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Talkin’ Baseball: Rival Interpretations of Billy Goat's Curse

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GELFAND’S WORLD--I am not by birth or upbringing a fan of the Chicago Cubs. But I know a few. For them, it's been a life of tragedy. Some of them have moved here to Los Angeles and have found it extremely odd that local baseball teams can win pennants and even on occasion the World Series. They don't know how to react or what to say. For the native Chicagoan, doom is the normal order of the universe, at least when it comes to National League baseball. Come to think of it, it's also pretty much the case for American League baseball, but White Sox fans (World Series victories in 1906, 1917, and then nothing until 2005), haven't had the kind of public relations that the Cubs (aka "cubbies") had. 

That's because the Cubs had Mike Royko as a fan and observer. It didn't hurt that Mike Royko was the Vin Scully of newspaper columnists, albeit a sarcastic and argumentative version. As an example of his 7500 published columns, here is one that got a lot of play at the time, a wry take on the corporate MBA takeover of once family organizations. Royko spun out newspaper columns the way Scully spun out play calling, with the right train of words and without shouting. 

Royko wrote for a series of Chicago newspapers. What the Sun Times and the Tribune had in common was a restaurant called the Billy Goat Tavern, known colloquially as Billy Goat's. It is in an odd location, underneath Michigan Avenue. Billy Goat's is a long flight of stairs down from the avenue, but an even longer way above the Chicago River. That's the way the river crossing was designed, with the Wrigley building set high above the water, back along the northern end of the bridge, with Chicago's version of Rodeo Drive to the north, and with a lower level and its own road in proximity to the newsrooms of the day, back when newspapers were flourishing. And along that road, there is the tavern. It was a hangout for writers and printers and typesetters back in the days before automation. 

Billy Goat's was memorialized by comedian John Belushi in the early days of Saturday Night Live. On the show, it was the fictional place made famous by the words "cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger." The phrase wasn't a Belushi invention, but was taken from the real life lunch counter. 

In the next few days, sports fans will be hearing about Billy Goat's curse ad infinitum. Billy Sianis was a Greek immigrant to Chicago who founded the tavern. The story goes that Sianis went to the 1945 World Series at Wrigley, taking his pet goat with him. The goat was ejected, ostensibly for smelling like a goat, and Sianis was annoyed. He cast a curse of Wagnerian proportions on the Cubs, and they never got to another World Series ever again, throughout the remainder of the millennium. 

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to rid the Cubs of the curse, but to no avail. You have to understand that curses of this magnitude are hard to abolish. After all, in Richard Wagner's ring cycle, ridding the world of its curse required the death of the gods and the destruction of Valhalla. Now that was a curse. 

As to Billy Goat's curse, I have a theory, as Royko had his. My theory goes like this: Just like Purdue University went to the Rose Bowl once in the preceding millennium and then once more in the current millennium, the Cubs are absolved of the curse for at least one World Series appearance between now and the year 3000. Maybe even a couple more. The millennium broke curses, at least on midwestern sports teams. 

Royko had a different slant, being a Chicago native, friend and patron of the tavern and its Sianis owners, and a deep social observer. In his very last column (March 21, 1997), just before succumbing to a massive stroke at a relatively young age, Royko wrote a piece titled, It was Wrigley, not some goat, who cursed the Cubs. As Royko explained, the Cubs went through World War II with a team populated by players who were rejected by the army. They were good enough to get into the 1945 World Series because most of the other teams had lost a substantial amount of talent to the armed services. After the war, the other teams brought back the talent and Wrigley kept his team of 4F's. As Royko explained, the Cubs could have beefed up their postwar lineup by following in the footsteps of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had desegregated baseball in 1947. 

Wrigley wouldn't do that, and the very white Cubs floundered for a few more decades. (It's a story not unlike that of the Boston Red Sox, who continued to lose under racist ownership throughout much of the modern era.) 

Times have changed, and Chicago baseball is now competing on a more even level. It's been a while since the Cubs won a World Series -- it was last done in 1908 -- and I don't have enough fingers and toes to count off the time lapse. Back in 1908, the movie capitals of the world were New York, Paris, and London, and even the existence of Hollywood was known to only some. There were a few cars at the time, and there were steam powered locomotives. Radio had been invented, but it was dots and dashes, and ships at sea communicated by Morse Code. There were a few airplanes, mostly crafted of wood and canvas, and the Wright brothers went public with an airplane that could carry a passenger.  

And that's the last time the Cubs won a World Series. 

So here's to the Chicago northside, to Steppenwolf Theater and the Second City, to the Parthenon restaurant and the Lyric Opera, and to a World Series victory in this, the new millennium. 

Epitaph 

Tom Hayden died on Sunday. He personified one wing of 1960s youth radicalism which he turned into a productive career in California politics and later into political education. There will be long articles written about him. Those who had a chance to chat with him at Democratic Party events will remember his remarkable wit.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])

-cw