The Chicago Cubs had Major League Baseball’s best record this season and are in position to win the pennant and World Series for the first time in 71 and 108 years, respectively. The last time the Cubs won the pennant, World War II had ended the month prior, while their last World Championship came midway between the Spanish-American War and World War I. Newspapers announcing that Cubs victory cost one cent.
Two years prior to that, the Cubs won 116 games, the MLB record. When that team lost the World Series there was no talk of any other cause than pitching, hitting, fielding, and base running. If such a monumental post-season letdown were to happen today, it would be considered a further vindication of the Curse of the Billy Goat.
The story has multiple versions, but the gist is that an enraged tavern owner declared in 1945 that the Cubs would never win the World Series again. After being a Wrigley Field regular all season, the goat was given the boot during the Fall Classic. Even today, the owner’s words have held true. Countering the idea of a curse is that when it was uttered, there were already 37 non-goat related championship-free seasons and the Cubs had lost their last seven World Series.
Belief in curses is a form of magical thinking, where two events are tied together and one said to cause the other, without considering other factors. Before going further, I want to stipulate that Cubs fans who cite the billy goat are different from believers in Tarot Cards or Ouija boards. There are people who genuinely believe in the power of those things, whereas few persons actually think a sports curse is real. A devotee of the sports page is going to have much less concern over a billy goat than a fervent Gemini will have over an ominous horoscope. Baseball fans spend the season analyzing possible trades, batting order changes, and middle relief shortcomings, with curses only being discussed late in contending seasons. Meanwhile, the horoscope enthusiast plans the totality of their lives around its words.
To further demonstrate the difference, consider how the two types react when prophecies are negated. When Boston’s Curse of the Bambino was reversed in 2004, Red Sox fans were euphoric. By contrast, astrology believers react with hostility when it’s pointed out horoscopes don’t work, that they merely contain general terms that would apply to most people and also mostly tell readers what they want to hear. If anyone believes in the billy goat curse, it is likely someone who believes in curses in general and not an octogenarian Cubbies fan fretting that it’s going to happen again.
So the point of this post is not to argue against the reality of sports curses, it’s to analyze why rational persons can become captivated by something they don’t believe in.
For this phenomenon to occur, the first requirement is that an alleged incident be highlighted as the starting point. This will allow the mass delusion and feeling of tormented community to take hold. If the billy goat had been allowed into Wrigley Field, maybe no curse would have ever been associated with the team. But once it got affixed, it was highlighted during Cub collapses in 1969, 1984, and 2003.
This leads to the second necessity, which is that at least some of the failures have to happen in spectacular fashion. Fans are by nature a nervous bunch and they can get caught up in the idea of a curse when their team repeatedly falls short despite getting close. The Red Sox were said to be under a curse for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees and they found incredible ways to lose late in the season at least a half dozen times. However, the championship drought endured by the Chicago White Sox began before Boston’s did and ended after it, yet the Pale Hose were not usually said to be under a curse. This was because they appeared in just one World Series from 1920 to 2005, they seldom had a division lead to blow, and they pretty much just sucked. A series of fifth-place finishes has none of the pizazz that comes with ground balls between the leg and base running blunders in late October.
A third factor is the human desire for explanations and an aversion to randomness. Evoking a curse can take care of these both. It is reassuring and satisfying for one play to serve as a microcosm for a gut-wrenching failure and latest curse manifestation. In Boston’s most infamous loss, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Jim Rice was thrown out at home by 20 feet after a horrible third-base coaching decision. Yet almost no one remembers that play and even Bob Stanley’s wild pitch, uncorked with a runner on third and Boston one out away from winning the Series, isn’t shown once for every 100 times that Bill Buckner’s error is broadcast.
The idea of external powers coming into play only applies when losing. When the Red Sox finally won the World Series, no one credited this to Ted Williams’ ghost. Rather, the resiliency of a team that rallied from down three games to none in the ALCS to win eight straight times was credited. There is no satisfaction in attributing a thrilling championship run to the cosmos, but it can be reassuring to blame invisible sinister forces when things unravel.
Of course, the idea of a Cubs curse is silly. It’s really the Indians that are afflicted.