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

From the Curse of the Billy Goat to the disrepute of Steve Bartman, one Cubs fan dissects the strange science behind her team’s superstitions.

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 also only drank Midwestern beer brewed west of the border of Indiana and Illinois, one state over from Cleveland Indians, just to be safe. I’d made the mistake the previous year of drinking Great Lakes Brewing Company during the playoffs, which ended in a crushing sweep by the New York Mets.

In the end, everything paid off. The Cubs won and broke their generations-long curse. There was much rejoicing and free Old Style all around. I thought that would be the end of my superstitious behavior, but now, mere seasons later, those old habits are creeping back in.

So, I wonder, why is it so easy for me, an editor and voice of reason here at PopSci, to fall under the spell of baseball superstition? The irrational behavior begs for an investigation—one that delves deep into statistics and psychology, but begins with clues buried deep in America’s past.

Let’s go back for a moment to a certain little village in 17th-century Massachusetts. The residents constantly squabbled over who owned the land, whose livestock could graze where, and who could do what in church. But when young girls there started screeching, violently contorting their bodies into strange positions, and complaining about being poked and prodded by ghostly needles, the town erupted in an uproar. Desperate for an answer to this phenomenon, people accused the girls—and, later, nearly 200 other innocent townspeople—of being witches. Fearful the heathens would topple their Puritan ideals, the townspeople ousted some from their communities and hanged others.

What happened in Salem all those years ago was extreme and horrific; but in some ways, it’s not so different from what happens year after year in Major League Baseball. The stakes are lower, of course—nobody is getting hanged. But the logic (or lack thereof) is the same: If something happens that you don’t like and can’t easily justify, like your favorite team losing for a decade straight, just blame it on the supernatural.

“As human beings, we are fascinated by the things we can’t explain,” says Leslie Heaphy, a professor of history at Kent State University. “Historically, when we can’t explain something, we blame it on the gods. Today, we have science to explain things. But still, things happen that we can’t explain, and we can’t turn to religion in the same way. So we turn to superstitions.”

But how did baseball fans get to be so superstitious, and in so many bizarre ways? To understand this, I needed to learn how the sport won Americans over in the first place.

“Baseball has a fascinating history,” Heaphy says. “It ties to this sense of tradition, appearing in America as early as the 1830s. We made baseball our sport. We didn’t care that it had British origins.”

In fact, we even tried to erase those non-Yankee origins. In 1907, the US rewrote history to say that the sport was invented by a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York. But Doubleday did not invent baseball from scratch—it was adapted from Irish and British games like cricket. A group of senators, baseball executives, and retired players went forward with this new narrative, though, for branding purposes.

“We sent ambassadors [to other countries] to introduce baseball as an American sport,” Heaphy says. “It was an export to plant influence in other countries, as we did in Japan and Latin America. And we still talk about it as America’s sport. Think about it: It’s a World Series that is not a world series in any shape or form.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown now acknowledges that it isn’t the real birthplace of baseball, Heaphy adds, “but we still hold onto [the story] because it’s part of tradition, identity, and mythology more than the real explanation.”

Over the years, Americans have developed an unconditional love for the sport, paving the way for more lore and rituals to take hold. Perhaps most notorious is the curse of the Bambino. It began after the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth (revered by many fans as the “Bambino”) to the New York Yankees in the 1920 offseason. Since then, the Yankees have gone to 39 World Series and won 26 of them. The Red Sox, on the other hand, failed to win a World Series until 2004.

During that 84-year-long ring-less stretch, the Sox experienced some catastrophic baseball plays that many labeled as cursed. For example, when they were simply one out away from winning the Series in 1986, a ball went through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. The opposing team, the Mets, then took the lead and defeated the Sox.

For generations, Boston fans tried to break the hex with all their might. One carried a Red Sox cap to the top of Mount Everest and planted it there with an American flag. He also burned a Yankees cap at base camp. Others hired professional exorcists to “purify” Fenway Park. When the curse finally “broke,” it was unclear how much the fans’ efforts worked.

My Chicago Cubs, too, have suffered great evil: the Curse of the Billy Goat. That one traces back to 1945, when Wrigley Field staff wouldn’t let local fan Billy Sianis bring his good-luck goat Murphy inside during a World Series game (they said it stank). Sianis allegedly responded by vowing that the Cubs wouldn’t make it to another World Series again. He even sent a telegram to the team’s owner after they lost the Series in 1945, asking, “Who stinks now?”

