Keeping in mind the outcomes of the 1907 and 1908 World Series, maybe it seemed like the Cubs were set to conquer baseball for at least a century—but then something went awry and cheering for them has become a brutal test of hope. The craziest part is the scapegoating. The fan base literally blames a farm animal. Some folks say the lovable losers always come up short because they’ve been cursed by a freaking billy goat.
The goat’s name was Murphy. He belonged to Billy Sianis, who also owned the Billy Goat Tavern. Like any guy with a pet goat, Sianis thought it would be cool to take him to game three of the World Series. After some dispute, they were permitted seating to watch the game. As the innings progressed, though, it started raining and fans objected to the revolting smell of the wet goat. Man and bleating mammal got ejected. Sianis raged and proclaimed that the Cubs were doomed to fail. Cursed. They lost to the Tigers and haven’t returned to the Series since 1945.
What follows is a testament to the great ballplayers who were unable to break the Curse of the Billy Goat. Delightfully stupid as the tale sounds, a 107-year drought is long enough to make anyone wonder, and it's hard not to sympathize with the legends at the end of this list.
19 Leon Durham
On the vaunted ’84 team, Leon Durham was the slugger who replaced Bill Buckner at first base. Bull posted a career year with 23 home runs and 96 RBI, but what's interesting about his career is that he didn't make the All Star game that year. Actually, he made it the two years before, though his numbers weren't as good.
Then, in the National League Championship Series against San Diego, he made a critical error and let a grounder escape through his legs. The floodgates opened and the Padres won a decisive game five. Two years later an eerie parallel was drawn as Buckner had a ball bounce through his wickets to extend Boston’s Curse of the Bambino. Stupid curses.
18 Mitch Williams
The namesake of Charlie Sheen’s brooding rebel in Major League (as well as a closer who looks like Kenny Powers from Eastbound and Down), Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams punctuated his pitches by nearly falling off the mound. His delivery was not picturesque, but he got results, earning 192 saves in his career. On the ’89 Cubs, he shut the door on opponents 36 times, in a year where he made his only All Star appearance. He surpassed that total on the Phillies four years later, saving 43 games, but that odorous goat mojo must have lingered when he joined the Phillies; he gave up a dramatic walk-off homer to Joe Carter that won the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays. (As a footnote, you've got to wonder if Wild Thing ever partied with Charlie Sheen back in the day)
17 Alfonso Soriano
His hype, All-Star resume, and the immensity of his contract (8 years, $136 million) had fans convinced he’d be an integral part of breaking the curse, but his legacy as a Cub is defined by not living up to his huge deal. After he signed in 2007, his defense in the outfield became an issue and his speed declined. As a National in 2006, he stole 41 bases. As a Cub, he would steal no more than 19 in a season. It really felt as though inking a monstrous contract with the Cubs made him a lesser athlete.
He could still crush the ball, at least, blasting 181 bombs with his smooth uppercut swing throughout his stint in Chicago, but like most of his teammates in blue, he faltered in October as the Northsiders went a combined 0-6 in the ’07 and ’08 playoffs.
16 Rick Sutcliffe
An ace for a pair of Cubs contenders in the ’80s, Sutcliffe was dominant in ’84 and excellent in ’89, as he'd win the NL Cy Young in 1984 and make his third All Star appearance in 1989. Acquired in a mid-season trade, get a load of his dominance in that Orwellian year of 1984: He went 16-1 with seven complete games and a 2.69 ERA after the Cubs fleeced him from Cleveland. He re-surged in the rotation five years later as a veteran sidekick to the young heroics of Greg Maddux. Though the Red Baron pitched for almost two decades and amassed 171 wins with a handful of teams, his big league tenure was typically Cubby as he never got to know the honor of playing in the World Series. Actually, he only made the postseason twice in his 18 year career, both times with the Cubs, where they failed to win a series.
15 Ryan Dempster
This bearded Canuck employed a hiccup in his delivery (and a better-than-cringe-worthy Harry Caray impression) to strengthen the bullpen and then the rotation from 2004-2012. A versatile contributor, he notched 87 saves and 67 wins as a Cub. He was like the Michael Jordan of sacrifice bunting, too. Seriously, the man should open a camp for MLBers who don't have a clue how to bunt.
