During Game 4 of the 1945 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers, local businessman William Sianis was thrown out of Wrigley Field after fellow spectators began complaining about the stench of the pet goat he had brought with him into the stadium. As an angered Sianis left, he put a curse on the Cubs, damning their chances of winning the title.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But is it? Was the curse real or just a publicity stunt that became mainstream, thanks to the team’s decades-long misfortune?
The answer is probably a little bit of both.
Sianis owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern and had brought Murphy, his pet goat, to the game wearing a sign for the bar. When he was asked to leave his seats, he knew it was an opportunity to get more attention for his establishment. For years, Sianis shared his story with anyone who would listen and did whatever he could to perpetuate it.
“He was known for being an incredible self-promoter and such a showman,” said Mickey Bradley, co-author of the book, “Haunted Baseball.” “He did everything he could do to promote his business. In 1969, the Cubs were having a really, really good year and he said he was removing the curse. Then everything fell apart and it got basically reinstated and his nephew kept it going a long time too. They did everything they could to fan the flames of this thing and it was just marketed like crazy.”
Of course, in order for the curse to continue, the team had to keep the losing streak alive, and lose it did. The Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908 — 37 years before Sianis’ self-declared curse — but with each passing year, the legend continued to grow. And as the Cubs failed to win in the postseason, the curse only seemed to further legitimize itself and attract more believers.
There were numerous attempts to reverse the curse over the years — including from Sianis himself before his death in 1970 — to no avail. Meanwhile the “Curse of the Billy Goat” was referenced everywhere, from headlines to sports broadcasts, and it became more ingrained in the sports landscape and accepted as near fact by many.
For Phillips Stevens Jr., a retired associate professor of anthropology at the University of Buffalo and an expert on superstitions and magical thinking, the belief in such a curse and the popularity of it stems from something that is at the core of all human thinking.
“What people call superstitions are really examples of magical thinking, and they are a fundamentally human belief,” said Stevens. “And even if you, or a person on a team, personally believe it’s nonsense and the world doesn’t work this way, you’re probably going to go along with it and do anything you can to help end it because you know others deeply believe it and you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t help.”
The Cubs eventually changed their fortunes in 2016 with the team’s first World Series title in 108 years. There were various attempts at curse-breaking during the season and in the years before it, but there is nothing concrete to credit for the reversal. While no longer active, it remains one of the best known examples in sports folklore of a curse — but it is far from the only one.