A billy goat walks into a World Series game…
It sounds like the set-up for a joke. And perhaps that’s all it ever really was – a joke played on a weary fan base, spun by tellers of tall tales over glasses of whiskey and rye, which grew with time into arguably baseball’s all-time greatest urban legend: the Curse of the Billy Goat.
The origins of the so-called curse date back to October 6, 1945, during game 4 of the World Series pitting two familiar foes: the National League’s Chicago Cubs and the American League’s Detroit Tigers. The two teams had squared off for the crown on three previous occasions. The Cubs won the first two matchups, in 1907 and 1908, but lost to the Tigers in 1935.
This time around, the Cubs had to be feeling pretty confident about taking back the title. They’d taken two of the first three games of the series at Detroit’s ballpark. For all of the remaining games, they’d have the home-field advantage. They only needed to win two more games in the best-of-seven series, and they’d be champions for the first time since 1908.
In that first game at Wrigley Field, 42,923 hopeful Cubs fans packed the park at Clark and Addison. The starters for Game 4 were Ray Prim for the Cubs and Dizzy Trout for the Tigers, whose son, Steve, would, in 1984, pitch for the Cubs in the team’s first return to the postseason since the 1945 World Series. The Friendly Confines proved not so friendly. The Tigers scored all four of the runs they would score in that game in the fourth inning, off of Prim, who was relieved after pitching just 3-1/3 innings. Trout was in command from the start, holding the Cubs to only one run. The series was tied two games apiece.
What happened on that field that game, at least in Cubs’ lore, took a back seat to what took place in the stands. As the story goes, William Sianis, a Greek immigrant who owned a nearby tavern (the now-famous Billy Goat Tavern), had two $7.20 tickets – seats 6 and 7, box 65, tier 12 – one for him and one for his pet goat, Murphy (or Senovia, according to some accounts) which Sianis had restored to health when the goat had fallen off a truck and subsequently limped into his tavern. The goat wore a blanket with a sign pinned to it that read “We got Detroit’s goat.”
Much will undoubtedly be made of this year being the 70th anniversary of the Curse of the Billy Goat. But is it really? Did Sianis really place a curse on the Cubs that day? Did he ever truly put any kind of hex on the North Side team, even when, years later, he would claim that he did and even try to reverse it?
The accounts of what actually took place from this point forward in the story are as hazy as a smoky tavern. And perhaps that is because the true origin of the curse story likely began not at that World Series game, but instead, years later, in Sianis’ bar, a popular watering hole for Chicago’s hard-boiled newspapermen.
To get to the bottom of the real story, one needs to sift through the fiction to get to the facts.
What is undeniable is that William Sianis, nicknamed “Billy Goat” for the ever-present white goatee on his chin, was a publicity hound. So when he brought his pet goat with him on that drizzly day, he surely knew that it would catch the attention of some of his pals in the press corps.
One might wonder: how do you get a goat into a baseball stadium, let alone the World Series?
Some accounts question whether he ever was even allowed to enter the stadium with the goat. But the general consensus is that he did manage to get the goat into the ballpark, much to the chagrin of the Andy Frain ushers, who initially turned him away and then, according to the account of Da Curse of the Billy Goat author Steve Gatto, relented after Sianis won his argument that the printed ticket contained no disclaimer that prohibited its use for an animal.
It is unclear exactly when but, as the story goes, fans sitting nearby raised a stink about the foul smell of the wet goat, which led the ushers to eventually give Billy and his goat the boot.
In the next day’s Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward wrote in his “In the Wake of the News” column that the 525 Andy Frain ushers and attendants “had trouble with only one fan, Billy Sianis, owner of a tavern near Chicago Stadium, who insisted on bringing his nanny goat, Senovia, in the box seat section.”
The Chicago Times featured a photograph of Sianis waving his hat at the crowd while in his box seat with his goat. An accompanying article by sports editor Gene Kessler gave a play-by-play account of how Sianis had managed to get his goat into the stadium.
Two days later, on October 9, 1945, Times columnist Irv Kupcinet described the goat incident in his “Kup’s Column,” claiming that after the Cubs lost game five of the series by a score of 8-4, putting them down in the series 3 games to 2, Sianis sent Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley a wire that read: “Who smells now?”