The question became a sticking point for Cubs fans. For decades, people called their players the most lovable losers in baseball, citing the long list of unfortunate and embarrassing defeats, including one where a black cat snuck onto the field. The curse got so bad, Sianis tried to break it himself by having his nephew bring a goat to Wrigley for Opening Day for a few years.

From there, the anti-witching efforts took a serious turn. In 2003 some Cubs fans hung a butchered goat on a statue outside the stadium. In 2008 the team brought in a Greek Orthodox priest to bless the dugout with holy water. It was a bad stretch of years, until the Cubs emerged triumphant in the 2016 championship series, effectively banishing the Billy Goat Curse for good.

Even non-cursed teams might see their cursed moments. Take one division-series game in 2007, when a biblical swarm of midges descended upon Yankees fielders and pitcher Joba Chamberlain. “I’m not an expert on what kind of bugs they are. They were small,” Derek Jeter told the Associated Press afterwards. The Yankees fell to the Indians that night, 2 to 1. How could this be anything else but the heavy hand of an angry baseball god?

While culture and history play their roles in making baseball a more occult sport than others, so do statistics and numbers.

In baseball, an obscene number of outcomes are left up to chance. Teams play a lot of games—162 over the six-month-long regular season—and there are, on average, 142 pitches in a game. That’s around 23,000 pitches a year, a large enough sample size for countless unpredictable plays to occur.

Plus, baseball stadiums are wildly different from one another. They aren’t standardized like the 100 yards of football fields or the 10-foot rims on basketball courts. Ballparks are all different shapes and sizes; they harbor historic ivy that eats balls up and have fans that scoop pop flies from outfielders’ gloves. Coors Field in Denver is known as a hitters’ paradise because balls fly much farther in high altitudes. (Physicist Robert Adair calculated that a ball that flies 400 feet at sea level would fly 420 feet at Coors Field in his book, The Physics of Baseball.) A tiny smudge of dirt on a ball could alter its aerodynamics and turn a pitch into a strike. All of those factors separate an out from a homer, a win from a loss.

Baseball statisticians try to wrangle all of these uncertainties into equations that make the sport more predictable—and profitable. Like a biologist using data to disprove creationism, statisticians often show that the magic of baseball can be boiled down to a science. There’s even a specific branch of baseball-dedicated statistics called Sabermetrics, which is how we got figures like slugging and on base percentage.

But no matter how tight the math is, there will always be a tiny sliver of gray area where something extraordinary can happen. In those moments, we see a ball roll between Bill Buckner’s legs. We see David Bote hit a walk-off grand slam. We see the heavens open wide in a World Series Game 7 and provide a life-changing delay for Cubs fans around the planet. (During that pause, right fielder Jason Heyward gave an impassioned speech that turned the tide in the club’s favor in extra innings.) These are the instances in which baseball defies all reason. They’re when curses are born and ultimately, broken.

The Cubs celebrating their 2016 World Series win
Finally after 108 years, luck prevailed, the curse was broken, and the Cubs won the World Series (a 1:30 chance among all other Major League Baseball teams). Arturo Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons

And then, there’s that thing called luck. Does it really exist?

During all the tense moments at Wrigley, I’ve always tried to tell myself that it doesn’t. I confirmed this notion with Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. A “lucky” outcome, he explains, is simply one possible result that lands in your favor.

“No matter how good of a player you are [in baseball], these small ‘lucky’ moments have big consequences,” Devlin says. “This is why the winning streak in baseball gets interesting. Yes, you’ll get streaks with a pure random number generator. But if you consider real people on professional teams, then what you’re witnessing is a mixture of luck and skill and human psychology. It’s complicated.”

Essentially, what Devlin is saying is that we can blame bad-luck moments that turn into long-standing curses on two things: human error and probability. Fan and players might not fully accept that, but there’s a rational explanation for their irrational reluctance.

“The thing that human beings are most disturbed by is uncertainty,” says Jonathan Fader, a sports-performance psychologist who has worked with the New York Giants and the Mets. “Hundreds of years ago, we were uncertain if a predator was around. In modern times, unless in warfare, we don’t usually face that. But if you’re a baseball player up against a Class A pitcher throwing a 100 mile-per-hour slider, you will benefit from something that will reduce any uncertainty—a routine or ritual that you can use to manufacture a level of certainty.” Or the illusion of one.

