight games behind New York.

In case you hadn't noticed, Friday, June 13, is upon us. That Cubs anecdote didn't happen on a Friday the 13th, but it has an ominous connection to the day/date combo, nonetheless. It fits squarely into the realm of sports superstitions, curses, and beliefs about luck that covers Fridays such as this one, too.

Usually, I don't give the ominous day/date combo a second thought. But try as I might, I found myself unable to file this story under the simple title, "Friday the 13th." Later, I agreed with my editor that it might best if we published the article first on Thursday the 12th, and then let it ease into Friday the 13th.

Triskaidekaphobia. I don't think I have it, but maybe I do. Okay, a mild case. A fear of the number 13, or of Friday the 13th.

Do you have it? Probably, lots of athletes (and fans) will be taking special precautions on Friday, even if they're not afflicted with triskaidekaphobia. Because just about everyone has some kind of superstition, or believes in curses, or thinks that luck isn't just out there but has specific targets in mind, too.

Some players clearly don't fear the number 13, since they spend much of their time wearing it on their backs. A few players who display the cursed 13 in full splendor:

Kurt Warner

Edgardo Alfonzo

Steve Nash

Billy Wagner
He no-no'ed the Yanks, but he was also struck by a line drive to the noggin in '98 and missed most of 2000 with a torn elbow ligament.
Glenn Robinson

John Valentin

Billy Wagner

In case you missed it, that last fellow, Mr. Wagner, just closed out a no-hitter against the Yankees. Some good luck must have been at work there for him, because until last night it had been more than 50 years since the Pinstripes were last no-hit at Yankee Stadium.

How do you suppose the Yankees feel, though? Now Roger Clemens has to make another run at his 300th win and his 4,000th strikeout (he needs four) on Friday the 13th. Interestingly, Friday the 13th and the number 4,000 have come up before in the history of baseball. On April 13, 1984, a Friday, Pete Rose (then with Montreal) doubled to right off the Phillies' Jerry Koosman in Olympic Stadium to become only the second player to reach the 4,000-hit level. Ty Cobb, of course, is the other.

In general, things have worked out pretty well for the guys on that short list who were uniforn No. 13.

But what about that famous Dodgers pitcher who wore No. 13 in 1951? If you've seen a photo of Bobby Thomson hitting the "Shot heard 'round the world," you've probably also noticed Ralph Branca, facing away from the camera, watching the ball fly toward the left-field stands. The No. 13 on his back is enormous.

Bobby Thomson's shot
On the other side of this celebration was a dejected pitcher sporting the number 13.
Nobody knows for sure why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky -- there are plenty of theories -- but most agree that the superstition goes back a long way, hundreds of years. The No. 13 has had bad mojo all along, as has the sixth day of the week. Combined not good.

What can athletes do about it? About all they can do is try to ignore it. After all, it's not like they have a choice. The Spurs and Nets play tomorrow night. If you're in the U.S. Open, you're playing tomorrow. There are 15 Major League Baseball games scheduled for Friday, June 13.

Not everyone can have bad luck. There will be winners. There will be some great golf. Either the Nets or the Spurs will be very happy after tomorrow night's game.

Most athletes who believe in bad luck also believe they can do something about it. If they do things just right, they can keep the whammy at bay. The great Olympic softball pitcher Lisa Fernandez, for example. "If I put on my uniform," she told SI for Women, "and I feel like I didn't put it on in the right order, then it goes on again: shorts, then stirrups, right foot first, then left foot, then batting practice jersey."

Others think there's absolutely no mystery to luck, either good or bad.

"You've got to be lucky, but if you have good stuff, it's easier to be lucky." That's Sandy Koufax, commenting on his four no-hitters.

"Luck is the by-product of busting your fanny." That's Don Sutton, former Dodgers pitcher, current Braves broadcaster.

The Curse of the Bambino looms large over Boston. The Red Sox are doomed to never win the World Series again because they traded Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. They'd been baseball's best team until then. Five World Championships. When Ruth went, the sentence was clear: Eternal punishment. No more World Championships for you!

