The Origins of 5 Sports Traditions

DETROIT, MI - MAY 20: Al Sobotka of the Detroit Red Wings gets the crowd going by spinning an octopus over his head prior to the Detroit Red Wings playing the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Joe Louis Arena on May 20, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan

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Have you ever wondered why Detroit Red Wing fans toss octopuses onto the ice during the Stanley Cup Playoffs? What about the origin of the rally cap? Or why the Red Sox play “Sweet Caroline” during the 8th inning of every home game?

Sports is filled with odd eccentricities and rituals, some of which seem perfectly logical while others defy explanation. With eight legs, an octopus represented the eight games the Red Wings needed to win in 1952 to capture the Stanley Cup. As for Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit, there is no reasonwhy  it’s played at Fenway other than the fact that one of the team’s game day workers in the press box liked it.

With that backdrop, it’s amusing if not interesting to uncover the origins of five sports traditions that continue to be part of the crazy quilted fabric of sports.

1. The Wave

I know this one from personal experience. To make a long story short, in 1988, I appeared on the ABC-TV show, “Home” which was hosted by Robb Weller and Sandy Hill. After striking up a conversation with Weller, I asked him to confirm or deny a rumor I had heard while living in Seattle. My wife, among others who went to the University of Washington, told me that Weller was the man behind the wave.

Weller not only said he was one of the people behind the wave at Husky Stadium in 1981 (he was joined by the band’s trumpet player), he went into detail as to how the goal was to keep the often-drunk fans into the game by having a bit of audience participation. His wave went from top to bottom as opposed to others than went from side to side, section to section.

On the other hand, ESPN and other investigatory bodies profess it was first launched by Oakland A’s superfan, Krazy George Henderson in October, 1981. If you’re looking at a perpetual calendar, Henderson’s debut wave was two weeks before Weller was struck with inspiration. Given I have never met Henderson, and Weller seemed firm on his story, I’ll stick with the former yell king’s tale even if it seems far fetched.

2. The High Five

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 14: Luke Kennard #5 high-fives Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils following a play against the Bryant Bulldogs at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.

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While not one of those traditions whose origins is shrouded in controversy or mystery, the two men whose magical moment created the first up-top handslap are noted as much for their off-field accomplishments are their baseball skills.

As beautifully told in the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “The High Five,” the Los Angeles Dodgers 1977 season ended on an historic note. Four Dodger players—Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker—were on the brink of becoming the first quartet of teammates to each hit 30 home runs in a single season. Baker was last to join the ranks, and after his 30th round-tripper, he was met on the dugout steps by teammate Glenn Burke who had his arm raised with his palm slightly bent back. By pure instinct, Baker reach up and slapped Burke’s hand, and so the High Five was born. Often duplicated and imitated, but never better or more of a zeitgeist than the original.

While modified by others who followed in the Baker-Burke homer celebration, the 1977 symbol of celebration remains as the launching pad. But the story does not end there. The careers of the two men took off in different but notable trajectories. Burke was the first baseball player to come out publicly as gay, and later died from AIDS-related complications in 1995. Baker was to go on and become the manager of the Giants, Cubs and Reds before landing the spot as manager of the Washington Nationals. As the 2016 season looms, Baker is the only African-American skipper, which in itself is a sad statement.

3. The Touchdown Dance

Odell Beckham Jr. dances in the end zone at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

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Again, we delve into an area with a lot of finger pointing and territorial claims. When is a touchdown spike merely an explanation point for a score and when does it move into the realm of a celebration with a flourish? In 1965, New York Giants speedster Homer Jones caught a pass from Earl Morrall and bolted 89 years into the end zone. Perhaps overcome with exuberance, Jones threw the ball into the turf and did a bit of a jig. Not a full-on Twist, Latin Hustle or Mashed Potatoes, but a dance nonetheless. Maybe, more accurately, a dance-ette.

Fast forward to 1973 and wide out Elmo Wright of the then-Houston Oilers. After a ban by the NCAA on Wright’s jiggy touchdown celebrations when he played at the University of Houston, Wright broke out what became the first, official, full-blown touchdown dance. There was no such ban from the NFL, and a tradition was born.

The NFL, in its wisdom, has set up rules that limit how much celebrating can be done after a score—or for that matter after any play—with the enforcement of such always in the eyes of the officials. Rule 12, Section three regarding player conduct states in sections d) and e) “Individual players involved in prolonged or excessive celebrations. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground. A celebration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate after a warning from an official. (e) Two-or-more players engage in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations.

4. The NHL Playoff Beard

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 11:  Greg Zanon #4 of the Colorado Avalanche looks on during a break in the action against the Phoenix Coyotes at the Pepsi Center on February 11, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Coyotes defeated the Avalanche 3-2 in overtime.

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The playoff beard originated with the 1980 New York Islanders as a team looking for something to draw the players together as they fought to overcome past playoff losses. The beard thing just happened, with one teammate following the other, former Islanders Duane Sutter, Ken Morrow and Clarke Gillis noted. The team went on to win the Cup in 1980 and then again the following three years. Was it the beards or just great teamwork?

The playoff/post-season beard has become somewhat of a tradition adorned by such teams as the Boston Red Sox and by individuals the likes of  Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arietta on contending teams in search of rings and trophies. For the NHL, the tradition might come to an end as NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus is calling for an end to the popular facial hair tradition.  Lazarus believes the beards stand in the way of these hockey stars becoming role models and prevents them from showing off their natural good looks.

“I know it’s a tradition and superstition, but I think (the beards do) hurt recognition,” Lazarus told the Chicago Tribune. “They have a great opportunity with more endorsements. Or simply more recognition with fans saying, ‘That guy looks like the kid next door,’ which many of these guys do. I think that would be a nice thing.”.

5. The National Anthem at Sporting Events

Whether or not the “Star Spangled Banner” was first played during the seventh inning stretch of the 1918 World Series, in 1897 in Philadelphia or in 1898 at the Polo Grounds matters not. It has become a tradition that precedes every NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS game (in which at least one American team is playing) and every NASCAR race.

The National Anthem cruised along with little fanfare until 1968 when Jose Feliciano took the field before the Detroit Tigers-St. Louis Cardinals World Series game. The blind guitarist performed a rendition that ran counter to tradition, with a slow cadence containing a number of meaningful pauses. Feliciano’s interpretation was subject to harsh criticism given the times which included divisive issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War. It should be noted, there is no rule in baseball that says the players must be on the field and stand at attention during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. With a number of Minnesota Twins missing from the action during this past season, complains reigned down from fans who saw such a move as total disrespect for the game and the country.