It’s common in sports, no matter what kind, for fans to find a way to blame a loss on someone. It can’t be just poor play by the team itself, there has to be one central person in particular to lay into for blowing a major game or a championship. It’s the nature of human beings to find someone else to blame and sports gives them plenty of ammunition to use. In many cases, it’s obvious who’s to blame, a guy who made a very bad play or sometimes an official with a terrible call and thus the results are obvious.
On one hand, it seems ludicrous to pin a loss on one person in a team sport. After all, a whole game was played and plenty of players had a chance to make a big play to get the win. When you're put in tight situations, mistakes are going to happen and unfortunately, all the blame will fall on whoever makes that mistake.
Sometimes, the “goat” doesn’t always deserve the horns. Blame is like fertilizer, it has to be spread around and in a lot of cases, the scapegoat was just the guy who became the easy target to blame for circumstances beyond him. In some cases, the goat really had little to nothing to do with the final result, he was just the guy fans wanted to lay blame on. Here are 15 of the most famous scapegoats in all of sports, some of whom don’t totally deserve that stigma but have to put up with the guy to blame for a major loss or more.
15 Hack Wilson
After becoming a dynasty in 1910-13, the Philadelphia Athletics fell into the cellar for the next decade but were in the process of rebuilding in 1929 under manager Connie Mack as they faced the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. The A’s were leading the Series 2-1 but it looked like the Cubs were ready to tie it up as Game 4 had them leading 8-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning. The A’s managed to score four runs to fire up the home crowd but it still looked like too much, especially as Mule Haas hit a routine fly ball to Hack Wilson, regarded as one of the best players of his time.
However, thanks to the lack of his standard sunglasses (broken the day before), Wilson lost the ball in the sun and the easy out became a freak inside-the-park three run homer that cut the Cubs’ lead down to one run. The A’s would score another three runs to take the game 10-8. Wilson got the blame for letting three runs score off a routine play and it got worse as the Cubs would lose the series while the A’s started another dynasty. Another bit of agony for Cubs history.
14 Fred Brown
The NCAA March Madness tournament is one of the most tension-filled events in sports and when tensions are high, mistakes are common. But rarely do they happen on the level of poor Fred Brown in 1982 when Georgetown faced North Carolina in the Finals. Both teams going at it hard with the lead shifting constantly.
It was a mix of future NBA stars as Georgetown had Patrick Ewing and Eric Floyd while the Tar Heels boasted James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a young Michael Jordan. With 17 seconds left, Carolina managed to get ahead 63-62 with Georgetown getting the ball back. Glancing about with the clock running down, Brown somehow mistook Worthy for one of his teammates and passed the ball right to him, his face instantly realizing his mistake. Worthy was fouled and missed his free throws, but North Carolina still held on. The game is seen today as the beginning of the Jordan legend but it was Brown’s massive mistake that caused the Georgetown loss and he had to take the blame.
13 Jackie Smith
A five-time Pro Bowler, Smith was most remembered for this moment. In Super Bowl XIII, the Cowboys faced the Steelers. In the third quarter, the Cowboys were down 21-14 but making a big push toward the end zone. With an open field, Smith raced ahead, reaching for a pass from Roger Staubach only to drop it, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a field goal. It turned out to be critical as the Cowboys lost the game 35-31 and that touchdown could have made all the difference.
The always passionate Cowboys fans tore into Smith for that mistake and he retired immediately afterward. Despite the success of the Cowboys since, Smith’s blunder in that Super Bowl still draws complaints over the championship lost.
12 Joe Pisarcik
The late 1970s were not a happy time for the New York Giants. In 1978, the Giants were playing their hated rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and holding a 17-12 lead with only seconds left and no Eagles timeouts remaining. QB Joe Pisarcik was told by his offensive coach to do a running play, his teammates saying that was stupid and he should just kneel down, but Pisarcik made the mistake of listening to that coach.
