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.
If you’re a sports fan, there’s a good chance you’re at least familiar with some of the supposed curses that have permeated into the landscape. In honor of the spookiest weekend of the year, let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating curses throughout sports:
The Masters Par-3 Contest
The Masters is one of the most revered tournaments in all of golf. It has a handful of unique customs, including a ban on cell phones, a mandated white jumpsuit for caddies and a Champions Dinner in which the previous year’s winner gets to decide the menu.
But the Par 3 Contest, usually played the day before the tournament officially begins, isn’t quite as beloved as some of the other traditions. In fact, few actually want to win it.
And for good reason: Since the event’s debut in 1960, no one has ever gone on to win the Masters itself after winning the Par 3 contest. In fact, there have been just two golfers in history who have won the tournament in any year after claiming the Par 3 prize.
The curse has become so legendary among the players that some will even purposefully lose or disqualify themselves in an attempt to not fall victim. Tiger Woods was in a three-way tie for first place at the end of the 2004 contest, but opted to skip the playoff.
Former US Open champion Andy North, who is now an analyst for ESPN, told the tournament’s website he subscribes to the curse.
“Absolutely, I believe in the jinx,” North said. “I know one year there, I made four birdies the first five or six holes, or whatever it was, and I was leading the thing, and I put two in the water on purpose on the sixth hole just to make sure that nothing silly happened.”
Raymond Floyd nearly broke the curse in 1990 after winning the Wednesday event, and then holding a four-stroke lead with six holes to play in the final round of the real tournament. But he ultimately lost in a playoff, thus further cementing the legend.
Matt Wallace, the 2019 Par 3 champion, became the 19th event winner in its history to miss the cut at the Masters later that week.
The event was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and we’re guessing most players weren’t too disappointed by the news.
The Curse of the Bambino
The Boston Red Sox were one of the most successful teams during baseball’s early years, winning five of the sport’s first 15 World Series titles. But that winning streak came to a screeching halt after the 1918 season, following the sale of one Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The Yankees would go on to win their first championship in 1923 and become one of the most dominant franchises in sports.
The Red Sox wouldn’t win another World Series for 86 years.
While Ruth’s departure from the Red Sox had long been seen as the beginning of the team’s decline and many fans felt as if the team was jinxed, the specific “Curse of the Bambino” didn’t pick up steam until Boston sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy wrote a book with that as the title in 1990. For some, the idea of Ruth feeling slighted by the move explained the team’s decades of bad luck.
“That obviously started with Dan Shaughnessy but it only worked because the fans were looking for some sort of explanation,” said Bradley. “And beyond that, it gives the fanbase another identity and a unifying aspect to rally around.”
Like Cubs fans, many in Boston would try to do their part to break the curse. There were fans who attempted to find and rescue an old piano of Ruth’s submerged in a pond on his former property. There were various ceremonies with witches. But all efforts were deemed unsuccessful.
Some believe the curse was finally broken when a teenage fan, who lived in Ruth’s old house, had his two front teeth knocked out by a Manny Ramirez foul ball in August of 2004. The Yankees suffered their worst defeat in team history that day — and the Red Sox went on to overcome a 3-0 series deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS several weeks later and eventually win the World Series.
“There were all these things done by fans in hope of ending the curse,” said Dan Gordon, who co-authored the book with Bradley. “And a curse like that allows fans to have an active role in the team’s fortunes. It’s a way to engage and interact with the team and feel like you’re part of it.”
No matter the reason for the Red Sox’s success in 2004, there are few claims of curses these days. Since the breakthrough, the team has won three additional World Series titles.
While in Mozambique for World Cup qualifying in 1969, the Australian men’s national soccer team– nicknamed the “Socceroos” — was favored to beat Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The team was locked in a 1-1 series draw and needed a third game.
The Socceroos were determined to do whatever it took to guarantee the victory, and they reportedly enlisted a local shaman for help, asking the shaman to put a curse on their opponents. The team won its next game, 3-1, but they failed to pay the shaman for his services.
As the story goes, the curse was then reversed and put upon the Australians.
“From that moment that he put the curse on, everything went wrong for the team,” Johnny Warren, the then-captain of the team, said later.
The Socceroos qualified for just one World Cup over the next 32 years and suffered a series of devastating losses.
In 2004, Australian television personality John Safran decided to do his part to reverse the curse as part of his television series. Joined by two shamans, the group went back to the pitch in which the curse was first placed and they performed various rituals in hopes of breaking the curse.
The Australian team qualified for the 2006 World Cup and former player-turned-broadcaster Craig Foster thanked Safran after the clinching victory. The Socceroos reached the Round of 16 — which remains their best result in history — at the World Cup several months later.
While the origin story of this curse has been disputed, and some believe there was no such curse ever placed on the team, it’s clear Warren and many other players truly believed it — and that perhaps can be equally, if not more, consequential.
“If all the players on the team believe it, or they’re at least worried about it and have a little bit of anxiety over it, they’re not going to play their best,” said Stevens Jr. “So it becomes a problem for everyone, whether you believe it or not. Just like certain superstitions on game day, [these beliefs or attempts to reverse a curse] are all part of that effort by you to exert and have a sense of whether you’re actually controlling anything or not — to give you a sense of control in a potentially chaotic world, which is large and impersonal.”
The Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints, was built on a 19th-century graveyard — and after the team was unable to win a single playoff game in its first 33 years of existence, some began to speculate if the stadium was cursed.
So, ahead of the Saints’ 2000 wild-card game against the St. Louis Rams, the team held a voodoo ritual led by area priestess Ava Kay Jones. She was joined by a snake, as well as dancers and drummers, and performed the ceremony on the field.
Brandi Kelley, who worked with Jones on the ceremony, told ESPN the idea was to “honor the spirits that were in the Dome, appease them and give them the acknowledgment that they deserved.”
It might just have worked. The Saints beat the Rams, 31-28, later that day — and have since won 10 playoff games and the 2010 Super Bowl.
The Superdome is far from the only team to have been built on a burial ground. The home of the Premier League’s Southampton F.C. — also nicknamed the Saints — was built over an Anglo-Saxon settlement known as Hamwic, and graves and human remains dating back to the seventh century were discovered on site. Like the American Saints, these Saints also struggled at their new stadium following its completion in 2001. The team was unable to win on the new pitch, and many began to believe something supernatural was at play.
The team brought in a pagan witch named Cerridwen “DragonOak” Connelly in hopes of appeasing the spirits. Hours later, Southampton F.C. recorded its first win in the new stadium.
“I suppose the players must have really believed [the curse] enough to warrant someone coming in and doing the ritual, and I don’t know if it was a coincidence or if it did actually help since they won right after,” Andrew Frewing-House, a Southampton-based paranormal researcher, told ESPN in 2020. “But I think they convinced themselves it was gone and made themselves believe that fully in their minds, even if it wasn’t true.”