Thursday, February 28, 2019

Baseball Voodoo - a History and Origin of "Rooting" for One's Team

The Spokane Press (Spokane, Washington), May 12, 1909, page 7.
 Let me root, root, root for the home team,
   If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
   At the old ball game.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Lyrics by Jack Norworth, music by Albert von Tilzer; original Copyright notice dated, May 2, 1908.

In 1908, Albert Tilzer and Jack Norworth teamed up to write the classic baseball anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  Since at least the 1940s,[i] baseball fans have belted-out the song’s musical admonition to “root, root, root for the home team” during the seventh-inning stretch to bring luck to their team.

Four-score years later, Pedro Cerrano, the Cuban slugger and religious defector in the baseball comedy classic, Major League, put his team in good hands with Voodoo incantations intended to bring good luck to his team.

The two, seemingly disparate methods of bringing luck to one’s team may not be as far removed from one another as they appear.  The cheering sense of “root” may have been influenced by traditional Voodoo practices of using roots for luck.

The origin of this sporting sense of “root” is uncertain.  The online etymology dictionary,, suggests that it is, “probably from root [(in the sense of “to dig with the snout,” as would a pig)] via an intermediate sense of “root,” meaning “study, work hard” (1856).  Merriam Webster online suggests, “perhaps alteration of rout [(to low loudly: bellow – used of cattle)].

The Oxford English Dictionary online does not prove a specific etymology, but the earliest example of use it lists includes, coincidentally, a reference to a pig:

1889 World (N.Y.) 7 June 11/4 All during the game Jim never blinked, and he rooted more energetically and with twice the freedom of a Yorkshire porker.

Although the pig reference appears to be consistent with, “to dig with a snout,” it is not proof of derivation.  Even if the sporting sense of “root” were derived from a completely unrelated usage, a writer might nevertheless refer to a pig in the same sentence as an artistic choice, playing the two senses of “root” off one another in humorous fashion. 

Several years earlier, for example, another sportswriter similarly played three senses “root” off one another in a baseball story, not including the cheering sense of root that would first appear years later.

A game of base-ball was played here yesterday between the Moscow [(Tennessee)] nine and the North Carolina Pine Rooters.  The Rooters did some good rooting, but our little nine rooted them by a score of fifteen to five.

 Memphis Daily Appeal (Tennessee), May 25, 1881, page 1. 

Unpacking the above-cited passage, it means that the baseball team named the “Pine Rooters” (after a local wild pig called a “pine rooter”[ii]) did some good hard work (“rooting”) but were nevertheless beaten soundly (“rooted” apparently a conscious misspelling of “routed,” meaning to beat decisively).

Standing alone, it seems plausible that that sports-cheer sense of “rooting” could have been derived from pig “rooting” via the intermediate sense of working hard.  But several of the earliest examples of “root” suggest another possibility, or at least a second influence on the evolution of the word; the use of plant roots in African-Caribbean-American religious traditions, variously known as “voodoo,” “hoodoo,” “juju” or “fetishism.”

Bad Hoodoos

One hundred years before Pedro Cerranno brought Voodoo to the Cleveland Indians in the 1989 film, Major League, the word, “hoodoo” (“probably an alteration of voodoo”)[iii] was in common use in baseball and other sports to denote a bad luck charm, or the act of bringing someone bad luck:

Sacramento Daily Record-Union, July 26, 1886, page 3.

“Queered” By Cross-Eyes.

Mischief Wrought by a Small Boy – A Superstition of Sporting Men.

. . . It is one of the strongest superstitions of betting men that to be impaled by the glance of a cross-eyed person is equivalent to being entirely deserted by the goddess of luck.

. . . [T]wo men cast one look at the youth, turned pale and dashed by with their heads turned the other way.

“My God, Jim!” ejaculated one of the men, “we’re hoodooed, sure.  Did you catch those eyes?”

St. Paul Daily Globe (Minnesota), September 25, 1886, page 11.

A “hoodoo” might be countered with a good-luck charm, or “mascot” (introduced in English from a popular French opera, La Mascotte, first performed in 1881).  And if a mascot didn’t work very well, the mascot might become the hoodoo.

