The Chicago Cubs are in the National League playoffs, so in the coming days or (I hope) weeks we’ll be hearing a lot about curses. Actually, one specifically, involving an animal. That would be the Billy Goat Curse, delivered by the beast’s owner William Sianis, a Chicago bar owner who in the 1940s was ahead of his time in his ability to manipulate the news media to his advantage.
Maybe because his nickname was “Billy,” Sianis identified with goats and named his establishment the Billy Goat Tavern. He kept one as a pet and often took it along in his jaunts around town, attracting the sort of attention he relished. On October 6, 1945, he appeared at game four of that year’s baseball World Series between the Cubs and Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field with the animal in tow and two tickets in hand, asking that both be admitted.
Here accounts diverge: according to some the pair got in but the goat was quickly expelled for obvious reasons; according to others the goat was repulsed at the gate and spent the afternoon tethered outside the park while his owner watched from within. Either way, Sianis later professed to be irate and telegraphed Philip K. Wrigley, the Cubs’ owner, saying he hoped the team never again would win a World Series.
The curse has worked wonderfully; not only did the Cubs lose that Series, in seven games, they’ve also never qualified for another, 1945 being their last pennant year. Their Series-win dearth dates back farther, to 1908, which is 108 years ago if you’re scoring. That’s impressive even to Buddhist monks, Australian aborigines and others whose time frames are wider than ours.
What’s more, like all good curses this one has had an odd (eerie?) kicker. The goat’s name was Murphy, and last year, when the Cubs made it to the WS semis against the New York Mets, Daniel Murphy was the Mets’ batting star, going 9 for 17 with four home runs in his team’s four-game sweep. You can’t make up stuff like that.
The Billy Goat Curse certainly is Numero Uno on the sports’ curse list, but it’s not without challengers. Right up there with it is the Pottsville Curse, delivered upon the football Chicago Cardinals by residents of Pottsville, Pa., (current population about 14,000), who believed the 1925 National Football League title was unfairly stripped from their Maroons and handed to the Cardinals by a league ruling penalizing their team for playing an unauthorized game.
This curse hasn’t been wholly effective-- the Cardinals won the 1947 NFL title-- but the team has been a consistent loser otherwise and its woes have followed it from Chicago to St. Louis to its current home in Phoenix, Az. And when it finally made a Super Bowl, in 2009, victory was cruelly denied it by a last-minute Pittsburgh Steelers’ touchdown in a 27-23 outcome.
Also vying for the lead is the Bobby Layne Curse, delivered by the late quarterback. He was one of my all-time favorite players, a gritty sort whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts. He led the Detroit Lions to NFL championships in 1952, ’53 and ’57, and when traded to the Steelers during the 1958 season spit out that he hoped the Lions wouldn’t win another crown for 50 years. His curse has exceeded its time limit but shows no signs of abating. The Lions are one of four teams who’ve never been to a Super Bowl (the others are the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars) and show no signs of qualifying any time soon.
I could go on about sports curses (The Curse of the Bambino , the Rocky Colavito Curse, the Honey Bear Curse) but you get the idea. Just about every team with a losing history can summon one up. Fancying myself to be a rational person, I don’t believe that otherworldly forces affect human events, but while I don’t believe in curses I do believe in psychology and think that winning and losing both can create their own momentum.
As I’ve seen in my horse playing, winning (I do win, sometimes) can produce a powerful, positive vibe that gives one confidence in one’s judgement and courage to move ahead, while losing brings the sort of self-doubt that causes the second-guessing of choices and pulling away from potentially worthwhile situations. In brief, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
I also believe in competence, the lack of which is why the Cubs have had such a dismal record over the decades. Generations of team management have been hypnotized by the cozy dimensions of Wrigley Field and loaded up on power hitting to the detriment of baseball’s other, equally important, facets, namely pitching, defense and speed. Lopsided teams are losers, and until lately the Cubs have been lopsided.
Since 1945, the first year I took notice of them (at age 7), an overwhelming proportion of Cubs’ heroes have been sluggers—Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa, Lee. Good pitchers have been few and far between, and when the team has blundered onto one (Maddux, Jenkins, Sutter, Smith) it has allowed him to escape with plenty of tread remaining.
The same goes for speed: the only real burner in Cubs’ annals, Lou Brock, was dealt away (and to the archrival St. Louis Cardinals!) as a youth in a trade (Brock for Broglio) that ranks among the worst of all time, ever. You can win a bar bet by asking the guy next to you to name the last Cub to lead the National League in stolen bases. The answer is Stan Hack, with 17, in 1939. Again, you can’t make this up.
Current Cub execs, led by the curse-breaker (in Boston) Theo Epstein, seem to have learned some history, because the team’s starting-pitching staff this season has been the game’s best, and its bullpen close to it. The Cubs are baseball’s best team overall going into post-season play, which is worth something even though the best teams don’t win, the teams that play best do.
To break the curse they’ll have to win 11 games against three good teams, no small thing in a sport of small differences. Surviving that grind always is a long shot, but someone will do it. With a little help from above, it finally may be the Cubs.