An Anthropological Analysis of Baseball Magic

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AnAnthropological Analysis of Baseball Magic

Formy project, I intend to how baseball players develop rituals andmaintain them throughout their sporting careers. I also delve intodiscussing the bearing of these rituals on the attitude andperformance of the baseball players while in the pitch. For my study,I opt to refer to the baseball rituals as “Baseball Magic,” andalso use the perception of the parties involved (coaches and baseballplayers) in the sport to bring the intricacies of the baseball magicto light. The primary focus of this research is to analyse therituals in baseball, and whether they impact the game in any way. Inessence, rituals can be perceived as the performance of invariantcycles of formal acts (more or less), which are not entirely presetby performers (Ayling, 2). I will be seeking an answer to thequestion, “what inspires the development of rituals in baseball andhow do these rituals affect the sport? Although my primary concern isbaseball magic, I also discuss gender roles in baseball.

Beforedelving into &quotbaseball magic,&quot it is prudent to point outthe two main approaches to studying human beings that I intend touse: emic and etic. In essence, emic is perceivable as an approachthat concerns itself with the viewpoints and words of the individualsbeing researched. Researchers, typically, put aside their assumptionsand theories with the intention of letting data speak to them andallow themes, concepts and patterns to afford them relevant insight(Harvard).

Onthe other hand, etic utilises relevant theories, concepts,perspectives, and hypotheses to develop an understanding of thesetting being investigated. Typically, researchers use existingtheories in new settings to investigate whether they are applicable(Harvard).

Baseballis a sport played by two teams that comprise nine players on eachside. The two teams field and bat in turns. The batting team isreferred to as the “OFFENSIVE” and the fielding one the“DEFENSIVE.” The basics of the sport are fairly simple. Theplayer, also known as the “PITCHER,” throws the ball at the“CATCHER,” who is usually crouched behind a base, which is calleda home plate. The BATTER positions himself beside the home plate andaims at the ball whenever it is thrown at the Catcher, with theintention of hitting it as hardly as possible. If the BATTER hits theball, he attempts to run as many bases as possible before the ballcan be retrieved and the situation returned under control by theDEFENSIVE team. To win the game, either team must make an attempt atoutrunning the opposition, in terms of the number of bases run. A runis only scored when a Batter advances to all three bases and makes itback to where he started running prior to the beginning of the RUN(HOME PLATE).

Myobservation for this research was carried out during a baseball matchbetween the Detroit Tigers farm team and the Pirates. During thisperiod, I observed how the two teams battled against each other.During the first half, I observed how players behaved, For example, Inoticed that during the game, Dennis Grossini, a pitcher of theDetroit Tigers farm team, touched the letters on his sweatshirt andstraightened his cap after every pitch. He then replaced thepitcher`s resin bag before each inning started. Also, every time hegave up on an inning, he washed his hands. I also observed thebehaviour of the Pirates when it was their turn to play on theOFFENSIVE side and realised that behaviours that had not directimpact on the game were displayed. Additionally, I also realised thatother players displayed different rituals as the game progressed.

Togain further insight on the behaviours of the players, I decided tointerview the coaches and the players. According to Dennis Grossini,a pitcher on the Detroit Tigers farm team, he wakes up at exactly10:00 a.m. At 1 p.m., he always heads to the nearest restaurant toenjoy a tuna sandwich and two glasses of iced tea. Later, he changesinto the supporter and sweatshirt he had put on the last game he wonone hour before the game commences, and pleasures his gums to aBeech-Nut chewing tobacco. I could not make sense of this behaviourso I decided to ask him the rituals that were most important to hisexcellent performance while in the pitch. Grossini told me that onecannot really tell the ritual that bears more weight than the other,so he considers all rituals as being equally important. He also addedthat he preferred not to change anything, and, as long as he waswinning, he was comfortable doing everything in a similar pattern allthe time.