The Metropolitan warriors do not differ from other communities of braves, and yesterday morning they came together at the Staten Island grounds to consider the source of their bad luck.  There was a hoodoo or Jonah somewhere.  The ball grounds were gone over with care, but beyond a few half-smashed cigars nothing could be found . . . [T]hey all decided that it was the mascot, and forthwith the dog was shipped to Holbert’s farm.

The Sun (New York), June 19, 1887, page 11.

It worked; the New York Metropolitans came out on top, beating the Athletics seven runs to four.

Good Voodoo – Roots

But whereas a “hoodoo” as used in baseball was invariably bad, not all voodoo was bad.  Some roots were used to bring good luck, for example, so-called “Adam and Eve” roots.

The way in which the negro completes the charm of Adam and Eve is very curious.  He first obtains a glass bottle which will hold about two ounces of liquid, and then places the root in the liquor to soak.  After a short time the superstitious ones claim that Adam, having less evil in his specific gravity than Eve, will float, and his less righteous better-half will sink instanter. . . .
Another man told me that he had been to Philadelphia and had carried a bottle with an Adam and Eve in his pocket.  While he was in possession of this root he had all the money he could spend, but while on his way to this city he accidentally broke the bottle, and threw both it and the root out of the window.  Luck deserted him at once, and he came to try another. Holders of Adam and Eve are all very careful to let no other person touch the bottle containing it, for, they explain, luck leaves the bottle whenever it is touched by any person except the owner. 

A number of other roots have the same attraction to superstitious people.  Any herb that is especially peculiar in shape or color is immediately thought to be a talisman of some power.  The blood-root is always chosen because of its peculiar color, and Solomon’s seal because it has a strange shape.  The golden seal is also chosen because it has many curious fibers which branch out in every direction.  The old belief about the four-leaved clover is familiar to every person, and is accredited with some very remarkable occurrences.

Spirit of the Age (Woodstock, Vermont), November 1, 1882, page 2.

During the time period in which the cheering sense of “root” emerged in the late-1880s, the expressions “root,” “rooting,” “root working,” and “rooters,” were all applied to voodoo priests and their practices. 

“Root” was used as a verb meaning something like, “to cast a spell with roots.”

Whether the man in this case did or did not die of fright, is of no consequence; for there are numberless instances to prove that negroes, when they become aware that they were to be “rooted” or that “obi” was set for them, generally soon fell ill of terror and almost invariably died of a species of decline.  It is probable, however, that in many such instances poison was used to heighten the effect of the supposed enchantment.  Obi is an African word and is usually applied to a sort of sorcery not uncommon among negroes.  There are many names applied to this queer magic, such as “rooting,” “voodoing,” “fetiching,” and so forth, but the practice as far as the negro race is concerned, is essentially the same. 

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus), August 28, 1867.

“Root working” or to “work roots” had a similar meaning.  In 1879, the arrest of a mixed-race couple, Jarvis and Susan Gabel, for stealing jewelry put Voodoo “root working” in the news.  The story of how the couple met and how she caught her man were more interesting than the underlying crime. 


 “Ain’t you a nice white man to be living with a wench!” said Payne [(the policeman]).

“Don’t you talk to him, and don’t you call me a wench, either, or I’ll tear your eyes out, you white livered --- --- ---,” and she had Payne by the throat as she finished the sentence.  The officers unhanded her.


Gabel says that eight years ago he came from Canada to New York, and changed his name to James Oliver.  He went to work on the farm of Isaac Brinckerhoff, at Manhassett, and one night went to a colored ball at Little Neck, where he saw Miss Jackson, who was then living with Fred. Douglass.  She came in his way several times after that, and finally he became to her a menial.  She said she had “worked roots” on him, and the spell could never be broken, as she had buried the charm. 

. . . The working of roots consists of the placing of a hair from a horse’s tail, and a lock of the man’s hair in a bottle half covered with water of a peculiar nature, and the charm is held to be perfect when one end of the horse hair rises above the water.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1879, page 4.

A voodoo priestess might use certain roots to promote healing.

More Root than Doctor. 