By going 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA, he dazzled during the 2008 regular year. But dazzled would be the wrong word to describe the postseason performance that followed. Dempster surrendered a back-breaking grand slam midway through the first game of the National League Division Series to set the tone for a Dodgers sweep. Stung by postseason unpredictability, the Cubs went from favorites to duds in the blink of an eye.
14 Mark Prior
With command, velocity, a devastating curveball and an array of pitches, his talent was prodigious, but as Cubs fans will tell you with their faces buried in their hands, Mark Prior could not stay healthy. Some argue that manager Dusty Baker erred in making him throw too many pitches per game to this day. Prior and teammate Kerry Wood never became the Greg Maddux/ Tom Glavine dynamic duo of the next decade, and the gap between his sky-high ceiling and the lowly reality remains a sore subject. Like Prior’s stardom, the Cubs seemed to be peaking at the perfect time in 2003. He was on the mound against the Marlins at Wrigley in game six of the NLCS, a mere five outs away from leading the team to the World Series. That’s when a ball was blooped into foul territory and a fan with glasses and busy hands incurred the wrath of an entire fan base. That’s when Steve Bartman happened and Prior lost his cool.
13 Moises Alou
A six-time All-Star, Moises Alou is a borderline Hall-of-Famer with 1,287 career RBI and a lifetime average of .303. He was in left field tracking that infamous fly ball into foul ground when Steve Bartman reached out to catch it. He didn’t. Neither did Alou, who demanded fan interference, which would've meant a crucial out, to be called. It wasn't. The play was as pivotal to the game as it was to the history of the Cubs. From one minor misfortune, a full-blown meltdown ensued. The team gave up a 3-0 lead. Things got bad, then worse, and finally worst, and they lost the contest 8-3. The Curse of the Billy Goat was magnified, exacerbated. A few days later, Alou and his teammates were officially done in by an oft forgotten game seven.
13. Derrek Lee
When D-Lee scalded a double to drive in two Marlins to tie game six of the NLCS, it wounded Cubs fans, but really, he was just doing his job and he shouldn't be faulted for that. Lee went on to earn a World Series ring with Florida before signing with the Cubs in 2004. He had several great years with the team, highlighted by a season in which he finished third in the voting for National League MVP. A dedicated and likable first baseman, Lee won three Gold Gloves and during his prime years in a Cubs uniform, he averaged an OPS of .903 (which is obscure baseball stat lingo that means he was really, really good). Looking back, it seems like the only times he failed to do his job occurred in his postseason career as a Cub: In six consecutive October defeats, #25 never drove in a run. Still, D-Lee had a great run. The only thing that could be construed as a dent on his achievements was not proving that billy goat wrong.
12 Aramis Ramirez
A key player on three postseason teams who fell victim to the goat, this third baseman was acquired in a lopsided trade with the Pirates halfway through the 2003 season. Ramirez could be penciled in for 25 long balls, 95 RBI, and a .290 batting average every year (All solid goals for Kris Bryant to eclipse). A cornerstone for almost a decade, Ramirez ranks sixth in franchise history with 239 homers. As was the case with his teammates, his play in the postseason will end his blurb on a pessimistic note: in 11 National League Division Series games, he managed just seven hits in 41 at-bats (.171 AVG). Plus, he made a real forehead-slapper of an error in a disastrous game two loss to the Dodgers in the ‘08 NLDS, but to be fair, every other player in the Cubs infield botched one that night at Wrigley as the squad surrendered five unearned runs in a 10-3 debacle.
11 Carlos Zambrano
The rundown of greats from the 2000s continues with this feisty Venezuelan fireballer. Like Ramirez, he was a major player for the trio of teams that teased fans with false hope that decade. He ranks second in franchise history in strikeouts and he tossed a no-hitter in ’08, but Big Z was more than just prolific; he was an entertainer, a trash-talking showman. Whether drilling Cardinal Jim Edmonds twice in the same game, inciting a fight with his own catcher Michael Barrett in The Slugout in the Dugout, or getting suspended for his venomous tirades, he was as ill-tempered as he was talented. Big Z was like the wrestling heel you just had to cheer for. As a three-time Silver Slugger, he excelled with a bat in his hands (A switch-hitting pitcher?! Who does that?). His last appearance in the playoffs came in the aforementioned 10-3 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers in '08. He played poorly. It was a team effort.
