A Short History of Famous Sports Curses - HowTheyPlay - Sports
Updated date:

A Short History of Famous Sports Curses

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Some teams—and even some venues—have such unending streams of bad luck that it seems as though a malicious curse has been placed on them. In most cases, supporters can’t bring themselves to believe their idols are substandard—until it finally dawns on them that their team is filled with no-hopers and they show up to games wearing paper bags over their heads, that is.

Baseball Curses

Babe Ruth’s supposed curse on the Boston Red Sox is well documented. After the game’s most famous slugger was traded to the New York Yankees, Boston went 86 years without winning the World Series. But, there are plenty of other malignant spells cast on baseball teams.

In 1945, Greek immigrant and tavern owner William Sianis went to watch game four of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. He had two seats, one for himself and the other for his billy goat, Murphy. It seems that Murphy was a bit pungent causing distress to patrons downwind of the beast. So, Sianis and his goat were asked to leave.

William Sianis and Stinky Murphy

William Sianis and Stinky Murphy

Accounts vary as to the exact nature of the hex that followed, but Sianis, on behalf of the ejected Murphy, dropped a curse on the Chicago Cubs. He said the team would lose the 1945 World Series, and it did.

Decades of futility followed. Clearly something had to be done. The management of the Chicago Cubs invited William Sianis’s nephew Sam and a goat said to be descended from Murphy to opening day on several occasions. Sam announced on each occasion that the curse was lifted, but perhaps there was a long queue of jinxes to be dealt with. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Cubs broke the curse and won baseball’s top prize. The team’s previous triumph had been in 1908.

The Talladega Speedway

Sometimes, curses involve venues rather than teams. Big Bill France was a racing driver who organized the NASCAR circuit. In 1969, he built a super speedway track at Talladega in northeastern Alabama.

The story is that a local Indian tribe asked France to relocate because his track was on sacred aboriginal land. France refused, and a medicine man put a spell on the land. Weird stuff has certainly happened since then. Talladega has had more wrecks than any other track.

In 1973, 60 cars started a race, but by the tenth lap, there were only 39 running; a massive crash took out 21 vehicles, severely injuring some drivers. That same year, Hall of Fame driver Bobby Isaac pulled into the pits and got out of his car. He said a “strange voice” had told him to stop racing or something bad would happen to him. Four years later, almost to the day, Isaac died of a heart attack while racing.

In 1975, one of Richard Petty’s crew members was killed by an exploding pressure can. The same year, driver Tiny Lund was killed in a crash. There have been a number of other injuries since then along with some unexplained incidents of vandalism at the track.

Another Talladega Oops

Another Talladega Oops

English Soccer Stadiums

Most sports fans know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they don’t wear their lucky shirt or scarf to a game, their team will lose. But, such totems can’t overcome an evil spell.

In 1895, the English soccer team Derby County built a new stadium. To do so, a group of Roma (gypsies) had to be evicted from the land they camped on. In an echo of the Talladega hex, the Roma put a spell on the Derby County soccer team; it would never win the Football Association Cup Final. The team came close a few times but always ended up on the wrong end of a humiliating loss.

In 1946, Derby made it to the Cup Final again, and a team representative was sent to talk to the Roma: “Can you, pretty please, lift the hex?” The match against Charlton Athletic was evenly poised at 1-1. Then, an overenthusiastic hoof at the ball caused it to burst. This was taken as the moment the curse was lifted, and Derby went on to win 4-1.

A burst soccer ball was said to mark the end of the curse on Derby County.

A burst soccer ball was said to mark the end of the curse on Derby County.

A similar run of futility has dogged the Birmingham City Football Club and for the same reason as Derby—new stadium, evicted Roma, black magic. The team tried hanging crucifixes from the floodlights to ward off the bad vibes. It didn’t work. But they had one last trick up their sleeves. The manager called in a clairvoyant who told him he had to pee on the four corners of the pitch. The team has gone from 1906 to the present day without an FA Cup win.

Southampton Football Club suffered from the kiss of death when they started playing in their brand-spanking-new stadium in 2001. The team went through weeks without a win. What to do? Bring in Cerridwen “Dragonoak” Connelly who was billed as a pagan witch doctor. She sprinkled water from a wooden chalice and cleansed the ground of its evil spirits. Naturally, Southampton won their next game.

Southampton's Hex-Free Stadium

Southampton's Hex-Free Stadium

The Commentator’s Curse

Sportscasters are famous for making predictions that end disastrously for whichever player they have picked on. It’s an affliction that seems more prevalent in cricket than most other sports.

In 2015, the England batsman Alastair Cook was going through a rough spell of low scores. Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughn was now doing commentary and remarked that Cook, then on 13 runs, looked like he had his form back. The very next ball, he was out.

Alastair Cook was a victim again this time at the mouth of another former England player, Geoffrey Boycott. This time Cook was playing brilliantly against Australia and had made 96 runs. Boycott gave it as his considered opinion that Alistair Cook was going to make a century (100 runs). Well, of course, you know what happened.

