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Why the 'Curse of the Billy Goat' and other sports superstitions persist

One of the longest-running superstitions in sports is the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” which has plagued the Chicago Cubs for more than 70 years.

According to legend, Chicago tavern owner William "Billy Goat" Sianis cursed the Cubs when he was not allowed to bring his pet goat (and tavern mascot), Murphy, into Wrigley Field to watch a 1945 World Series game. He was told the animal was too smelly.

An angry Sianis reportedly shouted, "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!" (Sianis is also said to have sent a telegram to Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley after the Cubs lost the Series that read, “Who stinks now?”)

Fans have been trying to break the curse ever since. This year, with the Cubs back in the World Series for the first time since 1945, one of the more creative (and humanitarian) attempts has been to give money to Heifer International, which donates goats (and other farm animals) to families in poverty around the world.

It’s too soon to tell whether this ploy is working. But, hey, the Cubs did hang on last night to win game 5 in the best-of-seven series, narrowly beating their Cleveland rivals by 3-2. 

Sports and superstition

As most fans know, the sports world has a long and colorful relationship with curses and other superstitions. In fact, superstitious beliefs are rampant in sports — especially, apparently, among professional athletes, according to a review of previous scholarly studies on the topic, which was published earlier this year by a team of European psychologists.

A 2006 study found that four out of five professional athletes engage in at least one superstitious behavior before a contest. 

Examples abound. As noted in the review article, basketball legend Michael Jordon, for example, wore his “lucky” blue North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts. (He had to therefore lengthen his Bulls shorts — an action that triggered an NBA fashion trend.) Tennis great Bjorn Borg grew a beard and wore the same brand of shirt to prepare for Wimbledon tournaments. And Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Patrick Roy famously talked to his goalposts, including thanking the inanimate objects when they successfully deflected a puck.  

Why are athletes so susceptible to superstitions? For the same reason everybody else is: Superstitions help people feel in control in situations that seem uncontrollable. They also help reduce anxiety.

A false impression

Superstitious behaviors among athletes are not the same as pre-performance rituals, such as throwing practice pitches or free throws before a baseball or basketball game.

Superstitious behaviors are, instead, actions that people take because they have made “a false linkage between two co-occurring but unrelated events,” the review article points out. It’s a psychological process known as “causal reasoning” — the human brain's natural (and necessary) tendency to see patterns and connections in the world around us.

The problem, however, is that these correlations are sometimes "causal fallacies," or due simply to chance or coincidence. 

Over time, superstitious behaviors can be habit-forming, even if the individual recognizes that these beaviors are irrational. In fact, as the review article notes, research has shown that many athletes won’t admit to being superstitious because they know it looks and sounds ridiculous.

Part of the reason athletes won’t discard their superstitious behaviors is because those rituals often have a beneficial placebo effect. In other words, the behaviors can lead to better performance — but not because of any magic or voodoo. By increasing an athlete’s sense of control and reducing anxiety, superstitious behaviors sometimes enhance self-confidence and mental focus, two factors that then help the athletes during competition.

Influential factors

Here are some other findings about sports superstitions that the researchers uncovered while doing their review: 

  • The more players believe that chance or uncertainly is involved in determining the outcome of a sports event, the more likely they are to engage in superstitious behaviors. This is true for tasks within each sport as well. In baseball, for example, the number of superstitions linked to batting and pitching are greater than those linked to fielding (which players believe is more in their individual control), and in hockey, goalies tend to have more superstitions than their teammates.
  • Baseball players are more likely to own a lucky charm than non-athletes.
  • In football, superstitious behaviors tend to be focused around “lucky” clothing and prayers.
  • The more competitive the level of play, the greater the likelihood that athletes will be engaged in superstitious behaviors, perhaps as a way to regulate the higher anxiety.
  • Cultural differences appear to affect superstitious behaviors in sports. American baseball players, for example, are more superstitious than their Japanese peers, particularly around individual performance. Japanese players, on the other hand, tend to use superstitious behaviors to enhance the performance of the entire team.
  • Some studies have found women athletes to be more superstitious than their male counterparts, but that research is not conclusive. 

So, if you’re an anxious Cubs fans, you might want to send some money to Heifer International before game six on Tuesday. Or you can just hope that the “Curse of Rocky Colavito” — which superstitious Clevelanders believe has kept their team from winning the World Series in recent decades — is a stronger hex.

FMI: The review was published in the August issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall.

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Comments (4)

Great Match-up

Cubbies and Indians---forlorn but not forgotten. Isn't this one clear proof of persistence, or celestial alignments or something cosmic?

I've had two bits of memory flash for chuckles this Series:
1. When I recall a Chicago stockbroker once telling me his preferred escape from dismal trading days was blowing out of his office to grab a train for Wrigley Field (only day games then, as some recall).
2. Tom Berenger's portrayal of Jake Taylor in "Major League" (1989) as the Indians' travel mode is consistently reduced to an old DC-3.

Curses

I always thought these curses existed because bored sports writers needed something to talk about, so they made things up to fill a column or two.

Curses and cliches

Journalists are schooled to avoid cliches in language but not so much in thought. When you are the authors of the first draft of history, it makes sense to leave the intellectual heavy lifting to later. An example of that is curse story often relied upon by sports writers on a slow day. In baseball, the two particular curse stories we hear are linked to our two most sentimentalized franchises, the Boston Red Sox with the Bambino curse, and the Chicago Cubs with the Billy Goat curse. Curiously, there seem to be no curses afflicting the Arizona Diamondbacks, or the frequently renamed Marlins of Florida..

It's easy to dismiss these cliched stories as the work of sports writers with too much time on their hands between games. But this kind of story cliche isn't limited to sports. We see it in the myths constructed around our politics and our national discourse. And note how this myth works. The author above has listed a series of bullet points supported by no evidence whatever. To support and amplify those bullet points, she brings in a myth which she claims is of ancient origin again with no support at all. The end product is a supposed news story which fills a news slot which has no reality at all on any level at all.

I love a good story. I love to get lost in a novel. But if journalists want to write novels, they should put that on the cover and leave the more modest activity of telling the truth to others.

Persistence

The reason why curse metaphors persist is that newspapers and other forms of immediate media are much more tolerant of cliched thinking than they are of cliched language. From a careful study of old Superman episodes, I think this is because cub reporters are much more likely to get yelled at by overworked and time pressed editors for a cliched phrase in a story than they are a cliched thought. The phrase just leaps out more to someone who is reading quickly.