Monday, October 30, 2006

With Halloween coming up, it is the perfect time to examine an area of sports culture often passively accepted: curses. Many cultures across the world are superstitious, but Americans, being supposedly well-educated, still believe that Babe Ruth haunted the Boston Red Sox from when he was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920 until 2004, when the Red Sox broke the curse by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. They believe this in the same way that they believe that crossing the path of a black cat brings them bad luck.

Superstition is defined as "a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like."

Nomar Garciaparra has a superstition of adjusting his batting gloves and wristbands, and kicking the dirt in the batter's box. Almost all baseball players observe the superstition of not talking to a pitcher who is throwing a perfect game. Some players refuse to wash their uniforms, equipment, or even their bodies while on a streak of good performance.

However, we will focus on sports curses, such as that of the Bambino, Billy Goat, and Billy Penn, and even the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, among others. You will see why curses, like other forms of superstition including belief in supernatural beings, is irrational.

The Curse of the Bambino

The Story: Babe Ruth, a star of the Boston Red Sox that won three World Series in the six years that he was with the team (and five in fifteen years), was sold to the New York Yankees by owner Harry Frazee on January 3, 1920. Frazee used the money from the Ruth sale to finance a play called "No, No, Nanette." Ruth went on to prosper with the Yankees and is now known as arguably the best player ever to play the game.

Since Ruth was traded, the Red Sox appeared in only four World Series in 86 years, while the Yankees appeared in 39 World Series, and won 26 of them. The Curse, however, gained its notoriety not with the Yankees' success, but with the Red Sox method of failure -- they lost each of the four World Series that they appeared in since the Ruth Sale until 2004 in seven games. And they found special ways to lose, even in the regular season, every time.

Why It Never Existed:

The Curse of the Billy Goat

The Story: Vasili Sianis brought his pet goat to Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, but allegedly placed a curse on the Cubs when he and the goat were ejected from the game as a result of the odor of the goat. Additionally, popular belief claims that a team is doomed to fail in the playoffs if it has three or more former Cubs on its roster (known as the "Ex-Cubs Factor").

Why It Never Existed:

The Curse of Billy Penn

The Story: In 1987, the One Liberty Place skyscraper was erected, becoming the tallest monument in Philadelphia at 945 feet tall. The title was taken from the statue of William Penn, which stood 548 feet tall. Since the skyscraper was erected, Philadelphia-based sports have endured a run of failure, as opposed to the run of success between 1974 and 1983, when the Phillies appeared in two World Series, winning one, the Eagles appeared in Super Bowl XV but lost, the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley cups in 1974 and '75, and the Sixers won the NBA championship in 1983. Since the One Liberty Place skyscraper came into existence, the Phillies, Sixers, and Eagles have appeared in one championship (1993, 2000, and 2005, respectively), each resulting in a loss. The Flyers have appeared in two Stanley Cups (1987 and 1997) and lost them both. The curse even extends to horse racing, when Smarty Jones failed to win the Triple Crown in 2004. In 2006, Barbaro was favored to win the Triple Crown, but suffered a fractured right hind leg.

Why It Never Existed:

The Madden NFL Cover Jinx

The Story: Whomever is featured on the latest cover of John Madden's video game series is said to perform poorly or become injured the following season.

Why It Never Existed:

As for the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, there are only twelve notable instances of the jinx in the fifty-two year history of the magazine. Superstition, especially in sports, implies that correlation is causation, which is never the case. Fans love the curses, though, especially if it's on their team (those masochists). The White Sox recently broke the curse of the 1919 Black Sox with their 2005 World Series championship, one year after the Red Sox ended the "Curse of the Bambino." As a result, most people were predicting the Cubs to win the 2006 World Series because they were the next most-publicized team with a curse. Instead, they faltered to a 66-96 record, proving that curses and the trends that result from them don't mean a thing.

Become a sports atheist: don't believe in the irrationality of curses, however fun they may be.