There are uncredited accounts of an indignant Sianis standing outside the stadium and cursing the team, vowing it would never again return to the World Series. His family maintains that in the telegram he sent to Wrigley, he warned: “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
But none of these accounts appears to have been published, at least not until years later. As Tribune writer and Billy Goat Tavern stalwart Rick Kogan notes in his book, A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream, the closest that Sianis appears to have come to any kind of publicly pronounced reprisal at the time was when newspaper photographers gathered at his tavern and encouraged him to feed the goat the unused ticket. “No. I keep it for evidence,” he says. “I am going to sue for $100,000—no, I sue for a million!”
A lot of playful newspaper coverage, but, as Kogan writes, “There is no mention of a curse or a hex or a jinx.”
The Cubs of course lost that series 4 games to 3, and haven’t been back to baseball’s pinnacle since.
Chicago historian Charles Billington, author of Wrigley Field’s Last World Series, contends that Sianis never uttered anything resembling a curse at the time. “(Sianis) says nothing during the 1945 World Series about any ‘Billy Goat Curse,’” Billington says, “and nobody blamed the World Series loss on any curse.”
So where and when then was the story of the curse born? In all likelihood it emerged years later out of Sianis’ own tavern, where all those surly newspapermen would gather on the barstools and concoct stories.
Cubs’ historian Jack Bales writes on his website WrigleyIvy.com, in an article titled, “A So-Called Curse,” that “Sianis’s Billy Goat Tavern has always been a haven for journalists, and over the next few years, as the Cubs continued their losing ways, the owner’s newspaper friends jokingly suggested that he must have hexed the team back in 1945. Sianis played along with the gag, and a brief news item with a photo of the tavern owner and his goat, Murphy, appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on September 22, 1950.”
The more the Cubs lost – and they lost a lot – the more the story of the curse grew.
When a black cat ran circles around Cubs’ third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle of a game at Shea Stadium in 1969, and then the star-studded team’s seemingly insurmountable lead wilted in an epic late-season collapse, until they were eventually overtaken by the Miracle Mets, fans started searching for answers. Logical explanations – fatigue due to an abundance of day games or too many off-field escapades, or perhaps that the Mets were simply the better team – gave way to the less tangible but perhaps in some ways easier to accept notions. Maybe they were a victim of plain old bad luck. Or, to take it to the next level, they were cursed.
Enter Billy Sianis, who resurrects the story of the curse in 1969 by claiming to lift it. As recounted by Kogan, Sianis tells sportswriter David Condon that he wrote a personal letter to Wrigley. “And I told him the hex was gone…. I even wrote a letter to Leo Durocher saying the next time my goat comes up from the farm, we would all have lunch at the Wrigley Building restaurant. Yes, I removed the Billy Goat hex from the Cubs.”
As the Cubs failures mounted over the years, Sianis’ nephew, Sam, took over the tavern and carried on his uncle’s story. A chip off the promotional block, Sam attempts to break the curse by bringing his goat, Socrates, to Wrigley Field on July 4, 1973. The goat wears a hand-painted sign that reads, “All is Forgiven. Let Me Lead You to the Pennant. Your friend, Billy Goat.” He walks from gate to gate only to be turned away each time.
Sam returns to Wrigley Field with a goat on Opening Day of the 1984 season, this time with the encouragement of team officials, and stands on the pitching mound at a pre-game ceremony alongside announcer Jack Brickhouse and renounces the curse.
Ten years later, in 1994, after the Cubs’ worst start in team history, Sam takes his goat to Wrigley Field, in an effort to end a 12-game losing streak. Initially, he’s denied entry but when a crowd starts a chant of “Let the Goat in!” Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks steps in and escorts Sam and his goat into Wrigley. The Cubs win the game, ending the streak, but it wasn’t enough to rescue another losing season.
Then in 1996, Sam is back with his goat, this time on the stage of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” along with Cubs’ first baseman Mark Grace, in yet another attempt to lift the curse.
The Curse of the Billy Goat has reached almost mythic proportions, being told in popular literature – including John Grisham’s Calico Joe and The Litigators – and in song by baseball folksinger Chuck Brodsky.
Yet in all likelihood the curse is nothing more than a fictional creation of some mischievous newsmen and a family of savvy Greek showmen.
In an essay, “The Real Dope on the Real Goat,” Glenn Stout, co-author of The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball (2007), writes that “Sianis’s curse is as spurious as Boston’s ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ the utterly fictional claim that Babe Ruth cursed the Red Sox after being sold to the Yankees. The notion of a “billy goat”-inspired hex or curse was a later product of the press, and Sianis was savvy enough to play along with it.”
When asked if he believes in the curse, historian Charles Billington is adamant: “I don’t believe in the Billy Goat Curse,” he says, “because it never occurred.”