They say streaks are meant to be broken. But what about curses? On Saturday night, before a raucous Wrigley crowd, the Chicago Cubs clinched their first World Series berth in 71 years. To put things in perspective, the last time this team made it to MLB’s big dance, Harry Truman was in the White House, World War II had just concluded, and Jackie Robinson’s major league debut was still a year and a half away.
Why did the Cubbies take so long to return to the World Series? And, for that matter, why hasn’t the franchise won it since 1908? On the North Side of Chicago, many fans chalk their team’s woes up to supernatural forces. A curse of unparalleled longevity is said to hang over the club. At 108 years old, this hex makes the Boston Red Sox’s 86-year championship drought look like a mere inconvenience. Those who believe in the Cubs curse have offered plenty of theories about how it came to be and why it’s persisted for so long. Here are five things they’ve blamed over the years.
1. THE BILLY GOAT OF WILLIAM SIANIS
Earlier this month, Ghostbusters star and lifelong Cubs fan Bill Murray showed up at Wrigley in a t-shirt that read “I ain’t afraid of no goats.” If you don’t follow baseball (or watch '80s comedies), this might seem like a fairly strange thing to print on an article of clothing. But for decades, goats have inspired apprehension and terror in the hearts of Cubs devotees.
It all dates back to 1934, when William Sianis, an immigrant from Greece, bought a tavern on Chicago’s West Madison Street for $205. One day, a goat jumped off a passing truck and wandered into his bar. Sianis was charmed by the animal and adopted him. Before long, the hoofed mammal became the tavern’s de facto mascot, and Sianis renamed his establishment The Billy Goat Tavern. (After moving to its current place in 1964, the watering hole has turned into a popular Chicago institution, with six locations across town, as well as one in O'Hare Airport, one in Lombard, Illinois—and another all the way off in Washington, D.C.)
Sianis was a canny businessman with a flair for promotional stunts. When the Republican National Convention came to Chicago in 1944, he shrewdly put up a sign reading “No Republicans Allowed.” Right on cue, outraged GOP bar-goers crowded the place, insisting that they be served. Free publicity generated by his stunt translated into huge profits for Sianis, who quickly became one of Chicago’s most recognizable figures.
A year later, the Cubs clinched a World Series berth against the American League’s Detroit Tigers. To celebrate the occasion, Sianis’s bearded pet was cloaked in a banner that boldly declared “We Got Detroit’s Goat.” The outfit was to be the centerpiece of a great new promotional gimmick. Sianis bought up a pair of tickets to Game 4 of the Series at Wrigley Field. He then showed up at the ballpark with his goat in tow. It’s sometimes reported that Sianis and the animal were turned away at the stadium gate by Cubs President P.K. Wrigley, who allegedly complained of the animal’s smell. According to other sources, the entrepreneur and his horned companion were admitted into the ballpark, but were kicked out by ushers in short order. Regardless of why they were kicked out, according to the Tavern's website, an incensed Sianis “threw up his arms and exclaimed, ‘The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more. The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field.” Furthermore, when Chicago ultimately lost the ’45 series to Detroit in seven games, Sianis supposedly telegrammed P.K. Wrigley and asked “Who stinks now?”
A few baseball historians doubt the legitimacy of this story. The standard revisionist argument is that it never even occurred to Sianis to put any sort of hex on the Cubs. For one thing, while two different newspapers ran stories about the Wrigley Field goat incident in 1945, neither account says anything about a curse. So when did the idea originate? If modern curse deniers are to be believed, the Chicago media dreamed up this billy goat jinx at some point in the 1940s. After the '45 World Series (and an OK '46 season), the Cubs started floundering and would go 16 years without a winning season—although they did break even in the 1952 campaign with a mediocre record of 77-77. Remembering the Wrigley Field goat incident, sportswriters began to wonder if Sianis had vindictively jinxed the team. “Sianis played along,” Cubs historian Jack Bales writes.
According to a 1969 Chicago Tribune article, Wrigley wrote a letter apologizing for the snub in 1950, to little effect. (According to the same article, Sianis then put a more obscure curse on the Cubs. After learning that he wouldn’t be able to raise a Greek flag at his bar’s new location near the Wrigley Building, he wrote to Wrigley “The Greek flag will fly from your plaza before another pennant flies at Wrigley field.”) Sianis passed away on October 22, 1970, but the legend of his jinx lived on. Early in 1984, Cubs manager Dallas Green swung by the Billy Goat Tavern and tried to make peace with Sianis’s nephew, Sam. “All is forgiven,” Green said. At the manager’s invitation, Sam showed up at Wrigley Field on opening day with a goat. In a pregame ceremony, the duo ascended the pitcher’s mound and formally revoked the curse.
Members of the Sianis family have since walked goats in or around the stadium on two other occasions. Also, in an attempt to better the Cubs’ fortunes, five competitive eaters gobbled up an entire 40-pound goat in one sitting at a Chicago restaurant in September 2015—a feat that took just 14 minutes.
