Popular Science

Baseball’s black magic: How psychology, math, and culture created a curse-ridden sport

The Curse of the Billy Goat plagued Cubs fans for decades and inspired a slew of time-honored goat-themed traditions. But what made this curse so accepted and effective among all other sports superstitions?
The Curse of the Billy Goat plagued Cubs fans for decades and inspired a slew of time-honored goat-themed traditions. But what made this curse so accepted and effective among all other sports superstitions? (Erik Drost/Wikimedia Commons/)

It was raining on the April morning in 2013 when a truck pulled up to 1060 West Addison Street on Chicago’s north side to deliver a severed goat head. Building security didn’t realize what the cake box contained until the deliverer—whose identity is still a mystery—had already driven away. There was no note, but nobody needed one; this was Wrigley Field, after all, home of the most cursed team in baseball.

The goat head showed just how desperate Chicago Cubs fans had gotten. For decades, they'd tested every charm and superstition to break a curse that was supposedly keeping the team championship-less. I should know—I grew up rooting for the Cubs (and still do). And though I've never hand-delivered organs to anyone, I've partaken in my fair share of superstitious behaviors.

For reasons unexplained, baseball fans indulge in freakish rituals they believe are crucial to their team’s prosperity. Skip one on the week your team happens to lose, and you’ll suffer unendurable guilt. On the flip side, when you stay true to your superstitions and your team is victorious, the result feels euphoric. Back in 2016, the Cubs had a chance to claim their first World Series title in more than a century, and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other fans in a sticky sports bar wearing my trusty Anthony Rizzo pinstripe jersey. It was stained with a month’s worth of makeup, beer, barbecue sauce, and sweat, but if I’d washed it or worn anything else during the playoffs, it would have been bad juju. I

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