On the field, these rituals could be something as subtle and innocuous as readjusting batting gloves before each pitch. Fader says he’s worked with a pitcher who’d chew as much bubble gum as he could fit in his mouth, then spit it all out before heading to the mound. Other players draw lucky words in the dirt before going out to the field. Yankees five-time All-Star catcher Jorge Posada urinated on his own hands to “toughen them up” before batting. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs ate fried chicken before every game.

Meanwhile, for those parked up in the bleachers and box seats, rituals might help relieve a little anxiety about the game’s outcome. Doing something, anything, can make you feel better, whether that’s torturing a voodoo doll, popping your cap inside out, or simply crossing your fingers.

“By putting a rally cap on, you’re psychologically feeling like you’ve done your bit to help your team win,” says George Gmelch, a cultural anthropologist at the University of San Francisco, who played five years of minor league baseball. More importantly, there’s the pressure to behave like our peers. “At some point, somebody put a rally cap on and their team won. And they thought, ‘Oh, ok, I’m going to repeat that because it makes my team successful,’ ” Gmelch tells me. “If other people are doing it, too, it’s just part of the fun of being at the ballpark.”

The collective rituals Gmelch is talking about can be powerful and persuasive. If you catch a home run ball hit by an opposing team at Wrigley, the entire stadium will chant, “THROW IT BACK.” Plus, there’s no sweeter nectar in life than singing the Cubs’ victory song after they win with 40,000 fans at Wrigley, or with three other family members in your living room, or at the bar with friends who are not Cubs fans.

But there’s a point where fan rituals can reach a critical point. Psychologist Fader makes a comparison to alcohol: “People drink to have fun and loosen up and socialize. But if you drink in extreme volumes all the time, you’ll have problems.”

Cubs fandom reached such a level of extremeness one night in 2003. The team was just a single win away from heading to the World Series, which they hadn’t appeared in for 58 years and hadn’t won in 95 years.

Late in the game, the Cubs led three runs to none against the Florida Marlins, in large part thanks to ace pitcher Mark Prior. The team was five outs away from making it to the World Series.

Then, disaster. The Marlins hit what looked like a regular foul ball along the left field wall. Cubs outfielder Moises Alou ran back and leapt to snatch it—but a fan got there first. The ball bounced off of the bystander’s hands and into the stands. Alou threw a fit, cursing and throwing his mitt on the grass. On the mound, Prior yelled, “FAN INTERFERENCE.”

But the umpire ruled otherwise: The ball had been past the wall, no matter how catchable Alou thought it was. The Cubs lost control after that; they gave up eight runs to the Marlins in the next inning in what the The Chicago Tribune called “a choke for the ages.” The witnesses in the stands took it out on the foul-ball hinderer. “You cost us the World Series!” they shouted, then proceeded to pelt him with trash and death threats. Security escorted him out of the stadium as he cried into his jacket.

The post-game reaction wasn’t much better. Commentators tagged the fan as the new Billy Goat Curse, and the next day, The Chicago Sun-Times published his name: 26-year-old Steve Bartman. Shortly thereafter, Bartman released a public apology. Though a lifelong Cubs fan, he was harassed for months had to change his phone number due to prank calls and harassment toward his family. In an attempt to break the recast curse, Chicagoans electrocuted and literally exploded the “Bartman ball” in a clear glass chamber for the world to see.

When the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, they offered a bejeweled championship ring to Bartman, which he accepted. Some saw this as an olive branch from the Cubs organization. Others thought the gesture was too little, too late. Whatever the case, the Bartman incident is a prime example of how baseball’s curse culture can damage the lives of the very fans that thrive on it.

“In the days where we were persecuting witches, what did we look for?” Heaphy, the historian, asks. “Signs of things we didn’t understand. And we’d blame those things on someone, and do terrible things to people.”

Now that I know everything that goes into a superstition—the science of fear, statistics, crowd psychology—I’ll be taking a hard look at my own baseball-watching behavior. Sure, I’ll don the occasional rally cap in times of stress at the ballpark, but it’s important for me, and other fans, to draw the line at rituals that lead to slaughtered goats and attacks on people. I might even be able to let go of enough baseball guilt to wash my jersey after a postseason game. (Might.) Talk to me next October.