Taking the snap, a hand-off Larry Csonka was botched as the ball fell out of Pisarcik’s hands and bounced onto the field. Eagles defender Herman Edwards snatched the ball and ran it back for an incredible last second victory. Needless to say, the New York media were not kind to Pisarcik. Ironically, after being let go from the Giants the next season, Pisarcik ended up playing for the Eagles who had a better appreciation for his part in the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.”
11 Ernie Lombardi
Talk about getting a raw deal. In the 1939 World Series, Lombardi, nicknamed “the Schnozz” for his large build and nose, was playing for the Cincinnati Reds against the New York Yankees who led the Series 3-0. With the score tied in the 10th, Lombardi was at home plate getting a throw as Yankee Charlie Keller smashed into him and ended up slamming Lombardi in the groin. As he had failed to wear a protective cup that day, Lombardi naturally collapsed in agony with the ball next to him, allowing Joe DiMaggio to score and put the Yankees ahead.
Despite the obvious pain he was in, Lombardi found himself ripped apart with newspaper headlines screaming “Schnozz’s Snooze” and “Lombardi’s Swoon” and blaming him completely for the Reds’ loss. Fans and the media blamed Lombardi for the World Series loss.
10 Nick Anderson
The Orlando Magic had high hopes in the mid-90s thanks to the presence of Shaquille O’Neal and a potent offense, including Nick Anderson. They managed to defeat the Chicago Bulls with Anderson actually stripping the ball from Michael Jordan. The Magic faced the defending champion Houston Rockets in the Finals and were up by three in the closing minutes of Game 1. But then Anderson, usually one of the most dependable shooters in the NBA, missed four consecutive free throws, costing the Magic a chance to win.
The Rockets would end up forcing overtime and won the game, and would sweep the Magic for their second straight title. Anderson became the focus of blame for Magic fans, slammed as “Nick the Brick” and the man’s career fell apart.
9 Steve Bartman
Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in Chicago blames Steve Bartman for going for the pop fly in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Most Cubs fans understand that Bartman was simply doing the exact same thing everyone around him was. And it’s not as if he was on the field to cause the collapse that followed. Yet, in the immediate aftermath, Bartman was the most hated man in the Windy City, as instead of an out by Moises Alou, the stage was set for the Florida Marlins to score eight runs in that inning and crush the Cubs’ dreams of breaking their curse.
Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field by armed security and went into exile, refusing today to do interviews or discuss the event. Most agree he was just the easy scapegoat for the Cubs’ collapse but that doesn’t make it easier for their fans to accept what happened.
8 Scott Norwood
The agony of the Buffalo Bills will always be encapsulated by four straight Super Bowllosses. Scott Norwood was a key part of the Bills offense in their rise in the late ‘80s, winning several games off of long field goals and helping push them to their first Super Bowl against the New York Giants. One of the best Super Bowls ever, the game came down to the wire with the Giants up 20-19 and the Bills preparing for a field goal. In the biggest moment of his career, the usually reliable Norwood muffed the kick, pushing it wide right.
It wasn’t totally Norwood’s fault as the Bills had made mistakes in that game but it still led to his release immediately after the season and a large contingent of Bills fans believe his bad kick also kicked off the “curse” on the team that made them the most infamous bridesmaids in NFL history.
7 Don Denkinger
Mistakes by umpires are common in the history of baseball, especially the World Series but the reaction to Denkinger was pretty brutal. In 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals appeared to have the World Series wrapped up, leading the Kansas City Royals 3-2 in the series and leading Game 6, having not blown a 9th inning lead all season. Royals batter Jorge Orta hit a grounder to first base that Todd Worrell easily fielded for an out. However, incredibly, Denkinger called Orta safe despite the fact that video replays clearly showed he was over a half-step away from the base when Worrell made the play.
Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog charged out to argue the play but as instant replay wasn’t a thing back then, the call stood. The Royals would manage to win the game. The St. Louis fans were irate as a local DJ gave away Denkinger’s home phone number and thus, for the entire offseason, the man was able to hear from fans nonstop. While the call was a huge mistake, the fact remains that the Cardinals could have rebounded but instead collapsed, losing Game 7 in an 11-0 slaughter. You can blame the umpire for a poor call but he’s not the reason for the Cards' collapse.