2. FRED MERKLE’S WRONG TURN
In the early 20th century, baseball knew no bigger rivalry than the blood feud that raged between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. In 1908, these two legendary teams were entwined in a pennant race for the ages. On September 23, the Cubs—who’d won their first World Series title a year earlier—played the Giants at Manhattan’s historic Polo Grounds. At the onset, Chicago stood just slightly behind New York in the National League standings. With the end of the season fast approaching, the stakes were sky-high (at the time, the winner of the pennant was the team with the best record at the end of the season).
Under normal circumstances, Giants veteran Fred Tenney would have been playing first base. But due to a back-related ailment, he was replaced by a 19-year-old rookie named Fred Merkle. Little did this Wisconsin-born teenager know that he’d soon secure his place in history—for all the wrong reasons.
With two outs at the bottom of the ninth inning and outfielder Moose McCormick biding his time on first base, the score was tied 1-1. That’s when Merkle singled, sending McCormick to third. Then along came shortstop Al Bridwell, who hit a single of his own to right center field.
Here’s where things get weird: Bridwell’s hit allowed McCormick to run across home plate and seemingly win the game. Rather than touch second base, Merkle proceeded to make a beeline towards the Giants’ clubhouse in center field. Why would he do such a thing? Well, in those days, fans would often pour out onto the field after a home team victory. Therefore, it was customary for a player in Merkle’s situation to forego advancing to second so that he could steer clear of the oncoming mob.
However, although it was common practice, Major League Baseball’s official rulebook didn’t recognize this little custom. Merkle technically should have touched second—and when he failed to do so, Chicago took notice. Although the field was obscured by a torrent of fans, the Cubs managed to find a ball and get it to their second baseman, Johnny Evers. Following a chat with the Chicago infielder, umpire Hank O’Day called Merkle out, meaning that McCormick’s run was suddenly rendered void. At that point, the game should have gone into extra innings, but those interfering fans and impending darkness rendered such an outcome impossible—so O’Day declared the game to be a 1-1 tie.
At season’s end, the Giants and Cubs had tied for first place. A one-game playoff was arranged, which the Cubs handily won en route to claiming their final World Series championship. Meanwhile, Fred Merkle’s reputation would never recover. The events of September 23 earned him the nickname “Bonehead” and from that day onward, fans taunted him by shouting “Don’t forget to touch second!” (Reportedly, Merkle feared that someone would scrawl “bonehead” onto his tombstone.)
Still, Merkle has had his share of defenders over the years. Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem once denounced O’Day’s fateful call in that Cubs-Giants game as “the rottenest decision in the history of baseball.” Some historians and commentators even believe that this controversial ruling triggered the Chicago Cubs curse. “[Merkle] was the first player on whom the rule was ever enforced and he never lived it down,” longtime sportscaster Keith Olbermann told ESPN. “The goat story is still easier, and more compelling, than the story of the poor rookie victimized by a rule that was never enforced… I’ve never believed the Cubs didn’t curse themselves by playing that rule on poor Fred.” In 2008, a monument to the first baseman was erected in Merkle’s hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin. Its construction was spearheaded by local baseball buff David Stalker, who concurs with Olbermann’s assessment. “Sometimes,” Stalker said, “it looks like the Cubs and Merkle got jinxed at the same time.”
3. PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ANIMALS NAMED “MURPHY”
You might call it a second “Murphy’s Law.” Superstitious Cubbies fans have pointed out that several of the most disappointing collapses in franchise history involved something named Murphy. In 1969, Chicago looked poised to win the National League’s eastern division. For 155 days, the mighty Cubs stood in first place. On August 16, they’d amassed a nine-game lead over the second-place New York Mets, an upstart team which, incidentally, was only in its eighth year of existence. (Although the Cardinals had more wins, their win-loss percentage was lower.) “We started out great, and I really felt that year was going to be our year,” third baseman Ron Santo would say in retrospect.
But then the Mets got hot. Under general manager Johnny Murphy, the New York squad won 39 of their last 50 games. And as Gotham’s lovable losers upped their game, the Cubs started unraveling. Of their final 25 games, Santo’s team ended up dropping 17. The most infamous stretch of this downward skid came in September, when Chicago visited Shea Stadium for a two-date series with the Mets. Surging New York swept the failing Cubbies by a combined score of 10 runs to three. The second game is particularly well-known because, at one point, a black cat trotted out in front of the Cubs dugout. “I saw that cat coming out of the stands, and I knew right away we were in trouble,” Santo said. Sure enough, the so-called Miracle Mets won their division en route to an improbable World Series victory.
Forty-six years later, the Mets once again dashed Chicago’s World Series hopes. This time, New York swept the heavily-favored Cubs in the National League Championship Series. After disposing of their Second City rivals, a Mets player named Daniel Murphy was chosen as the NLCS Most Valuable Player. Given the fact that he’d put up four homers, six runs scored, and six runs batted in during the series, Murphy certainly warranted the distinction.
