In the article “Baseball Magic” by George Gmelch, the author uses the sport of baseball as a means of portraying different aspects of culture. The three aspects of baseball that are discussed are rituals, taboos, and fetishes. All three of these baseball traditions or superstitions can be directly related to specific aspects of culture. There are religious, social, and political ties to all three. In examining the rituals, taboos, and fetishes of baseball, cultural ties can be made and one can begin to understand the complex nature of society as it relates to the individuals that comprise it.
In “Baseball Magic”, Gmelch realizes that certain players have rituals that they perform in order to succeed on the field. Weather it’s eating a certain food before games, leaving the house at the same time for every game, or listening to the same music before every game, players have adapted their daily routines to what works for them on the baseball diamond. They also associate their pre-game behaviors with how they perform on the field. If a player eats the same food before two different games, and performs well, the food is then associated with the great performances.
A ritual is defined as the same group of people doing the same thing at a prescribed time and day. Just as baseball players have their rituals before games, different cultures have their own rituals. Every religion has rituals it performs. Worship service, religious holidays, and ceremonies are all different religious rituals that help to define the group of people who perform them. Social rituals exist as well. People go to happy hour on the same day, and same time every week. People have daily routines that they do, to get them through the day. Morning coffee has become a ritual for some people. People go to the same coffee shop at the same time every day, and often times order the same thing.
While I feel as though rituals are nothing more than a way for people to stay focused, there are a number of people who rely on them. I think that rituals are a result of people being in a comfort zone. People get into a daily or weekly routine, and they continue to live in it for as long as they remain in that comfort zone. Rituals are a way to rationalize irrational behavior. The food a player eats has nothing to do with how he plays on a given day. In his mind, however, if he skips that meal, he will be out of his comfort zone, and won’t be able to perform up to expectations. The same thing can be said about the person who skips their morning coffee, and walks around with their head in a fog all day because they didn’t have time to stop in the morning. All these rituals symbolize a lack of confidence that people have in themselves, and how they cope with every day life. Religious rituals are a bit different, in my eyes. Religions use rituals to get their followers to all point their worship in the same direction. Religious ceremonies and rituals are used as a way to celebrate and express ones faith. Faith is still somewhat irrational, but not as much as that turkey sandwich that got you the no-hitter.
The “Baseball Magic” article also discusses taboos. Taboos are things that are frowned upon, or can complete the sentence, “You should never ____”. A few of the baseball taboos that are discussed are never mentioning the words “no-hitter” to a pitcher that is in the middle of one, or not walking on the base paths when entering or leaving the field. These are also irrational. Stepping on the base line on your way off the field has no impact on the game. Think of the old “Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back” line. This is a social taboo that has been in place for ages. It is totally irrational to think that your mother’s back will break if you walk on the cracks in the pavement. However, I was watching people walk through the mall the other day, and it’s amazing how many people will space their steps to avoid all the cracks on the tile floor.
Taboos can be social, religious, and political in nature as well. A social taboo, regardless of which culture you refer to, is murder. Murder is frowned upon regardless of culture, race, or creed. Political and religious taboos can ofter be connected, depending on the culture. Often times, breaking these taboos can help to advance a culture or a group of people past an issue. In an article posted on the BBC website by Mark Simpson, titled “Ronan Kerr killing: political taboos broken”, he speaks about the death of a police officer, and how it has brought together people of different political and religious backgrounds. A protestant minister attended a Catholic service for the fallen officer, even though it was frowned upon by his own faith. The political aspects of unity and standing up for what is right, far outweighed the backlash from his own faith. By breaking this taboo among many of his own faith, he began to politically unite the country and move ahead in their thinking, and move toward a time of less violence, and peace in the nation.
The third aspect of society that is discussed by Gmelch, in his article is fetishes. He describes fetishes as charms that are used to try to influence the outcomes of certain events. Baseball players have their lucky hat, or gloves. They wear the same gloves for every day of a hit streak, or the same hat every day until they lose. The charms also are irrational in nature. A hat has no way to influence the outcome of a game. But charms can be seen in society as well. People can be spotted at casinos carrying their lucky rabbits foot, or at the bingo hall with their lucky troll figurines and statues. Good luck charms are thought to influence whatever is going on at the time. If a person noticed that they had something with them at the time of good fortune, then it must have been the object that caused them to succeed.
Fetishes, or charms, are another irrational way of thinking, that was created over time to help to explain certain things. The way a person performs on the athletic field has nothing to do with his hat, chewing gum, or batting glove. It has to do with the person’s skill and mental ability to handle the game. But to the player, that lucky hat is thought to be the reason for continued success, and it cannot be put to chance that it is not. The mental side of sports is directly related to the charms, taboos, and rituals that have been discussed. I have often been guilty of using charms as well. When I go to the casino, I only wear Patriots gear, because I always lose with my Red Sox hat on. I know in my head it’s irrational, but I also don’t want to tempt fate.
Religions also use charms. They have religious medals, statues, and prayer cards. These items are thought to bring good luck to a person while driving or used to help you find something that you’ve lost. The cross on a necklace can be thought to protect the wearer against any harm that might come his way. These charms are said to be in remembrance of the saint or person who is depicted on them, and are a bit more practical in that way. They symbolize something, rather than just being attached to good luck, or good fortune.
There are also charms in politics. Medals are given to the bravest soldiers, and every member of the armed forces wears badges to signify rank and position. Medals in the military are not so much thought of as bringing good luck, but rather as a symbol of past accomplishments. In this way, political charms can be looked at differently. They signify something rather than try to accomplish something.
By examining these different ways in which people try to control their actions, much can be learned about a culture. People try to control their minds by convincing themselves, no matter how irrational it may be, that a charm, ritual or taboo has in some way influenced the outcome of a certain event. Weather it be a sporting event, casino trip, or for political gains, cultures view rituals the same way. Rituals are used to influence events. Sometimes, rituals, taboos and fetishes can all be used together. Take a modern Catholic mass for example. The mass itself is a ritual that uses taboos (sins), and fetishes (statues, and the cross) to try to influence the outcome of a certain event (the life of the worshiper). As irrational as these objects might look to someone on the outside, to Catholics, they take on a much bigger meaning.
Cultures are defined by the language, symbols and way of life that brings a group of people together. Rituals, taboos and fetishes are a part of culture. They are woven into our daily lives in such a way that is sometimes unnoticed. They shape who we are, and sometimes who we are going to be. If you need proof, just ask the lady at the casino with the troll statues and rainbow colored glitter hat. She’ll be happy to tell you about the fortune that is coming her way, thanks to the hat.