10 Fergie Jenkins
The first entry from the historic '69 squad, Fergie bolstered the rotation by notching 20-or-more wins every year from '67 to '72. A prototype from that bygone, rubber-armed era of pitching, he exceeded the 300-inning mark in four of those seasons and finished his career with a mind-blowing 267 complete games. By contrast, reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta has gone the distance just six times. Fergie won that same award in '71. His outstanding career was further highlighted by surpassing the 3,000 strikeouts mark (while also walking fewer than a thousand hitters) as well as becoming the first Canadian-born player inducted into Cooperstown in 1991. The one flaw on his resume is that he never played in a single postseason game. Allegedly, a black cat had something to do with that. We'll cover that later.
9 Kerry Wood
Kerry Wood ranks so relatively high for two reasons. First, he’s the perfect microcosm of the Cubs’ franchise; his talent and potential went far beyond what he actually achieved. From early promise, the bottom line was anguish. Second, he came oh so close to vanquishing the team’s stigma by playing for four postseason teams (’98, ’03, ’07, ’08). He’s the only Cub mentioned here who can claim he got oh so close four times.
His 20-strikeout handcuffing of the Astros remains an iconic memory for fans and he accomplished that feat at 20. Billed as the next Roger Clemens, fate had other plans and the goateed Texan had to battle through a series of arm injuries until it got heartbreaking, but he rehabbed his way back to become an All-Star closer later in his career, which took guts and determination. But if you’re picking up on the theme here, it should come as no surprise that in ’03 he started and lost a game seven that would have advanced the Cubs to the World Series.
8 Billy Williams
A six-time All-Star with 426 homers, 1,410 runs, and 1,475 RBI to his credit, Billy Williams also had a really cool trademark: Before he stepped into the batter's box, he'd spit his gum aloft and smack it into the other team's dugout. "I figured if I could hit that little piece of gum, I should be able to hit the baseball," he explained. Sweet Swingin' Billy from Whistler (because of course he has a cool nickname) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. He was a star on the '69 team that should have made the playoffs but self-destructed. Along with his teammates on this list, one could argue the Northsiders had the best foundation of players in sports history to never reach the postseason. I hate to say it, but that is so Cubbies.
7 Andre Dawson
The Hawk was one of the defining ballplayers of the ’80s. The 1987 League MVP is a Hall-of-Fame outfielder, just like Billy Williams, but the Hawk played in as many All-Star games as he won Gold Gloves: Eight. Over the span of his career, he surpassed Sweet Swingin’ Billy in hits, homers, and RBI. The Hawk was more than cool. He was a badass. Dawson was a superlative right fielder who had a throwing arm like a bazooka, Hawk stole his fair share of bases, too, which means he’s one of just three players ever with over 400 home runs and 300 steals. That’s really hard to accomplish in the big leagues, but The Hawk did it, on account of him being a badass. But along with all his teammates on the ’89 squad that accidentally ripped out millions of hearts, not even The Hawk could help the Cubs get to the World Series.
6 Mark Grace
A treasure to Cubs fans, Mark Grace will probably never be voted into Cooperstown, but consider this: no one else in the ’90s tallied more hits, doubles, or sacrifice flies than Grace. If all those gnarly sac flies still don’t have you convinced, get a load of these accolades: he played in three All-Star games, got on-base nearly 40% of the time, and brought home four Gold Gloves. Grace was a slick-fielding first baseman, often known to catch wild throws from the shortstop by stretching out his lanky frame, picking balls out of the dirt that were far offline, doing the splits, impressing the ladies.
He destroyed Padres pitching in 1989 even though the Cubs lost the Division Series. Number 17 returned to the postseason as the wry sidekick to Slammin’ Sammy Sosa in ’98. His playoff experience ends on a positive note, though not as a Cub, of course. Gracie won a World Series ring in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
5 Greg Maddux
There could be no Hall of Fame without Greg Maddux. Slight exaggeration, but he was one of the very best pitchers of his era. An unmatched defender, he won a staggering 18 Gold Gloves in his career. That’s a record. From ’92-’95, he was named the Cy Young winner four years in a row. That’s a record (now tied). He had two nicknames at opposite ends of the spectrum: Mad Dog and The Professor. That should be a record.
