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Buffalo Teeth, Chicken Dinners, and ‘Juju': The Strangest Sports Superstitions

Buffalo Teeth, Chicken Dinners, and ‘Juju': The Strangest Sports Superstitions

After losing a key match to their rivals How Mine, officials from the Zimbabwean soccer team CAPS United decided to check out the locker room of their opponents. What they found convinced the team that they had lost the match on account of their opponents’ use of "juju." Lighted candles littered the locker room, along with liquid-filled bottles arranged in an 11-man formation.  

Breathlessly recounting the weird traditions of Zimbabwean soccer, the Associated Press report on the flap over alleged juju-use describes some of the more unusual Zimbabwean rituals deployed in the hope of securing a victory: "animal bones, hair, feathers and river pebbles" stashed around sports fields, goal posts "sprinkled with urine," soccer players smeared in "ancient herbal potions."

"Juju is rampant, it’s part of the game," a senior soccer official told the AP. The resulting story is a picture-postcard in gleefully revelling in the exotic tendencies of African culture — and the strange, seemingly irrational belief system it seems to represent. What goes unmentioned is that Western sports and athletes are equally guilty of using a bit of "juju" to get the win. Les Miles, the  Louisiana State University football coach, has a habit of eating grass off the field. Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson liked to drink beef blood before his bouts.

The only difference between these American superstars and their Zimbabwean counterparts? The AP would never describe their behavior as "juju."

If it sounds strange that Zimbabwean soccer players would smear their bodies with "ancient herbal potions," let’s take a moment to consider baseball — possibly the world’s most superstitious sport and one followed by millions of Americans.

Former Red Sox player Wade Boggs, woke up every morning at the same time, took 150  ground balls, did his batting practice at exactly 5:17 p.m., his sprints at 7:17 p.m. He ate chicken before every game and etched the word "Chai" ("life" in Hebrew) in the batter’s box every time he came up to bat.

As for New York Mets pitcher Turk Wendell, he would find himself right at home in the How Mine locker room. His rituals included chewing exactly four pieces of black licorice while pitching, spitting them out and brushing his teeth at the end of each inning only to start munching on four new pieces by the following inning. While pitching, he would wear the teeth of wild pigs and buffalo around his neck. If that isn’t "juju," what is?

When Dennis Grossini, a pitcher during the 1960s for the Detroit Tigers farm team, was asked about the most important part of his elaborate routine, which involved a daily tuna sandwich, two glasses of iced tea, and straightening his cap after each ball, he answered "You can’t really tell what’s most important so it all becomes important. I’d be afraid to change anything. As long as I’m winning, I do everything the same."

There’s a relatively simple psychological explanation for the "magic" used in baseball. As they are least able to control their outcomes, pitchers are known to have some of the most intricate rituals, according to George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco. "Routines are comforting, they bring order into a world in which players have little control," Gmelch writes. The players also associate successful performance with prior behavior, or a fetishized object. The scraggly beards that filled the Boston Red Sox lineup en route to their World Series win this year is a case in point. "Quirky things can bring people together," Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes told the Boston Globe

But weird rituals are far from limited to baseball. The fanbase of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team has a gross tradition of tossing entire dead octopuses on the ice. It started in 1952, when two fans threw an octopus, whose eight limbs represented the number of games needed to win the Stanley Cup, on the rink. Since then, the octopus toss has become such a staple of Detroit hockey that the team decided to make Al the Octopus its mascot. Supporters of the Cornell hockey team opt for a slightly less slimy fish toss.

Sprinkling goal posts with urine isn’t even a uniquely Zimbabwean tradition. When Barry Fry managed the Birmingham City soccer team during the early 1990s, he would urinate on the four corners of the pitch to ward off a curse cast on the team by either a witch or a "gypsy" — accounts vary as to who was behind the curse.

So, How Mine, you devious "juju" practitioners, keep on with those strange locker room rituals. Your Western, better-paid counterparts are just as weird.