The date: October 14, 1908. The place: Bennet Field, Detroit. The event: Game 5 of the World Series. On that day, Orval Overall of the Chicago Cubs outpitched the Tigers’ ace Billy Donovan, winning the clinching game of the World Series 2-0. Overall allowed the Tigers just three hits and had a formidable ten Ks. Outstanding ballplayers in that series included the incomparable Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb; the immortal infield combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance; and ace Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown, who would have likely been MVP of the Series if that award had been offered at the time. There were only 6,210 fans in attendance that day; little did they know that they were witnessing the last Cubs World Series triumph in a century, and still counting. In 1908, the Cubs had built not only the first baseball, but also the first all-sports, dynasty in the Modern Era. The Cubs had appeared in three consecutive World Series and had won two back-to-back titles over the Tigers; the only blemish was an inexplicable loss to the Chicago White Sox in 1906 when the “Hitless Wonders” won the title despite batting under .200 as a team. It should be noted that in 1906 the Cubs had 116 wins, a record that was tied by the Mariners 116 wins in 2001. Since the Cubs played 12 fewer games that season than the Mariners, their winning percentage (.763) remains the highest in baseball history.
The Cubs won the National League pennant again in 1910, losing to the Philadelphia Athletics 4 games to 1. Nothing remarkable about that; Connie Mack had painstakingly assembled his own dynasty in Philadelphia, featuring Hall of Fame pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, second baseman Eddie Collins (the smoothest fielder of his era), and the premier slugger of the Dead Ball Era, Frank “Home Run” Baker. The Cubs lost again in 1918 to the Boston Red Sox 4-2. Red Sox ace Babe Ruth set a record for consecutive World Series scoreless innings (29), not to be broken until 43 years later in 1961 by Whitey Ford (33). They next appeared in the Fall Classic in 1929, losing to the Athletics once again, this time 4 games to 2. Mack had re-established his Athletics, after selling off his stars, and the team was led by Al Simmons and catcher Mickey Cochrane. The Cubs again won the pennant in 1932 and were swept by the Yankees; that was the series that Babe “called his shot.” In 1935, the Tigers beat the Cubs 4-2 for their first World Championship, achieving a belated revenge for their two defeats by the Cubs three decades prior. The Yankees swept the Cubs in 1938; again, they were a superior team, featuring Gehrig, DiMaggio and Bill Dickey, among others.
The Cubs didn’t appear in another World Series until 1945, playing the Tigers for the fourth time. Up to this point, the Cubs were 2-7 in World Series appearances, losing the last six in a row. However, most of the losses could be explained as the result of facing clearly dominant teams, especially the two losses to Murderer’s Row and the pummeling by Connie Mack’s Athletics. In this respect, they were much like the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 40’s and 50’s, a great team facing an even greater one in the Yankees. Before 1955, no one had ever thought that the Bums were hexed, even though some of their losses were, perhaps, bizarre enough to get you to think twice. The passed ball by Mickey Owens in the fourth game of the ’41 Series, allowing Heinrich to sprint to first base on what would have been the final out of the game opened the floodgates to a bitterly demoralizing 7-4 loss.
The 1945 World Series had started out auspiciously enough for Chicago; the Cubbies shellacked Tiger ace Hal Newhouser, who had won 25 games that year. (Newhouser remains the only pitcher to win both the Cy Young and MVP in back-to-back years.) Although slugger Hank Greenberg led the Tigers to victory with a three-run homer in game 2, Claude Passeau pitched a one hitter in game 3, leading Chicago to a 3-0 triumph.
Here’s where things get interesting. On October 6th, the Cubs were ahead of the Tigers, two games to one. They needed to win but two of the next four games, all of which would be played at Wrigley Field. On that date, William “Billy Goat” Sianis, who was a lifetime Cubs fan, as well as the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, purchased two tickets to the game, one for himself, and one for Murphy, his pet goat, in an attempt to bring good luck to his favorite team. Ballpark ushers tried to stop him from entering the park, but were unsuccessful. Once inside the park, Sianis paraded Murphy around Wrigley Field, causing quite an uproar by the crowd. Again, the ushers intervened, but Billy Goat and Murphy, after a heated argument, were allowed to go to their box seats. Before the end of the game, Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Cubs, had both Sianis and Murphy ejected. When questioned as to the reason for this action, Wrigley stated that fans were complaining concerning the goat’s objectionable odor. (It should be noted that other accounts of the story reported that Sianis and Murphy had never been allowed into the park.) According to Cubs lore, both Billy and his goat were outraged and Billy was quoted as exclaiming, “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.” Thus, the curse of the Cubs became official. Subsequently, the Cubs lost game 4 and three of the four games at Wrigley field, losing to Detroit 4-3. On October 10th, Newhouser won game 7 by a score of 9-3, clinching the Series. Little did Cub fans realize that this was to be their last World Series appearance, 74 years and still counting. Later that day, Billy Goat sent a telegram to Wrigley stating, “Who stinks now?”
Following that Series, for the next twenty years encompassing the remainder of Sianis’ life, the Cubs never reached the first division; fifth place was their best season for two entire decades of what was to emerge as the futility of “The Lovable Losers”. The Cubs motto became “Wait ’til next year.” From 1946 to 2008, the Cubs would post a 4250-4874 (.470) record, have only 18 winning seasons (46 losing seasons), finish in first place a mere three times, have no pennants, no World Series appearances, with six post-season experiences (1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008). Their post-season record since 1945 is 6-20. Is the curse real? You decide.