Granted, he did get lit up in game one of the ’89 Division Series and the Cubs’ rotation took an aggressive nosedive when he signed with the Braves (where he got a ring), but The Professor returned in 2004. That ’04 squad was infuriating, with Sosa landing on the Disabled List due to a violent sneeze and Prior and Wood getting hurt because that's just what they did. The second time around, Maddux did reach 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, but in the end it was so typical: the greatness of one player wasn’t enough to get the Cubs into the Series.
4 Sammy Sosa
Speaking of greatness, Sammy Sosa was League MVP in 1998, in one of the most astounding seasons to ever be marred by an asterisk. The numbers scarcely seem real: .308 AVG, 134 R, 158 RBI, and 66 homers (which surpassed Roger Maris' mark of 61, which had already been broken by Mark McGwire that same magical, asterisk-marred season Commissioner Selig totally enabled). Like Mad Dog, Slammin' Sammy has all-time records to call his own, such as belting 60+ bombs in three different seasons, but unlike Maddux, Sosa almost certainly used performance-enhancing drugs that were more potent than Starbucks and the occasional Mountain Dew (allegedly). On the whole, the home run race set the bar high for baseball's entertainment value as well as its superstars' falls from grace. The franchise leader in dingers could not demystify Siannis and his goat and left the team on salty terms that became more bitter. He should be forgiven. Cheater or not, he was probably the most exciting player in team history.
3 Ryne Sandberg
Ryno was the face of the franchise in the ’80s and beyond. Chicago’s other #23, Ryne Sandberg is among the premier second basemen in the 113-year history of Major League Baseball. In fact, his .989 fielding percentage is the best ever at that position. A pillar of consistency, he played in ten straight All-Star games and won nine Gold Gloves in a row. A pioneer of both those rad flip-up shades and the filthy rich mega-deal (worth $7.1 million, briefly making him the highest paid ballplayer), Ryno was a superlative blend of defense, pop, speed, IQ, and on-base skills. He even performed in the playoffs, posting a terrific 1.098 OPS in ten career games. Ryno was bound and determined to skewer that lousy goat. He just needed a little more help.
2 Ron Santo
A posthumous inductee into the Hall of Fame, Ronnie Santo overcame diabetes to excel at the hot corner for the Cubs from 1960-1973. Santo was a staple at the midsummer classic nine times and he remains the only third baseman to drive in 90+ runs eight years in a row. His achievements went beyond baseball; the man helped raise more than $65 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. His plight with his blood-sugar level was so bad that later in life he lost the lower half of both his legs to the disease.
Like any die-hard Cubs booster, he endured suffering and bad omens. The latter came infamously in August of 1969 at Shea Stadium, when a mysterious black cat was spotted roaming behind Santo in the on-deck circle. Since it is local custom to blame animals instead of people dating back to the cow that started the Chicago Fire, a connection was made between the cat and the Cubbies’ downward spiral that ensued. The team began to play miserably as they squandered the division crown to the Amazin’ Mets. Santo later became a beloved broadcaster, further endearing himself to the Windy City; the only downside was hearing the sorrow in his voice as the Cubs met their postseason demise on four different occasions. His reaction on color commentary to the Bartman fiasco cut deeper than sports.
1 Ernie Banks
With a nickname like Mr. Cub, Ernie seems like a pretty safe choice for #1. Banks clobbered 512 career home runs without a troublesome asterisk. The epitome of Cubs royalty, he’s the only legend on this list who twice won MVP honors and played in more than ten All-Star games. He never suited up for a different team, either. He was even more loyal than Santo in that regard, who played his last season with the White Sox. An aging Mr. Cub still managed to drive in over a hundred runs in 1969 and it’s a shame how the squad dropped 17 of their final 25 games. The Mets skyrocketed above them in the standings following the Black Cat Game.
As I mentioned earlier, the scapegoating (or scape-catting?) is nonsense: The '69 team was really good, but they were old too and logic says they just ran out of gas toward the end. Internal bickering didn’t help, either, but that can’t be blamed on cats or goats. Nevertheless, Ernie had no regrets about staying in Chicago. The team had to weather hardships just like we all do in life, and that was that. And honestly, if your worst hardship in life comes from a baseball team, you’re living a remarkably lucky life without realizing it. Ernie didn’t sweat the Cubs losing all that much. “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame,” he used to say. “Let’s play two!”
If only the team had been nice enough to say that to the man and his goat at the 1945 World Series.
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