A Louisiana negro went to New Orleans and got a woman to “hoodoo” or bless a certain root, and then returned home and went to doctoring a lot of negroes down with swamp fever. 

Daily Tobacco Leaf Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee), May 13, 1890, page 3.   

A Voodoo healer could be referred to as a “Root and Hoodoo” doctor.

A colored woman in Atlanta was sick and Jennie Colton, who is known among the blacks in “Honey Alley” as the “Root and Hoodoo” doctor was sent for.

The Wahpeton Times (Whapeton, North Dakota), page 8, December 10, 1891, page 8.

The roots might be used in a “Cunger” (or conjur) bag.

The “Cunger Bag.”
How the Negroes of the South Protect Themselves.

“Cunger bags” are of two kinds.  The one made of yellow flannel is to ward off evil spirits, the other of red flannel is supposed to insure good luck . . . .

The doctor hears the visitor’s story, and, after deciding what the remedy shall be, selects a small bag of the proper tint of red or yellow, and puts into it something like the following: a piece of hair or whiskers; some earth that the right or left foot has trod at the hour of midnight at a certain designated spot; a relic of a dead friend; . . . or maybe a pinch of snuff or a piece of “Little David root” will do the business.  What “Little David root” is no mortal but a voodoo doctor has ever been able to find out . . . .  “Little David root” is responsible for a great deal of superstition in the south.

The Valentine Democrat (Valentine, Nebraska), November 19, 1896, page 4 (reprint from the St. Louis Republic).

Lucky Roots

So called “lucky roots” were available for sale.

In a widely circulated story about a down-on-his-luck cowboy from Montana who visited a clairvoyant for help, for example, she offered to sell him “lucky roots” to help him find a job – it didn’t work.[iv]

A medium in Camden, New Jersey advertised “lucky roots” in the newspaper.

Camden Courier-Post, June 21, 1890, page 3. Lucky roots for sale.

If you skeptical that practices of a minority religion might percolate out into wider pop-culture, there is another luck-related practice borrowed from Voodoo found wide acceptance in baseball circles, and in American pop-culture, generally – the lucky rabbit’s foot.

Chicago Tribune, November 8, 1936, Comics Section.

Lucky Foots

The rabbit’s foot’s connection to Voodoo was suggested in an early reference to lucky rabbit’s feet.

Dolly had no end of terrible stories to tell Tommy about Voodoos – she called them “hoodoos” – people who gathered heads of snakes, and spiders, and hideous creeping things to make venomous charms with . . . .  Tommy would have become frightened out of his little life at these tales, but that Dolly gave him a dried rabbit’s foot in a bag to hang around his neck; for Dolly, like all the colored folks of the levee, believed a rabbit’s foot to be a sure charm against all evil.

Daily Sentinel (Burlington, Vermont), October 6, 1876, page 1.

Although such Voodoo practices and traditions may have originated among the African Diaspora, they were picked up by others as well.  John Mills Allen, a white congressman from Mississippi, for example, is said to have always carried a “traditional rabbit’s foot, which he killed in the dark of the moon in a graveyard.”[v]

Baseball players also used rabbits’ feet to ward off hoodoos.

The second nine base ball club captured the game at Halstead on the 4th.  They must have taken the Great Bend rabbit’s foot with them.

Barton County Democrat (Great Bend, Kansas), July 11, 1889, page 5.

It Has Got a Rabbit’s Foot.

The Cincinnati League club has astonished everybody interested in base-ball by winning three straight games.  This change for the better has been ascribed to various causes, but the true reason is known to possibly half a dozen people.  Mr. Brush went East last week to see what the matter was, and Saturday Charles Jackson, second waiter at the Bates, sent the Cincinnati president, at Willard’s Hotel, Washington, a rabbit’s foot as a sort of forlorn hope.

Monday Cincinnati began winning, and there is no telling where that rabbit’s foot is going to land the team.  Jackson is a firm believer in the magic of the talisman in question, and parted with it only when he became convinced Cincinnati could win in no other way.  He is a great admirer of that team, else he would never have parted with the rabbit’s foot.  Cincinnati’s chances for the pennant appear to be looking up since this fortunate acquisition.