Bonus Factoids

Sports Illustrated has an unfortunate record of jinxing some of the athletes it puts on its covers. This goes back to its very first issue in August 1954. Atlanta Braves great Eddie Mathews was the cover boy; days later he broke his hand. Baseball’s Pete Rose was on a 44-game hit streak when he appeared on the magazine’s cover. That week, he went hitless. In 1984, Pittsburgh Steeler Jack Lambert got the cover treatment under the headline “Man of Steel.” A career-ending injury followed. In 1988, it was boxer Michael Spinks’s turn to appear under the line “Don’t Count Me Out.” But, the referee did count him out after 91 seconds of his next fight against Mike Tyson. The curse has continued. New England quarterback Tom Brady’s season-ending knee injury in 2008 and Texas Ranger Nelson Cruz missing a crucial catch in the 2011 World Series also came after their respective cover appearances.

On the day before the first round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta, contestants play on the par-3 course. The tradition started in 1960, and no golfer who has won the par-3 contest has gone on to win The Masters in the same year.

A genie appears before a sports fan. “I can grant you one wish,” says the sprite. “Let me live forever.” “Can’t be done,” comes the reply. “Okay. Let me live until the Toronto Maple Leafs* win the Stanley Cup.”

*Insert the name of your own heartbreakingly inept sports team.

Sources

  • “The Chicago Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse, Explained.” A.J. Perez, USA TODAY, October 25, 2016.
  • “The Talladega Curse.” Matt McLaughlin, Race Fans Forever, April 1, 2018.
  • “Top 15 Most Notorious Curses in Sports History.” Michael Weyer, The Sportster, October 8, 2015.
  • “Top 10 Sporting Curses.” ESPN staff, October 31, 2013.
  • “Michael Vaughan Takes the Blame for the Ultimate Commentator’s Curse After the Dismissal of Alastair Cook.” Jack de Menzies, The Independent, April 16, 2015.
  • “Curse Them: A Look at Victims of the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx.” Nicholas Parco, New York Daily News, March 23, 2016.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 06, 2019:

These stories are funny but they grab the attention. Is it acceptable for a team to blame a curse for recurring losses?

Related Stories

drugs-in-sport

Drugs in Sports: A History of Doping

Strange substances have been widely used in sport to boost performance for centuries. A small group says it’s time to legalize them.

the-sports-commentator-unbelievable

The Sports Commentator: Hyperbole and Hiccups

The job of sports commentating is not easy. It requires a brain fully stocked with clichés, banalities, and platitudes, and the ability to blabber on about the glaringly obvious.

englands-dangerous-sports-club

England’s Dangerous Sports Club

A group of Oxford University students embarked on a scheme that can be seen as the birth of extreme sports.

strange-english-sporting-exploits

Strange English Sporting Exploits

Perhaps it’s the damp climate, but the British have developed a taste for some madcap ways of passing the time. Cricket is not even mentioned.

the-bizarre-sport-of-ferret-legging

The Bizarre Sport of Ferret Legging

Ferret legging, or “put-‘em-down” as it’s known to aficionados, is a contest of endurance and pain that seems about as loopy as it’s possible to get.

wacky-british-sports

Wacky English “Sports”

Every year, the British hold festivals featuring what are loosely termed “sports.”

the-mysterious-voyage-of-donald-crowhurst

The Mysterious Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

An amateur yachtsman entered a solo, around-the-world sailing race. After a slow start, progress rapidly accelerated. Then, something strange happened.

why-do-people-spit

Why Do Athletes Spit?

The start of each baseball season is when fans have great expectations; what they get is great expectorations.

the-worlds-deadliest-motorcycle-race

The World’s Deadliest Motorcycle Race on the Isle of Man

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy is held every year in June. Since the races started in 1907, 270 riders have been killed on the island’s road course.

isaac-murphy-black-champion-jockey

A Brief History of Black Champion Jockey Isaac Murphy

Born in 1861 to free black parents, Isaac Murphy became one of the greatest jockeys in America. . . and then white people squeezed him out of horse racing. Learn more about his story here.

the-world-of-competitive-eating

Competitive Eating: Everything You Want to Know

Those who engage in stuffing themselves with hot dogs, oysters, or even cockroaches insist they are taking part in legitimate sporting events.

skyscrapers-and-rooftoppers

Skyscrapers and Rooftoppers: Everything You Want to Know About Stegophily

People climb barehanded up the outside of tall structures as a show of bravado, to make a political statement, or simply for the fun of it. No, really.

major-league-baseball-teams-a-short-history

Major League Baseball Teams: A Short History

Major League Baseball is woven into America’s long and diverse historical tapestry. Here's a look at teams of today and yesteryear.

weird-and-forgotten-olympic-sports

Weird and Forgotten Former Olympic Sports

The Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” has sometimes encompassed events that might surprise you. This article lists a number of strange and obscure events that used to be part of the Olympics.

cricket-is-baffling

Cricket Is Baffling: A Beginner's Guide to Cricket

During my years at school in England, they tried to turn me into a cricket player, proving that the Universe does have a sense of humour.