It is World Series time and the Boston beards are on full display. It all started in spring training, when, coming off a very bad season in 2012, a few Red Sox players decided to grow their beards. Soon others joined in, and now Boston is the hairiest team in all of baseball. The phenomenon appeared to gain greater significance following the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th, and it is now a central part of the 2013 team’s identity. As the playoffs and world series got underway, fan’s joined in, growing their own Boston beards.
Where does this kind of group superstition come from? There are at least five reasons why the Red Sox have put their facial hair on display.
1. Baseball is rife with superstition. Although sports-related superstitions are common across all athletic pursuits, baseball has many famous socially-shared superstitions, and players often create their own unique personal superstitions. Why? Of course it is a very old game, steeped in tradition, but it is also notoriously one of the slowest of all games. It takes hours to complete a contest and much of that time is spent waiting for your turn to participate. Widely scattered moments of extreme intensity are punctuated by long periods of inactivity. This nervous waiting time has to be filled somehow, and superstitions often emerge to fill the time.
2. The illusion of control. Only when you are at bat or in the field do you have any control over the game, and even then, your actual influence may be minimal. Much of your team’s fate hangs on the performance of the pitcher, and if you are not the pitcher, all you can do to help him is provide moral support. Batting, too, is very important, but the best hitters are only successful 30% of the time. In addition to filling the time, superstitions give their users a sense of control over the uncontrollable. Players have the feeling that they are doing something to bring about the desired result, and when—as in the case of the 2013 Red Sox—the team is successful, superstitions seems to work. Just as the dice player believes a hard roll will bring a high number, it is easy for the superstitious baseball player to acquire the sense that his superstitions are effective.
3. Sticking with what “works.” Once a superstition is established and appears to be valid, there is a great reluctance to give it up. In Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition I describe the case of St. John's University basketball coach Lou Carnesecca who, during the highly successful 1984-85 season, wore the same crew neck sweater for thirteen games in a row before losing to Georgetown in an NCAA semifinal game. When things are working well, there is a tendency to want to keep the surrounding conditions exactly same. This is the origin of all lucky shirts, underwear, and hats.
4. The bonding factor. Baseball is a team sport, and group superstitions have a particular value in keeping the team positive and focused on the goal ahead. In a previous era, when teams fell behind in a game, they would frequently don “rally caps” to bring on hits. In the dugout, players might wear their hats upside down or with the bills flipped up in the hope of scoring runs. Again, the dugout is a particularly powerless place to be in the middle of a tense game, but a group superstition provides both an illusion of control and a sense of team membership. Boston’s beards are a particularly visible indicator of team identity and bonding.
5. The Samson factor. There is something about hair and strength and sport. The “playoff beard” is a well-known phenomenon in hockey aimed at bringing home the Stanley Cup. Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg came from a very superstitious family, and he typically stopped shaving during the fortnight of the Wimbledon championships. Playoff beards are also common in baseball, but the Red Sox are the first team to make them a year-long team superstition. The Red Sox and other bearded players undoubtedly benefit from a sense of hairy virility.
Will Boston’s beards bring them success in the World Series? It is impossible know. If the team is successful, it will not be the result of the magical influence of long facial hair, but the players' beards undoubtedly bring them a helpful sense of confidence. But only time will tell if this bearded bravado, combined with the team’s talents on the field, will bring home a World Series win.