The Indianapolis Journal, June 11, 1891, page 6.

For the record, Cincinnati finished the 1891 season in seventh place in an eight-team league, so the rabbit’s foot may not have been as powerful as hoped, but its use at least illustrates how certain Voodoo practices could find their way into mainstream pop-culture.

Even the famous racist "Cap" Anson, one of the most famous and influential baseball players of his day, who, it is said, played a role in drawing the "color line" in professional baseball (see, for example, "Cap Anson and the Color Line," Howard W. Rosenberg,, was not above carrying a rabbit's foot, even if it didn't always work.

 Rock Island Daily Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), May 02, 1892, page 1.

“Roots” – Slang for Luck

That may have been the case with the word “root” taking on the new meaning of cheering or supporting one’s favorite team.  Early references to the new meaning of “root” refer to it as meaning “luck” or exerting a “psychic force,” which sounds more Voodoo-like than pig-like.

One of the earliest examples of “root” in the sport-support sense defined the word as, “slang for luck” – in other words, the opposite of what a hoodoo might do.  The same reference describes “rooting” as performing certain physical actions to lend the object of the “rooting” mystical support, and not, as it later became understood, as simple cheering.

All right, boss,” he said cheerfully, as he walked away, “I see yer onto me – but say! Give us fi’pence, will yer, just fer roots?”  He got his five cents.  “Roots” is slang for luck.  To “root” for an undertaking you must clinch your fists, grind your teeth, stamp your feet and wish harder than you ever wished before.  It is a very popular expression now.  Somebody asked the Count Giannini the other day how he came to win two first prizes in the last great athletic games at Madison Square Garden.  “I couldn’t help winning,” he answered apologetically.  “Both my little nephews were there rooting for me as hard as they could.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington), February 26, 1889, page 7.

Granted, this example does not refer to the literal use of actual plant roots, but the fact that the word “root” had become slang for “luck” suggests that it might easily have been derived from the use of “lucky roots” for luck; at least as much or more so than from the practice of pigs digging up roots with their snout.

This early understanding of "rooting," as including physical movements to bring luck, may be preserved today in the ritual of the seventh-inning stretch.  In the early days of the tradition, the seventh inning was frequently referred to as the "Lucky Seventh" and some early references to the seventh-inning stretch described it as, "stretching for luck." See, for example, my earlier post, President Taft, Governor McKinley and the “Lucky Seventh” Inning – the History and Origins of the Ceremonial “First Pitch” and the “Seventh Inning Stretch.” 

Another early "rooting" reference describes the newly emerging sense of the word in nearly mystical or metaphysical terms, more Voodoo-like than like a pig-like.  A local reporter lamenting the recent poor performance of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms baseball team (which four years later would become the Trolley Dodgers), discussed the meaning of a word he had only recently heard for the first time.

[T]he lamentable condition of the Brooklyn boys is entirely due to the psychic force which is exerted against them or, in other words, to the failure of the spectators to “root” in their behalf.  Of the verb “to root,” as used in base ball vernacular, we must confess that we were in complete ignorance until our correspondent enlightened us on the subject. . . .

“Rooting,” says our informant, “is the concentration of individual or aggregate psychic force upon the accomplishment of some particular object desired by the rooter” . . . .

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 26, 1889, page 2.

Two years later, the New York Sun described rooters and rooting as involving shouting encouragement as well as various luck-inducing motions or actions. 

Rooters are now recognized in all sporting circles.  They are the men who have strong feelings for one side or the other in a contest, and encourage their favorites and promote their interests in various ways.  To say that a man is rooting is to say that he is doing his best for the success of somebody.  On the base ball field, for instance, the rooter has his favorite club or his favorite player, for which he shouts or applauds or encourages or bets or helps along the way.

On the race track there are all sorts of rooters, from the stable boys or touters to the occupants of private boxes.  They talk of their favorite before the race begins.  They reach the highest pitch of excitement when the horses are on the homestretch.  They rush to the front with eager looks, panging with excitement, clapping their hands, shouting words of encouragement or muttering curious phrases, such as “Come along, my beauty,” “There you are my pet,” . . . “another go for luck,” . . . and hundreds of others of similar import. . . . .