Pre-Curse 1876-1945 — Record: 5475-4324 (.559)
Pennants: 1876, 1880-82, 1885-86, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1945
World Series Appearances: 1906, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1945
World Series Victories: 1907, 1908
***The Cubs posted 51 winning seasons and finished in first place 16 times.
Post-Curse 1946-2008 — Record: 4666 – 5270 (.470)
Post Season Experience: 1984, 1989, 2003, 2007, 2008
Wild Card: 1998
World Series Appearances: none
***The Cubs posted only 18 winning seasons and finished in first place only five times.
Until the late 60’s, the manifestation of the curse was the production of consistently terrible teams, the duration of which was almost unparalleled in Major League history. The nature of the curse changed in the late 60’s when Leo “the Lip” Durocher was hired as manager. In 1966, the Cubbies were so bad that they allowed the Mets to escape the cellar for the first time in their short history. But, Leo instilled his own particular brand of magic, and, for the first time in memory, the Cubs achieved respectability, finishing third in ’67 and ’68. 1969 was, by all appearances, the year that the Cubs would achieve glory for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt resided in the White House. They had a solid team, led by the iconic Cub, Ernie Banks (“Let’s play two!”), as well as perennial All-Stars Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Fergie Jenkins led a solid pitching staff. The Cubs seemed to be an unbeatable squad. At one point, they had an 8 ½ game lead in the pennant race. However, the NY Mets, who, according to Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, consisted of “2 pitchers, a good hitting outfielder, and a bunch of slap-hitters” managed to close the gap to 1 ½ games when the two teams met for a critical series in early September. In the midst of a particularly critical game, an unknown fan released a black cat onto the field. Perhaps led by the spirit of Billy Goat, the cat ran directly towards All Star Third Baseman Ron Santo as he stood in the on-deck circle. Casting a disturbing glare directly at Santo, it then proceeded toward the Cub dugout, riveting its intense glare onto the Chicago players as it lurked back and forth. The entire stadium watched in amazement. (It is interesting to note that for many years as an announcer, Santo continued to abhor road trips to Shea.) Needless to say, the Cubs lost that game, which initiated a complete September collapse; they posted an 8-17 record for that month, losing the NL East by 8 ½ games to the Mets.
Post-Curse baseball for the Cubs has been fraught with frustration. Three of their series resulted in their getting swept, 3-0. But, their initial post-season appearance in 1984, almost 40 years after the ’45 Series loss, was a prime example to all believers that the curse is real and ever-present. The Cubs took the first two games of the NLCS. They needed only one win to reach the promised land. After getting trounced in game three, Cub fans saw their lights-out closer Lee Smith allow a walk off homer in Game 4 to Steve Garvey. (Many of these same fans have recurring nightmares of watching Steve Garvey pumping his fists as he rounded the bases.) In the deciding game 5, the Cubs carried a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning, with Cy Young winner Sutcliffe on the mound. A critical error by first baseman Leon Durham led to a ghastly ending of the season.
As bad as this loss was to the psyche of Cubs fans, it was perhaps surpassed in excruciating, unbearable futility in the 2003 postseason. The Cubs were heavy favorites to beat the upstart Florida Marlins, and won three of the first five games of the series. In game 6, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead with one out in the 8th inning, as Mark Prior was in the midst of pitching a sure-fire masterpiece. Champagne was ready to be uncorked in the Cubs clubhouse in celebration of a long-awaited pennant. But, no win is ever really secure in baseball, especially if a seemingly eternal malediction comes into play. With Juan Pierre on second base, Juan Castillo hit a deep fly ball down the left field line. Cub’s left fielder Moises Alou raced to the wall, extended his glove as far as possible, and appeared about to make a tremendous catch. However, a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman, reached out his hands and caught the ball right above Alou’s out-stretched glove. Over 40,000 Cubs fans moaned in frustration and outrage, some of them perhaps sensing impending doom. Alou’s claims of interference were denied. What then occurred was perhaps inevitable: the Cubs completely collapsed in front of a national audience, most of who were rooting for the Cubs to break the schneid. After the smoke had cleared, the Cubs had allowed eight runs to cross the plate in that inning. Completely deflated, the Cubs lost the deciding game the next day 9-6, and the legend of the curse continued to grow.
There have been a number of efforts to undue the curse. Phil Wrigley hired a strange-looking master of the occult for $5,000, plus a bonus of $25,000, if they were to win the World Series, to dance around the stadium and give opposing players the malocchio. He would sit behind home plate, making wild gestures at the opposing pitchers. None of this had any noticeable impact on the Cubs prospects. After Wrigley sold the team to the Tribune Company, ownership invited Sam Sianis to parade a goat around the field when the Cubs were in the midst of an all-to-frequent losing streak. The streak was snapped, but the curse apparently remained. Twice the Cubs had Sianis’ nephew Sam attempt to remove the hex, without any apparent success. The Cubs also had a Greek Orthodox priest perform a type of exorcism by spreading holy water in the dugout before a playoff game. Again, no success. The fact remains that no other team, not only in baseball history, but in the history of all sports, has gone longer without winning a championship.