Branca, A-Rod, Wilt among those who played through fear of No. 13

Alex Rodriguez gestures and smiles as he stands

Alex Rodriguez gestures and smiles as he stands at third base during Game 1 of the ALCS. (Oct. 13, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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If, as anecdotal evidence suggests, athletes are bigger suckers for superstitions than the general public, 2013 could be a challenging year on the playing fields. Triskaidekaphobia, fear of the No. 13, looms.

For those suffering from this condition, there is the cautionary tale of Ralph Branca. Not quite two months before Branca was victimized by Bobby Thomson's storied "shot heard 'round the world" in the Brooklyn Dodgers' playoff loss to the New York Giants, Branca posed -- on Friday the 13th of July 1951 -- for a photo in his No. 13 jersey with a black cat.

Here's another one: In 1999, pitching for Seattle and Texas, Jeff Fassero -- wearing No. 13 -- compiled the worst earned run average (7.20) over a minimum 150 innings in the major leagues since 1937.

Whether 13, like the Mayan calendar, should be dismissed as a prediction of doom, appears obvious to many. Branca, after all, was a three-time All-Star during a solid 12-year career and ultimately stuck in the public consciousness for his historic tie to Thomson. (Branca briefly switched to No. 12 the season after Thomson's home run, then bravely went back to 13.) Fassero spent 16 seasons in the big leagues, earning more than $5 million in 1999 alone.

There continue to be modern-day worrywarts among us, relieved that 85 percent of the world's tallest buildings don't have a 13th floor (at least, don't call it the 13th floor), part of a culturally reinforced wisdom about tiptoeing around the number whenever possible. Formula One racing, for instance, does not use the No. 13 on its cars.

None of this is a surprise to Connecticut College professor of psychology Stuart Vyse, who currently is revising his 1997 book "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition" for a Friday the 13th release in September. Superstitions, he said, are "a global thing."

Athletes, particularly baseball players, are especially susceptible, Vyse has found. Partly, he said, because of the "knife's edge" difference between their success and failure. "And there is a lot of waiting time in baseball. How do you fill that time when you're nervous, anxious about doing well?"

The answer is by indulging in such dotty routines and wearing so-called "rally caps," not stepping on baselines, not speaking to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter. In checking all the boxes to facilitate good luck, it therefore is not unusual to avoid No. 13.

Unless, of course, one applies the Wilt Chamberlain theory. Basketball's great big man, though his odd personal superstition was to wear a rubber band on his wrist, embraced uniform No. 13, arguing that by doing so, he was turning the bad luck on his opponents.

"Some people," Vyse said, "have a sort of buck-the-system, anti-authoritarian attitude in general, and it probably helps them be a success in life to do that. But the other thing is, the number is not unlucky, and there are people for whom it's a positive thing."

Vyse noted that singer Taylor Swift, born Dec. 13, writes "13" on her hand before performances. Branca said he wore 13 because he was one of 13 children. Because Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino wore No. 13, a young Miami lad named Alex Rodriguez chose that number for his high school football uniform.

Though a No. 3 as a major-leaguer in Seattle and Texas, Rodriguez went back to 13 when he joined the Yankees in 2004 (and won two MVP awards after doing so) because No. 3 long ago had been assigned, for eternity, to Babe Ruth.

There are several theories regarding 13's bad-omen origin, including the unsubstantiated detail that Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th person to sit down to the Last Supper. To Vyse, the idea that any outcome could result from an association with a number is as illogical as former third baseman Wade Boggs "believing that eating chicken before a game improved his hitting.''

"If you say something like that makes you feel better, feel comforted, that's not a superstition," Vyse said. "But to actually believe in a cause-and-effect relationship is magical thinking. Of course, people very rarely call it a superstition if it's something they're doing.

"There is a community of skeptics, throughout the world, trying to defeat superstitions, and one way to do that is these Friday the 13th parties, where they go around smashing mirrors and walking under ladders" -- the first of which may have been initiated by Civil War veteran William Fowler in New York City in 1880.

Fowler, who graduated from P.S. 13 when he was 13, claimed to have been in 13 Civil War battles and later worked for an architectural firm that erected 13 public buildings in Lower Manhattan. He created the Thirteen Club, at which 13 prominent men attended the first meeting on Friday the 13th.

There was spilled salt throughout the room and guests all entered under ladders. None of that, according to published reports, prevented all from having a good time.

Just as wearing No. 13 hardly cut into the on-field performance of such sports stars as point guard Steve Nash (though he has gone to No. 10 with the Lakers, who long ago retired Chamberlain's 13), former MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, former Super Bowl Jet Don Maynard, nine-time All-Star shortstop Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame hockey player Mats Sundin.

Not to mention thoroughbreds Smarty Jones (2004), Forward Pass (1968) and Burgoo King (1932), each having started from post position 13 to win the Kentucky Derby on the way to sweeping the first two Triple Crown races.

Also, the first really exciting Super Bowl game, after a series of dull exercises in teams trying not to lose, was the 13th (Pittsburgh 35, Dallas 31).

Meanwhile, a Gallup / USA Today poll several years ago asked citizens if being given a hotel room on the 13th floor would make them uneasy.

Only 13 percent said yes.