The Secret Joy of Baseball Curses

The Chicago Cubs are world champions—and the billy goat has gone the way of the Bambino.

A descendant of the goat that allegedly cursed the Chicago Cubs for decades. (Reuters)

For generations, the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox were twins in misery. Here were two of the most beloved teams in the league, both steeped in baseball folklore, both suffering epic championship droughts. We’re talking losing streaks so bad that they could only be explained by dark, supernatural forces.

The tales of those forces, like the pain of the losses they apparently perpetrated, were handed down from one generation to the next, woven into the identity of fandom. This is how curses become almost sacred, something to be cherished as much as despised. From 1918 to 2004, Boston endured the curse of the Bambino, a hex on the franchise that began with the loss of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees and lasted 86 long years, until the Sox finally won the World Series.

But the Cubs suffered even longer. The team’s World Series win Wednesday night marks its first championship in 108 years, a dry spell that’s often been blamed on the Curse of the Billy Goat. (To cut a long story short: A pub owner who was made to leave Wrigley Field during a World Series game in 1945, on account of the smelly pet goat he had with him, declared a curse on the team as a result.)

For those who doubt the ruthlessness of the baseball gods, consider the Bill Buckner tragedy of 1986, one of the most infamous moments in postseason history—and an incident that represents an overlap in the two team’s curses. Buckner, who had previously played for the Cubs, was blamed for throwing away the Red Sox’s chance at winning the World Series when he let a ball roll through his legs at first base, enabling the New York Mets to score a winning run.*

An error so grave, at a moment so key, had to be evidence of the curse on Boston. But there’s a twist: Buckner was wearing his old Cubs batting glove under his mitt when he screwed up. “No wonder Buckner missed that ball,” Paul Lukas wrote in an essay for ESPN. “He never had a chance.”

And that’s the thing about curses. They attempt to reorder people’s sense of destiny, a carefully constructed fiction in sports fandom as it is. In reality, championships are won and lost with some combination of talent, physics, meteorology, and dumb luck. But to a fan, everything—really, everything—can be meaningfully connected to the outcome of a game. Wishing for a team to win isn’t enough, but wearing the right shirt—or growing the right beard, or partaking in the proper pre-game ritual—sometimes is.

And when that’s still not enough? It must be a curse. What else could explain the crush of defeat against all hope? A curse is more powerful than any player’s abilities, bigger than the team, greater even than the fandom. Which means a curse narrative runs counter to so much of how people otherwise engage in sports fandoms, in which individual control—or the illusion of it—is seen as paramount.

Contradictory though it may seem, this is all part of  “a beloved, time-honored game steeped in nostalgia,” Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon wrote in their book, Haunted Baseball. “[Curse stories] provide a lens through which to view a team’s past—usually a heartbreaking past—that connects disappointment to tradition and legacy.”

By their very nature, curse stories transcend a single championship or season. This speak’s to baseball’s deepest cultural value, and the way a person’s love of it is shared—often quite intimately—with the people they love most.

If baseball can be poetry, and it can, then why shouldn’t it be subject to the narrative rules of epic literature? Belief in a curse speaks to something deeper about the game. It has the power to elevate a team’s history, and a fan’s devotion, to an art form. Mourning yet another loss, inheriting lifetimes of disappointment, and rooting for the team anyway—this isn’t just a form of obsession or blind optimism. It’s an act of devotion.

In the end, a fantastic baseball game, or an ominous curse, is nothing more than a great story. But a great story, told the right way, can be everything.

* This article originally mischaracterized the timing of the Bill Buckner incident in 1986. It occurred during the World Series, not earlier in the playoffs. We regret the error.