Suspicious Minds

Just in time for Hallowe’en, Matthew Morrow takes a look in to the weird world of sporting superstitions and curses

We all know that professional sportspeople can be superstitious and most have their own pre-match routines and celebrations. Basketball superstar LeBron James has his famous chalk toss just before tip-off. Andy Murray will keep using the ball from the point before if he wins on that point and Serena Williams bounces the ball seven times before a first serve, and four times before a second serve.

These are all very innocent practices, done almost for the sake of doing them. These superstitions are so widely accepted in sport that we often don’t even realise they are there. Some of you reading may even have your own, but there is a darker side to this; the world of the sporting curse.

For example, some people in the west believe that Mayo may well have won the All-Ireland Football final this year if it weren’t for the “Curse of ‘51”. They believe that there was a curse placed over the county by a priest that stated they won’t win the Sam Maguire again until every member of the team that won in 1951 has passed away.

Legend has it that the priest in question became incensed when the Mayo team bus passed by a funeral without showing due respect as they celebrated their All-Ireland win, and so he cursed the county football team for years to come. With five of the 1951 team still alive, it appears that if the curse is true, Mayo might yet have to wait some time to bring Sam back to Castlebar.

Over the pond in the USA, sports teams and franchises have attached more credibility to curses.  The Curse of Billy Penn was an alleged curse used to explain the failure of major professional sports teams based in Philadelphia to win championships. In March 1987, a skyscraper was built which exceeded the height of William Penn’s statue atop Philadelphia City Hall.

Penn was the founder of the city. Until the construction of the One Liberty Place skyscraper, it was believed that a gentlemen’s agreement existed among the people of the city that forbade the erection of any building taller than the statue.

Since the curse began, the Flyers lost the Stanley Cup Finals twice, in 1987 and in 1997, the Phillies lost the 1993 World Series, the ‘76ers lost the 2001 NBA Finals and  the Eagles lost three straight NFC Championship games from the 2001 through 2003 seasons, before reaching Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season, only to lose to the  Patriots by three points.

The curse was apparently lifted in 2007 when construction workers on the new Comcast Center, the new tallest building in Philadelphia, attached a four-inch tall figurine of William Penn to the final beam of the building, restoring Penn to his rightful place over the Philadelphian skyline. The following year, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

Until 2004, when they won the World Series after an 84-year wait, many Boston Red Sox fans believed that the Curse of Bambino would forever prevent them from winning the Commissioner’s Trophy. This curse originated after the switch of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919.

Prior to the switch, the Red Sox had been one of the most successful teams in baseball history, amassing five World Series triumphs, but after the sale they went over eight decades without winning, whilst the Yankees became one of the most recognisable and successful franchises in Major League Baseball. The World Series win in 2004 put to rest this curse for the Red Sox, but there are other examples of curses in North American sport that are still believed to this day.

The Curse of Billy Goat is still thought to haunt the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise. This curse dates back to the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, when the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern, Billy Sianis, was asked to leave the Wrigley Stadium, because the smell of his goat was upsetting the away fans.

He was outraged, declaring “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more”, which many believe means the Cubs will never win another game in the World Series in Wrigley Stadium. The curse has been immortalised in newspaper columns over the years and gained widespread attention during the 2003 post-season when Fox television commentators played it up during the Cubs-Marlins match-up in the 2003 National League Championship Series.

There have been several attempts to ‘lift’ the curse, including Sianis’ nephew bringing a goat to the Opening Day Game in both 1984 and 1989. In both of these years the Cubs won their division, but did not break their streak in the World Series.

Allegedly, the only way to lift the curse is for the Cubs franchise to show a sincere fondness for goats, and not just allow them into the stadium for the sake of breaking the curse or as a publicity stunt. Until such a time, it appears that their wait for a World Series will go on.

So it seems as if superstition is alive and well in sport today. Whether it be something as small as a player insisting on leaving the changing room last or something that affects an entire city, sports fans and players alike continue to indulge these ideas, often as a way of explaining failure without accepting their own shortcomings. Regardless of how much sense they make, superstitions are simply a part of sport.