The rooters at games of cards have a variety of methods. Sometimes they sit by a favorit player and root for him to get a good hand.  They tell the player how to pick up his hand; how to hold his cards; how to sit in his chair; how to dispose of his feet on the rungs of other chairs; what tunes to whistle, and lots of other things, which may not appear to have the slightest influence on the game, but which to the active and enthusiastic rooter are of the highest importance. . . . .

. . . To be a rooter is a great privilege and enjoyment, and to have rooters rooting for you is regarded as a great good fortune.

The New York Sun, June 30, 1891, page 6.

Interestingly, another line from this same article ties both hard work and good fortune together, suggesting, perhaps, that the new sense of the word resonated in more than one way with more than one earlier sense of “root.”

The rooter delights in all field sports and works harder than the players. . . and considers himself a mascot if his man wins.

The New York Sun, June 30, 1891, page 6.

The earliest example of the emerging, new sense of “root” I could find, from 1888, similarly combines hard work with luck in a description of intense physical gesticulations intended to bring good luck in a game of billiards.

Don’t you know what a rooter is?” asked the proprietor.  “Why, it’s a man as ‘roots’ the legs off the tables and the color from the balls, bending this way and that and trying to influence his ball to count.  Watch that tall man there: the one with the full reddish beard.  Hoop.  There she goes.  Get on to that,” and the half-dozen interested spectators got nearly as excited as the “rooter,” as they watched him follow his ball down the rail, grab a corner of the table with one hand, then lean over the ball and all but move it with his other hand so that it would count.  “You’ll see him in a minute,” said the proprietor.  “There he goes again,” as the gentlemanly opponent made an unprotected miss, and the “rooter” again took the cue.  “See how he twitched his mouth that time,” and “Oh, see him fish,” as the excited player trotted after his ball, then made motions with his cue like those of a fisherman whipping a trout stream to indicate the way he wanted his cue ball to go.  “He’s as bad a one as I ever saw,” said one of the lookers-on, “and I often have lots of fun watching ‘rooters’ when I’m not playing myself.

The Evening World (New York), April 25, 1888, page 3.

So the jury’s still out.  The widespread use of “lucky roots,” and the pre-existing Voodoo-related senses of “root,” meaning to cast a spell using magic roots, suggests a plausible origin of the slang word “root,” meaning luck (as described in 1889).  The widespread acceptance or familiarity with similar Voodoo traditions, such as lucky rabbits’ feet, and other mystical superstitions, such as mascots, support the possibility that Voodoo “lucky roots” could have been the origin of the new cheering sense of “root.”

Early descriptions of energetic “rooting” by players and their supporters also suggests the plausibility of the traditional etymology of the new, cheering sense of “root” from an earlier sense of “root” as hard work, as in a pig rooting with his snout.

And it possible, of course, that whatever the original impulse to start using the new sense of “root,” it could have resonated on different levels with different users for different reasons at different times.  Perhaps the two earlier senses of “root” reinforced one another and helped the word catch on as quickly as it did.

Personally, I’m rooting for the “lucky roots” – but it may be hard work convincing others.

[i] The regular practice of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch is believed to have originated at Seattle Rainiers’ games in about 1940.  See my earlier post, President Taft, Governor McKinley and the “Lucky Seventh” Inning – the History and Origins of the Ceremonial “First Pitch” and the “Seventh Inning Stretch.”
[ii] The Siler City Grit (Siler City, North Carolina), December 23, 1914, page 2. (“The pine rooter and razor back hogs received their names from their peculiar shapes; a full grown pine rooter’s forehead and snout were near two feet long and they mostly got their living by uprooting little pines and briars and eating the roots, and large numbers ran wild in the woods and when there was a big crop of acorns they got fat and made fine pork.”).
[iii] “Hoodoo (n.) ‘one who practices voodoo,’ 1870, American English, probably an alteration of voodoo.  Meaning ‘something that causes or brings bad luck’ is attested from 1880.”
[iv] The Inter-Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), March 15, 1890, page 11.
[v] The Daily News (Salem, Ohio), March 23, 1889, page 2.

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