Not every Cubs playoff collapse was engineered by the Mets, though. In 1984, Dallas Green’s squad secured an NL East crown, but lost the ensuing league championship series. This time, Chicago was eliminated by the San Diego Padres, who snatched the pennant by winning three straight games on their home turf, a venue called Jack Murphy Stadium.
Oh, and by the way, William Sianis’s goat had a name. He called it Murphy.
4. THE (POSSIBLY FIXED) 1918 WORLD SERIES
Chicago’s other team, the White Sox, is still haunted by a scandal that rocked the country over nine decades ago. In 1919, this South Side club famously threw the World Series, deliberately losing the best-of-nine contest after gamblers paid some key players to engineer five losses. Shortly thereafter, rumors of a backroom deal began circulating. These mutterings culminated in a highly publicized trial of several of the team’s players. Although they were acquitted, MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis permanently banned all of the players from the majors.
Known as the Black Sox Scandal, this ordeal is regarded as the darkest chapter in the history of baseball. And yet, one co-conspirator alleged that it was merely the sequel to an earlier transgression. Pitcher Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte was the first White Sock to confess his role in rigging the 1919 World Series. At Chi-Town’s Cook County Courthouse, he spilled the beans before a grand jury.
During his testimony, he happened to bring up the White Sox’s crosstown rivals. Cicotte mentioned an eastbound train ride that he’d taken with his teammates in the 1919 regular season. Onboard, the conversation inevitably turned to baseball—and money. “The ball players were talking about somebody trying to fix the National League ball players or something like that,” Cicotte stated.
Here, he was referring to the 1918 World Series, which the Cubs had lost to Babe Ruth’s Red Sox. As Cicotte’s confession unfolded, he revealed that “there was some talk about [gamblers] offering $10,000 or something to throw the Cubs in the Boston series.” Hearing this, a player on the train supposedly joked that if the White Sox won the pennant, they should follow the Cubs’ lead and drop the ensuing World Series.
Did the Cubbies purposefully let Boston win it all in 1918? John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, thinks that so far as conspiracy theories go, this one isn’t too far-fetched. “It seems more likely that there would have been a fix than there would not have been,” he told The New York Times. “At that time, the connection between baseball players and gamblers was … strong.” Moreover, as sportswriter Sean Deveny notes, player salaries cratered in the midst of World War I. “They didn’t make much money,” he says. Under the circumstances, the temptation to take bribes would have been strong. In 2009, Deveny published a book about shady background dealings that allegedly tainted the 1918 series. Its title? The Original Curse.
5. WRIGLEY FIELD’S DAY GAME “DISADVANTAGE”
To Cubs faithful, the team’s home turf is nothing less than an ivy-walled cathedral. Built in 1914, it’s regarded as one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks, right up there with Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate statue (a.k.a. “The Bean”). But playing at Wrigley presents some unique challenges to professional athletes. For starters, city regulations force the Cubs to play more day games than any other team in the majors.
Prior to 1988, the Cubbies never played night games at Wrigley. Then, in that pivotal year, the stadium was fitted with the necessary lights that allowed Chicago’s National League club to take the field after sundown. But at the behest of residents who live in a nearby neighborhood, the Windy City has enforced some severe restrictions on the number of night games that Wrigley can host.
These days, around 70 percent of Major League games take place at night. Twenty-nine MLB franchises now play the majority of their contests under the stars. The Chicago Cubs are the lone outlier. Whereas many teams play around 55 night games at home every year, the Cubbies are limited to 35 (which can be increased to 43 if necessary, if the MLB changes a day game to night for TV rights) night games in any one regular season. For the players, this scheduling quirk can be a real pain. “Through the years, I’ve talked to a lot of friends of mine that have played for the Cubs,” Red Sox great David Ortiz said in 2014. “The one thing that everyone talked about was the schedule in Chicago … it kind of mentally wears you down.”
Ortiz argued that the frequent day games at Wrigley don’t give the Cubs enough time to prepare themselves for road games, which mostly take place at night. “You play day games for about a week and the next thing you know you have to go into a city and play night games,” he says, “then … you have to go to the West Coast and adjust to the time there, then you have to come back home and start playing day games.” This erratic sleep schedule, Ortiz says, is simply “too hard for baseball [players].”
Some former Cub players and managers have made similar statements. As Dallas Green once told the Chicago Tribune, “What we found was that you live in the airport when you play day baseball and everyone else plays night baseball.” He went on to explain that a Cub who plays a night game in St. Louis couldn’t expect to return to his Chicago home “until 2 or 3 in the morning.” Afterwards, said player would have to “get up at 9 a.m.” in order to arrive at Wrigley on time for the next day’s home game. “Your rest is affected,” Green concluded.
Still, not everyone is convinced that Wrigley’s partiality for day games puts the Cubbies at a disadvantage. “I definitely prefer day games here,” former Cubs infielder Gary Gaetti opined. While he allowed that a schedule with more nighttime contests would give the players more rest time, Gaetti didn’t see the status quo as a handicap. “You get used to having it this way,” he said.