A Wartime World Series and a So-Called Curse

Important Note

Note:  This page is updated (as of March 24, 2013), on my Chicago Cubs website.  See A So Called Curse in the “1940-1970″ section of http://WrigleyIvy.com/.

Although the Chicago Cubs seemed to be mired in fourth place at the end of June 1945, on July 1 they began an 11-game winning streak and moved into first.  Much of the credit belongs to first baseman Phil Cavarretta, who hit a league-leading .355 and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.  Perhaps a nod should also go to the St. Louis Cardinals, as star Stan Musial found himself in the Navy that year, which helped the Cubs edge the Cardinals by three games.

Chicago faced the Tigers in the World Series.  Playing the first game in Detroit in near frigid conditions, the Cubs were jubilant after their 9-0 victory.  “Well, we did it!” shouted manager Charlie Grimm in the team’s dressing room.  “It’s a nice cold day to get nine runs, isn’t it?”  Sportswriters predicted an early demise for the Cubs’ opponents, with one journalist declaring, “Only an atomic bomb can save the Tigers.”

Or perhaps a goat.  The Cubs were leading 2 games to 1 as the Series moved from Detroit to Chicago.  Among the 42,923 fans in Wrigley Field for Game 4 on October 6 was tavern owner William Sianis, nicknamed “Billy Goat” because of his goatee.  Sianis had purchased two box seats for him and his pet goat, and prior to the game he paraded the animal–wearing a sign proclaiming “We Got Detroit’s Goat”–around the field.

Although Sianis and his pet were at first permitted to stay, they were asked to leave before the game ended because of the goat’s objectionable odor. According to the Chicago Sun-Times of October 9, “After Detroit defeated the Cubs, 8-4, Sianis sent [Cubs owner] P. K. Wrigley this wire: ‘Who smells now?’”  The Cubs went on to lose the World Series, 4 games to 3.  (Photograph shows William “Billy Goat” Sianis and some ballpark ushers recreating the day he and his goat were barred from Game 4.)

As Rick Kogan relates in his book, A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream (2006), Sianis told reporters what happened to him and his goat at Wrigley Field, and they in turn wrote “playful items about Billy’s outrage” for the Chicago newspapers.  In the articles, however, there was “no mention of a curse or a hex or a jinx.”

Sianis’s Billy Goat Tavern has always been a haven for journalists, and in 1950, 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.

From this long-ago banter grew the legend that Sianis had placed a curse on the Cubs, swearing that they would never again play in a World Series.  With the passing of many losing seasons (and perhaps due to shrewd publicity on the part of Sianis and his widely popular restaurant), the alleged curse has gained international renown, been the subject of several books, and become a part of Chicago and baseball folklore.

Legends always make for good copy, so it’s likely the story won’t go away anytime soon, even if / when the Cubs make it to the World Series.  On the other hand, some people, such as Phil Cavarretta, pay little attention to the team’s so-called curse and summarily dismiss the very idea.  The 18-year-old Chicago native joined the North Siders in 1934, right after he graduated from Chicago’s Lane Tech High School, and he stayed with the Cubs for twenty years.  One of his teammates said of the scrappy, tough competitor that he was a “no-nonsense guy.  Hard-headed and win at any cost.”

Cavaretta was also known for his candor and blunt honesty.  In 1954 he became the first manager fired during spring training, after he told Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley that the team didn’t have a chance at a winning season (Wrigley said he had a “defeatist” attitude).  Cavarretta was correct, however, as the Cubs finished in seventh place in the National League (out of eight), winning 64 games and losing 90.

Cavarretta, who had played on pennant-winning Cubs teams not only in 1945 but also in 1938 and 1935, had no use for spurious curses as excuses for losing ball games.  In October 2003, a CNN reporter interviewed him the day after fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball during a crucial playoff game, which the Cubs lost.  Here is part of that conversation:

 CNN:  “I want to ask you about this curse of the billy goat.  Do you believe in it?”

Cavarretta:  “No, I’m not a superstitious man and I don’t think that had anything to do with the ball game.  But publicity-wise, I guess it makes a good story. But I don’t think it had anything to do with the ball game. . . . It’s up to the players.”

CNN:  “As I understand it, this curse goes back to 1945, back to the last time that the Cubs were in the World Series. . . . Can you tell us how it got started?”

Cavarretta:  “Actually, once again, the billy goat had nothing to do with it.  I think we had more problems with Hal Newhouser, the [Detroit Tigers] pitcher out there, and Virgil Trucks and Hank Greenberg.  No billy goat, whatsoever.  And especially Newhouser, who we all know, may his soul rest in peace, [was a] Hall of Famer.  He’s the one that beat us, not the billy goat.”

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