The Peculiar History of the ‘Sporting Curse’

Curse of the Bambino

Sports and rationality don’t always go hand-in-hand. Deep into injury time or during an insufferable penalty shootout, even the most ardent sceptic can be found whispering a prayer or reverting to superstitious habits they picked up as a child. When we reflect on certain victories, defeats, and even particular fixtures, we often find ourselves uttering hackneyed phrases of which most are simply too cringe-inducing to repeat on the estimable pages of Onside View.

But whether it’s the impending departure of a decorated coach, the looming retirement of a celebrated player, or the anniversary of a city’s tragedy, many of us look to sporting events to maintain the natural order of things; to remind us that this all makes sense. For instance, Manchester United had to win the Premier League in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final outing as manager; Muttiah Muralitharan was destined to pick up his 800th Test wicket in what would be his final match for Sri Lanka; and Liverpool were always going to win at Anfield on the week marking the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

Sure, it’s easy to look back on sporting events and impose a mystical narrative upon them after we know the outcome. Some seem to cherry pick their examples of when sports have appeared to follow a divine path, and we forget that for every Muralitharan, for every Ray Lewis, and for every Peyton Manning, there are a plethora of great players and coaches who retire from professional sports with little more than a whimper. The great players and coaches who go out on a losing season don’t acquire their own magical narrative to explain their greatness. Instead, they’re like the rest of us – victims of random events that appear to have no meaning.

Hexes in the Midlands

But in the peculiar world of sports-curses, not all the mysticism gets imposed on events ex post. In some truly bizarre cases, the fate of a team has been predicted with remarkable accuracy a priori, or before the fact. Though the idea of the sporting curse is primarily an American phenomenon, the two most fascinating and compelling examples of the ‘a priori sports curse’ occurred not far from each other in the Midlands of England.

When Derby County F.C. moved to the Baseball Ground in 1895, a Romani group were forced to vacate their encampment and move elsewhere. Legend has it that the enraged Roma placed a very specific curse on the club which stipulated that Derby would never again win the F.A. Cup. During the supposed reign of the Baseball Ground Curse, Derby reached the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup on no fewer than thirteen occasions, and in 1898, 1899 and 1903 the team reached the final of the competition only to be defeated on every time of asking, including a 6-0 loss to Bury in 1903 – the heaviest defeat in the history of the F.A. Cup final. As the story goes, the curse was lifted during the 1945-46 season only after a representative from the club met with the Romani group to see if the curse could be lifted. During that season’s F.A. Cup final with the score tied at 1-1, the match-day ball burst. Derby went on to beat Charlton Athletic 4-1 to finally lift the Cup.

Just up the road in Birmingham, a similar curse played out for 100 years. Mirroring Derby’s misfortune, Birmingham City F.C. moved to their new St. Andrews Stadium in 1906 which, like the Baseball Ground, was built on a plot of land which had been occupied by a Romani group. Some members of the community who had previously lived on the site are said to have issued a century-long hex which remained with the club until 2006. Many of the club’s managers attempted to lift the curse in a variety of amusing and innovative ways. Former manager Ron Saunders tried to dispel the hex by placing crucifixes on the floodlights, and in 1996 then-head coach Barry Fry famously urinated in all for corners of the stadium in an effort to free his struggling club from the curse. Soon after the fabled hex expired in 2006, Birmingham managed to gain promotion to the Premier League and subsequently went on to recruit a decorated manager in Alex McLeish, the former Rangers and Scotland boss who guided the club to victory in the 2011 Football League Cup final.

One thing that can’t be denied is that both of these alleged curses have made for great stories – there’s just enough coincidence and circumstantial evidence to entertain even the most sceptical among us. But to appreciate the significance that the idea of a curse can have on a sporting culture we must – as we so often do when investigating the strange and perplexing –  turn to the United States.

The Bambino and the Goat

The Americans have their fair share of stories regarding an a priori curse, but the two that really stand out both occurred in the 1950s. After legendary-quarterback Bobby Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958 he apparently declared that his former employers, the ill-fated Detroit Lions, wouldn’t win for the next 50 years. After Layne’s exit, the Lions went on to accumulate the worst winning percentage in the NFL over the five decades during which the alleged curse was said to be in effect. The period of the supposed curse ended in 2008 during a season in which the Lions became the first team in NFL history to finish the regular season 0-16.

