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Jewish World Review May 4, 2000 / 29 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Even baseball couldn't make light of this superstition -- SARASOTA, Fla. Now that spring training is over -- now that the real baseball season has started -- it may be instructive to give some thought to the people who truly affect the game.

The ballplayers? They come and they go. They arrive young, they play until they get too old, and they are replaced by new youngsters. The managers? They hang around as long as they can -- their baseball longevity exceeds that of the players on the diamond.

But who has an impact? Who genuinely changes the game?

Sometimes it's a person you would never think of.

Which brings us to John Nash Ott, who died in Sarasota this month at the age of 90.

Years ago, I sought him out. Mr. Ott -- he was a former banker who became the head of something called the Light Research Foundation -- was absolutely fanatical about the nature of light, and how he believed light affected human health and behavior.

He wasn't a baseball fan; he wasn't a frustrated baseball player. But, because he lived in Sarasota, he found himself right in the middle of the part of Florida where major league teams have traditionally come to train.

And one day in the early 1970s -- according to what Mr. Ott told me -- he received a visit from a man by the name of Rex Bowen. Bowen was a scout for the Cincinnati Reds. He wanted to talk to John Nash Ott about baseball caps. Specifically, about the undersides of the visors on the caps worn by major league players.

Bowen told Mr. Ott that, by tradition, the color on the undersides of the cap visors was green.

Mr. Ott was appalled. He told the Reds scout that this was all wrong. He said that if a ballplayer wore a baseball cap with a visor that was green underneath, that player's on-field performance could be seriously harmed.

I asked him why this was so.

"The color can cause malillumination," Mr. Ott told me. "Do you know what malnutrition means? It's when things are lacking in your diet -- things you should have. Malillumination is the same thing, but with light."

He told me that he convinced the Cincinnati scout that the Reds would do much better if the undersides of their cap visors were gray instead of green. Rex Bowen, according to Mr. Ott, was able to persuade the Reds' front office to change the color underneath the cap visors. And -- the story went -- as soon as the Reds began to wear caps with gray undersides, the players' batting averages improved, their running speeds became swifter, their mental alertness sharpened, and they won the National League pennant.

I put it to Mr. Ott directly: Was he saying that the reason the Reds got better was that they had followed his suggestion and changed the undersides of their cap visors to gray?

"Of course," he said.

I did not understand how the underside of a baseball cap visor could affect anything at all. The sun comes from above -- how would the underside of the bill of a cap have anything to do with the reflection of light?

"Oh, there's a lot of light reflected from the underside of the visor," Mr. Ott told me. "There's the natural reflection of light bouncing off the ground. If a batter holds his head up, or if a fielder looks up to catch a fly ball, the light will reflect off the underside of the visor."

Now . . . in most businesses, theories like the light-from-the-underside-of-the-baseball-cap theory would be shrugged off. But baseball is nothing if not a game of superstitions -- and as soon as word got around the major leagues about what John Nash Ott and his gray undersides had done for the Reds, other teams allegedly scrambled to change the color beneath their caps, too.

By the time I spoke with Mr. Ott, the majority of teams in the National League, plus several in the American League, had ordered gray undersides for their players' cap visors. And a spokeswoman for the New Era Cap Co. of Derby, N.Y., which at the time manufactured caps for 23 major league teams, told me: "It's true. It's a very strange deal, but it's true. The teams think it helps to have gray on the undersides of the visors instead of green. They must believe it works."

Mr. Ott told me that he never watched ballgames on television, and, "I can't remember ever having been to a baseball game. I was never a great baseball fan."

Anyway -- he died this month. He changed the game of baseball, in a way few people were aware of -- even those who benefited the most from his theories of light.

"I've never heard from a single baseball player," he told me.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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