Grossini’sresponse prompted me to seek a different opinion from the Piratesside. According to Rick Donnelly, the coach of the Pirates, baseballplayers behave like trained animals. Once they arrive at the pitch,they do everything in a similar manner: they try avoiding anythingthat may distract their routine. He also points out that pitchers dothe same thing over and over again. Donnelly’s response proved tome that baseball players had particular beliefs (baseball magic) thathelped them feel more confident in their play, or at least theoutcome of the game.

Ialso realised that baseball was a predominantly male dominated game.Ladies were only involved in cheering their affiliated teams on. Atfirst, I did not think their role was very impactful, until I sawtheir passion for their teams and the impact this had on the players.At one point, one of the players on the Pirates side fell as he wastrying to make a run and seemed quite hurt. However, the ladiescheered him on until he pulled himself together and proceeded to makea successful RUN: this was quite intriguing.

Aftermaking the above observations, I realised that baseball magic may, infact, be real. Since the players believe so much in their rituals,their confidence levels go up and their concentration is alsoelevated. By extension, their behaviours increase their concentrationwhile on the pitch thus, increasing the team’s probability ofwinning the game. In fact, after all was said and done, the DetroitTigers farm team beat the Pirates by five runs to three. I found thisbehaviour very intriguing since it seemed to work quit well to thefavour of the Detroit team.

Later,I decided to come up with an academic explanation for the behaviourof the players: baseball magic. One particular study seemed toexplain the behaviour of the players quite extensively: Skinner’sexperiment. Skinner`s experiment revealed that superstitiousbehaviours emerge from conditioning. In his experiment, Skinnertrapped pigeons in a &quotSkinner box&quot and fed them atirregular intervals. As a result, the pigeons could not predict thetime that they would be fed, and, by extension, the behaviour thatwas being reinforced was left to chance. Surprisingly, the pigeonscontinuously behaved in a manner that was similar to during theperiod that the food was administered: the pigeons that turned theirhead kept doing the same and those that walked around maintained thesame behaviour (Schippers and Lange, 4). Since the reinforcement wasirregular, the behaviour was hard to unlearn.

Afterfurther research, I realised that another researcher had an almostsimilar opinion. According to Langer, people assume that they areresponsible for particular happenings even when they are not. Thus,people develop superstitious behaviours to gain control of thesituations in which they have little or no influence on. Langer addsthat such instances are popular in occasions where chance and skillplay a pivotal role (Schippers and Lange, 4).

Fromthe above findings – my observation, the interviews, and academicknowledge – I realised that the baseball players had beenconditioned to act in the manner that they did: Generalisation.Generalisation is perceivable as learning to make particularresponses due to the introduction of a specific stimulus, and thenrepeating the response in a slightly similar occurrence (Sam HoustonState University, 6). After winning a number of matches afterindulging in particular behaviours, for example, straightening theircaps after every pitch, these individuals assume that thesebehaviours have a bearing on the final outcome of the game. Perceiveddifferently, a player like Gossini, after committing to a similarroutine, [probably] realised that his luck in life changed. Thus, hebegan using this routine on a daily basis with the assumption that itadded value to the outcome of his performance on the pitch. Thisassumption gives him the confidence to play, and, by extension,improves his concentration while on the field, which increases thechances of his team winning.


Asdiscussed above, the existence of baseball magic is real. Sinceplayers believe so much in their rituals, their confidence andconcentration levels are boosted, as a result, increasing theirchances of winning.


Ayling,Douglas. &quotWhat is Ritual?&quot (2010): Web.&lt

Gmelch,George. &quotBaseball Magic.&quot &quotSuperstition and Ritual inAmerican Baseball 11.3 (2000): n. pag.

Harvard.&quotEmic and Etic Approaches.&quot Foundations of QualitativeResearch in Education. President &amp Fellows Harvard University,2008. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.&lt

SamHouston State University. (2013). Behavioral Learning Theory: OperantConditioning. Retrieved from

Schippers,Michaéla C., and Paul A. Lange. &quotThe Psychological Benefits ofSuperstitious Rituals in Top Sport.&quot ERASMUS RESEARCH INSTITUTEOF MANAGEMENT (2005): n. pag. Web.&ltfile:///C:/Users/Dann/Downloads/ERS%202005%20%20071%20ORG.pdf&gt.

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