But perhaps the most famous ‘before the event’ curse was that placed on Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs in 1954 when Billy Sianis and his pet goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field during a World Series tie against the Detroit Tigers. In a telegram written to then-owner Philip Wrigley, Sianis is alleged to have wrote that the Cubs would not win a world series again – and, until 2016, he was been proven right, and the Curse of the Billy Goat remained a staple of baseball lore for decades.

Something that British sporting culture has scarcely embraced is the idea of a posteriori curses – supposed hexes invented ‘after the event’ and used by fans to explain decades of ineptness. The most famous a posteriori curse in American sports culture is the Curse of the Bambino, the supposed hex (that was really more of a term to denote failure) said by some to have been placed on the Boston Red Sox after the departure of renowned outfielder Babe Ruth in January 1920. While many Bostonians lamented the sale of Babe Ruth to their arch-rivals the New York Yankees, no one at the time posited that the departure of the Bambino would usher in nearly a century of perennial misfortune.

The idea of the Bambino Curse was used by a minority of Red Sox fans as a way to account for the failures of their team; it was developed after the fact in order to explain a series of events, of which many seemed unlikely and cruel. For instance, no one predicted or anticipated Bill Buckner’s calamitous and costly miscue in the 1986 World Series, but after his fateful error some in the media raised the spectre of the Bambino Curse in order to make sense of another Red Sox failure.

While the recent successes enjoyed by the Red Sox have laid the Bambino Curse to rest, stories of other a posteriori curses continue to thrive in North American sporting folklore. Cities like Buffalo and San Diego which have yet to produce a championship-winning team in any major sport are said by some to be victims of curses. As the number of losing seasons pile up, fans increasingly indulge in the idea of curses to explain the failure that they consistently see around them. This tells us a lot about our psychologies as sports fans: We find ourselves affected by the performance of our teams to such an acute degree that we try to find coping strategies that can help us deal with failure – particularly failure of the perennial sort.

A Scientific Explanation

A study conducted by Daniel Wann of Murray State University and Len Zaichkowsky of Boston University found that independent of their beliefs in “mystical forces” and their “level of baseball fandom”, persons with a “high degree of identification” with the Red Sox were more likely to believe in the Curse of the Bambino. Some fans identify with a particular club to such a degree that to criticize the team and the players they love so much would be to criticize themselves.

But this way of thinking has never really caught on in Britain. If ever there was an opportunity for British fans to invent and indulge in an a posteriori curse, it would have been during the (now-over) 77 year wait for a British men’s singles champion at Wimbledon. But in a manner befitting of our broader culture mores, we put our perennial failure at the Championships down to ineptness, and nothing else. It seems then that we can’t then impose the Wann-Zaichkowsky thesis onto British sporting culture; of course we care just as much about our teams and players as American sports fans, but the British populace is both notoriously sceptical and prone to self-deprecation.

But Wann and Zaichkowsky’s findings are significant because they tell us something else that we already know: sports can turn us into different people; and they can cause us to temporarily abandon our belief systems and rationality. The British football fan who spends 90 minutes each Saturday hurling vitriolic abuse at opposition fans and players isn’t necessarily an aggressive and abusive person – he is instead stuck in a particular moment, with a specific group of people, following a tradition which he himself didn’t invent. Similarly, the ordinarily un-superstitious baseball fan who appeals to the heavens at the bottom of the ninth during the seventh game of World Series isn’t necessarily a hypocrite – he or she is instead temporarily consumed by something more powerful than their own sense of rationality. This what sports are all about: they allow us to temporarily escape normality – curses, real or imagined, give the sports world fascinating narratives and provide fans with ways to make sense of the often cruel world of professional sports.

Perhaps then if England fail yet again at next year’s FIFA World Cup, we should indulge those who suggest that the national team are victims of some sort of curse prompted by the FA’s mishandling of the Jules Rimet trophy in the late-1960s. Such an approach seems to work in cities like San Diego, Buffalo, and Cleveland, where perennial failure is met not with consternation, but with humorous tales of the influence that the supernatural can have on sports. Legends, myths, and curses ultimately contribute to our sporting culture; they can make things interesting, and are, at the very least, excellent sources of amusement and entertainment.

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