Roger Clemens
The Rocket better check his back, taking aim at 300 on Friday the 13th.
Conclusive evidence of the curse: Bill Buckner, 1986. All-Star Major League veterans just don't make that kind of error without divine intervention of the negative sort.

And Buckner was a superstitious ballplayer. He "had a nineteen-game hitting streak going and always wore the same underwear," said his Cubs teammate, Lenny Randle, in 1980. "Of course, he had no friends."

George Underwood, who played forward for East Tennessee State about 25 years ago, was asked once if he had any superstitions: "Yes, two," he replied. "One, don't call someone a bad name if they have a loaded pistol. Two, don't call your girlfriend Tina if her name is Vivian."

Hockey players tend to be superstitious. Crossed hockey sticks bring bad luck. Tapping your goalie's shin pads before a game ensures victory.

But playing in the Montreal Forum can be downright spooky. Seems the ghost of Howie Morenz, a Canadiens star who died from injuries suffered on the ice in 1937, inhabits the place. Kind of makes sense -- his funeral was at the Forum, with his casket placed at center ice.

Morenz's ghost may have helped Montreal win the Stanley Cup in 1979. During the seventh game of the team's playoff series against Boston, Bruins coach Don Cherry thought his team was shorthanded -- he'd spotted an unguarded Canadien on the ice. Cherry sent in an extra player to even things up. Or so he thought. The Bruins were penalized for having two many men on the ice, and the Canadiens scored a power-play goal.

Did Cherry see the ghost of Morenz?

In the 1970s, representatives from the World Health Organization fanned out over the globe in an elaborate, well-planned, and expensive effort to eradicate smallpox. They did it. The last known case of the disease in humans occurred in 1977, in Somalia.

Triskaidekaphobia, apparently, is trickier. Some people have tried to rid the human race of that affliction, too. In January 1967, the London Daily Telegraph reported that, "Thirteen people, pledged to eradicate triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, today tried to reassure American sufferers by renting a 13-foot plot of land in Brooklyn for 13 cents a month."

Original. Thoughtful. Thrifty. And, as you know, entirely unsuccessful.

During a 1992 spring training game, Angels pitcher Matt Keough, hanging out in the dugout on the third base side, was struck on the head by a foul ball off the bat of Giants second baseman John Patterson. Said fellow Angels pitcher Chuck Crim, "It sounded like the ball hit the concrete wall, but I guess it was his head."

Keough suffered a blood clot on the brain and almost died. He underwent emergency brain surgery and was in critical condition. He lived. Lived to hear many well-meaning folks remind him of his good fortune -- if the ball had hit him just a little higher or lower, if the Angels weren't playing right across the street from a hospital, if that hospital hadn't had a neurosurgeon on hand

It got old. "You get a little tired of people telling you how lucky you are. Luck is having the ball miss you by a foot," he said.

Keough, a nine-year veteran who had been out of the majors for six years, was on track for a successful comeback. But after the injury, he never pitched at that level again.

It can happen to less talented athletes, too. A British fellow named Warren Mapplebeck, a teacher by profession, is getting messages of some sort. Messages that he should take up hobbies that don't involve club sports.

In his first soccer game for Osbaldwick, Mapplebeck broke his leg. He was in a cast for three months. So he took up badminton. In his first game, his Achilles tendon snapped. After recovering, he thought he'd give cricket a try. In his debut outing, he broke his arm.

"I thought I would be safe playing badminton and cricket," he said. "I could take up tiddlywinks but knowing my luck, I'd get one in the eye."

Even fishing, which can be the most peaceful of sporting endeavors, has its hazards. If a barefoot woman passes you on the way to the dock, you may as well go home and put the pole away. Because that barefoot woman portends a day of a measly catch, of wasted bait.

Phil Mickelson
We're not really sure what makes Phil Mickelson so unlucky on Sundays.
If you're a Chargers fan, bare feet are another matter. If you spot Tim Dwight before the game, have a look. Is he walking around in his bare feet? If so, feel good. It's his way of drawing energy from the Earth.


"I have only one superstition. I make sure I touch all the bases when I hit a home run." That's Babe Ruth.

