The magazines and periodicals in a waiting areas instantly tell you something about the person you’re waiting to see. The waiting room of my previous dentist (he retired) was heavy on news magazines: The Economist, Newsweek, US News & World Report, and so on. The current one has a mix of lifestyle and science magazines: Esquire, Travel, Scientific American, et al. My lawyer’s waiting area tilts toward aviation, e.g. Plane & Pilot. The barber shop I’ve patronized for decades offers local newspapers, Car & Driver, and Sports Illustrated.
I normally choose a newspaper while waiting for the barber, but while I awaited my turn a couple days ago I couldn’t help noticing the Sports Illustrated cover. No, it wasn’t the issue of which you are thinking. It was the recent one with relief pitcher Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals lost the World Series after that issue. Though it is well known to dedicated sports fans, I became aware of the so-called Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx only a few months ago. It was mentioned in a brief news report about the magazine’s 60th anniversary. In the very first issue dated August 16, 1954, Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews appeared on the cover. The Braves’ winning streak immediately ended and Mathews broke his hand.
While many people and teams since 1954 have suffered no ill effects after appearing on the cover – at least not in a reasonable time period – the list of those who have is long and eerie. Appearances have preceded losing streaks by golfers, skiers, quarterbacks, boxers, tennis players, and others; there have been fatalities soon after appearances such as Laurence Owen who died with the rest of the US figure skating team in a 1961 plane crash and several race car drivers, Dale Earnhardt in 2000 among them. Is this putative jinx just a matter of readers cherry picking bad events while ignoring good ones after cover appearances? Probably there is some of that. Yet there is a pattern of lower performance by objective standards (fewer points, slower times, or whatever) after appearances that is statistically significant. It’s not a reliable predictor in any one case, but it’s enough to alter the bets of professional sports gamblers. There is an explanation for this that has nothing to do with jinxes.
Back in 1886 Sir Francis Galton, a cousin to Charles Darwin, published the dryly titled article Regression Towards Mediocrity in Hereditary Stature. He demonstrated that the children of tall parents are likely to be shorter than their parents – still taller than the general population, but shorter than their parents. This is not an intuitive result, but it makes sense if one thinks about it. Height and other physical traits typically fall on a bell curve, with most people clustered around average. Numerous genetic and environmental factors determine height, so the mix that a child gets from his parents just by the odds should be closer to the mean than toward the tails of the curve. Galton’s “regression toward the mean” occurs not just in height but in activities including investing, baking, and sports. Take a hypothetical golfer who averages a score of 70: her performances also fall on a bell curve. On most days she is within a few points of 70, but occasionally she’ll have a bad day of 80 or a really good day of 63. In either case, odds are her next day will be closer to 70. But when will she appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated? After the 63 – more likely after a streak of low 60s, which is also a statistically expected occurrence. Naturally she is likely to do worse after the appearance – to regress toward the mean. It makes sense to bet accordingly.
Maybe there is hope for the New York Jets this season yet.
Rory Gallagher – Jinxed