No. 13 and the Death of Superstition

Young standouts Tagovailoa, Acuna–the latest to defy superstition–look anything but unlucky

In Western culture, there has long been a perceived link between the number 13 and being unlucky. “Unlucky 13” has its roots in at least two ancient stories. Many believe in the idea that Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, was the 13th person seated at the Last Supper. Judas would later betray Jesus and ultimately take his own life, making the number unlucky.

Another possible root of “unlucky 13” stems from one of the world’s oldest legal documents, the Code of Hammurabi, which skips the number 13 in its list of laws. There is no Scriptural guidance for the former and no evidence the latter was anything more than a clerical error, but whatever the genesis is, many people—particularly athletes— still feel uncomfortable or even fearful of the number 13. There is even a term for this fear: triskaidekaphobia.

Despite the number 13 being synonymous with bad luck, a few athletes through the years have bucked superstition and made the number their own. Two athletes that made their initial marks in the athletic world in 2018 did so with “13” on their jerseys: Alabama signal caller Tua Tagovailoa and Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Tagovailoa burst on the scene in January when he entered the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game with his Alabama team trailing 13-0 and rallied the Crimson Tide to an overtime win over the Georgia Bulldogs. Once fall rolled around, Tagovailoa put up one of the most prolific seasons in college football history with 41 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. He won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, the Maxwell Award for most outstanding college football player, and finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Tagovailoa will attempt to add to his resume when Alabama battles Clemson on January 7 in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

Ronald Acuna Jr. | Courtesy Atlanta Braves

Acuna, considered by many to be the top minor-league prospect in baseball last year, made his major league debut for the Atlanta Braves in late April. He quickly became one of the top players in baseball over the rest of the season. Despite missing most of the first month of the season and later several games due to injury, he hit 26 home runs while showing off tremendous speed and a flair for the dramatic in leading the Braves to their first National League East title since 2013.

At age 20, Acuna became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the postseason. Mickey Mantle had held that distinction since 1953 until Acuna’s grand slam in Game 3 of the National League Divisional Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. To cap off his rookie season, Acuna collected the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Tagovailoa and Acuna join a short list of sports superstars who have worn “13.” Here are a few others who were not afraid of superstition when it came to their jersey number.

Wilt Chamberlain

At 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, Chamberlain was the first really dominant big man to play college and professional basketball. He led Kansas to a national runner-up finish in 1957 before going on to a decorated 15-year NBA career that saw him average more than 30 points and almost 23 rebounds per game while winning two NBA championships. He also became the first and only NBA player to score 100 points in a game when he did so in 1962. Chamberlain was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979.

Dan Marino

For 17 seasons, Marino led the Miami Dolphins as he rewrote the NFL record books. He passed for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns, just two of the over 40 single-season and career records he would hold at various times during and after his career. Many of these records have gone by the wayside with the advent of the current pass happy NFL, but Marino was ahead of his time. He also passed for over 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984 when he led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. Marino was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

Alex Rodriguez

Over the course of a two-decade career, Rodriguez hit 696 home runs and had over 3,000 hits as a shortstop and third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees. “A-Rod” was a 14-time All-Star and hit 25 career grand slams, which is a Major League Baseball record. While his career was marred by the stain of a suspension for use of performance enhancing drugs, no one can deny that Rodriguez is one of the best players of all time.

The list of star athletes to wear 13 is not limited to these few, as evidenced by the fact that the reigning NBA MVP, James Harden, currently wears the number. Also, Pro Football Hall of Fame member Kurt Warner and former NBA star and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Steve Nash wore 13 throughout their careers.

However, few 13s have made the impact that Chamberlain, Marino, and Rodriguez have in their respective sports. One obvious reason why there have not been more is that not everybody is willing to don the number. But if their starts are any indication, look for Tagovailoa and Acuna to find their names on similar lists in the future and continue to prove that maybe 13 is not so unlucky after all. H&A


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