"I think everyone gets caught up in superstitions. But I don't put much stock in them -- knock on wood." That's Twins pitcher Jim Deshaies, 1994. His teammate, Scott Erickson, had just pitched a no-hitter, which brings out its own slew of superstitions, including not talking to the pitcher and not talking at all about the fact that a no-hitter is in progress.

The soccer world is rife with superstitions, bad luck, and curses. Seems the great Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, a surprise replacement in the 1990 World Cup who ended up starring in the tourney, urinated on the pitch during the semifinals in Italy, during a penalty. Success followed, and he continued the practice. Pissing on a penalty.

In 2001, Oxford United moved into the brand new, $22-million Kassam Stadium, and proceeded to win only two of their next ten games. The team's chaplain, in an effort to reverse a Gypsy curse upon the stadium's site, brought in an exorcist. "This has to be taken seriously," he said. "There's nothing lost by having an exorcism and it's better to be safe than sorry." The exorcism went off without a hitch, and things started to go better for Oxford United. At least in the short term.

Doug Sanders, a pro golfer, had his superstitions. "I always tossed my cigarette away between my legs, and I never used a white tee," he said.

Sanders looked like he'd win the 1970 British Open. On the 72nd hole, he just needed par to win. Sanders was paired with Lee Trevino, and Trevino's caddy handed him a white tee. "Here, hit this one for Tony," said the caddy.

It was a nice, sentimental gesture. Tony Lema had won the 1964 British Open using the tee, and had died a few years later in a plane crash. Sanders and Lema had been close friends. Sanders used the tee. He missed an easy three-foot putt for par. He finished in a tie with Jack Nicklaus. And the next day, he lost to Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff.

The black cat was a one-time deal for the Cubbies, but they've had to battle a couple of other, more longstanding curses. In 1945, William Sianis went to the fourth game of the World Series. Naturally, he took along his pet billy goat. The goat was denied entrance. Sianis, furious, yelled, "The Cubs will never win another pennant." You know the rest of that story.

Ex-Cubs don't fare any better. Check your favorite team's roster. Does it have three or more former Cubs? If so, bet against them. No team with a lineup stocked with that many former Cubs has won a World Series since 1945. Except the 1960 Pirates. Overall, the ex-Cubs World Series record is 1-13.

Disbelievers with a sense of humor:

"Carew is the luckiest hitter I ever saw. When he hits the ball, there is no one there to field it." That's former Twins manager Gene Mauch on Rod Carew.

"Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn't score any runs." That's Tim McCarver, Gibson's catcher.

Former O's pitcher Mike Cuellar kept evil spirits from his hotel rooms by using paper to plug the openings in keyholes and under doors. Maybe it worked. Cuellar won 185 games in the majors, lost only 130, and won the Cy Young award in 1969.

Joe Namath
Not even Broadway Joe could save himself from the SI cover jinx.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a triskaidekaphobe. He died on April 12, 1945, shortly after his presidency entered its 13th year.

Other notable historical figures who had a fear of 13: Mark Twain, Herbert Hoover, and Napoleon.

We could go on forever in this vein. But we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. It goes way back to Eddie Mathews, the Milwaukee Braves star who appeared on the Aug. 16, 1954 cover. The Braves had won nine straight. Then magazine hit the newsstands. The Braves lost. Streak over. The following week, Mathews was hit on the hand by a pitch and sidelined for a week.

And so it began. The cover jinx became such a well-known phenomenon that Sports Illustrated felt it necessary to unleash a team of investigative reporters a couple of years ago, to find out if the jinx was, indeed, for real. Their findings: a "jinx rate" of 37.2 percent.

Alexander Wolff wrote the cover story on the SI jinx. He found the evidence altogether inconclusive, but suggested, "If the Jinx has existed all these years, its appearance on this week's cover might well lead to its demise." Maybe. Maybe a jinx ,can be jinxed by a jinx.

We don't know. SI hasn't released a follow-up study. But for all those fortunate enough to get an SI cover spot, we're keeping our fingers crossed.



Jeff Merron Archive

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