6 Mickey Owen
A great player who was a standout catcher for several teams, Owen’s career is remembered for an error that wasn’t totally his fault. In Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, Owen’s Dodgers were down 2-1 in the series against the New York Yankees and owned a 4-3 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. With a 3-2 count, Yankee batter Tommy Heinrich struck out, which should have been game over. However, Owen dropped the ball, allowing Henrich to get to first base.
Emboldened, the Yankees would score four runs in the inning to win the game 7-4. The Dodgers found themselves down 3-1 and the Yankees would win Game 5 to take the series. Owen was ripped by Dodgers fans for the error which is unfair considering that (as he would confirm years later), pitcher Hugh Casey had loaded up the ball with a spitter without Owen’s knowledge, meaning the guy would have been hard-pressed to properly handle it.
5 Chris Webber
Much has been made of Michigan’s “Fab Five,” the combination of Webber, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard who brought a new intensity to college basketball and a dominant force. In 1993, they made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament, a hard-fought game against North Carolina, down 73-71 with 11 seconds left.
In this clutch moment, the entire season and his college career on the line, Webber called for a timeout…when Michigan had none. He was hit with a technical foul that sealed the game for North Carolina and brought Michigan’s season to a close. It was a harsh bit but as time went on, Webber would learn to laugh about it, teased on “Inside the NBA”. The revelation of a scandal involving him getting money from boosters has tarnished Webber’s reputation far more than one simple mental miscue.
4 Bill Buckner
Nearly 30 years later and with three championships in the last decade, it’s still the moment that ignites pain in every Red Sox fan. Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the Sox seemed ready to put the New York Mets away and finally win the World Series. In his documentary “Catching Hell,” Alex Gibney makes the point that if anyone was to blame for the loss, it was Bob Stanley for his wild pitch that allowed the Mets to tie the game up. Not to mention, it was Game 6, and Boston still had another game to win it all.
Instead, Buckner became the focus for the single bad hop. It allowed the winning run to score, giving the Mets new life and they would take Game 7. Buckner was the easy guy to blame for keeping the Curse of the Bambino going and until 2004, his name was mud in Boston. That stigma has faded with Boston's recent success, but Buckner didn’t deserve one bad hop to scar him.
3 Steve Smith
If ever a man wished the hockey rink ice would break under his feet, it was Steve Smith. On April 23, 1986 (Smith’s 23rd birthday), his Edmonton Oilers were facing the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Smythe Division Finals, the Oilers intent on winning a third straight Cup. In the third period with the score tied 2-2, Smith got the puck behind the Oilers net and attempted to fire it off down the ice. Instead, the puck bounced off the skate of goalie Grant Fuhr and into the net.
He was devastated as the score turned out to be the key one as the Flames would win the game and go to the Stanley Cup Final. Smith was naturally slammed by the Edmonton fans and the media but to their credit, the team refused to condemn or trade him. As it happened, the very next year, the Oilers would regain the Cup and, keeping a promise he’d made, Wayne Gretzky let Smith be the first to skate with it, allowing him some redemption but still a moment Oilers fans hate.
2 Harry Frazee
Frazee took over the Boston Red Sox in their golden age and led them straight into the dark ages. Boston had been dominant from 1911-1918, winning four World Series in that time, mostly thanks to Babe Ruth. But Frazee, needing money to cover debts, decided to sell Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919 for $100,000. Ruth wasn’t alone as several other top Red Sox stars were let go, many of whom would help Ruth forge the “Murderers’ Row” that became the foundation of the Yankees dynasty.
Meanwhile, it would take until 2004 for the Red Sox to finally win a World Series after numerous heartbreaking losses. Naturally, this has led Frazee to be the most hated man in Boston. It’s died down a bit, but any time Boston sports has a harsh time, fans find a way to blame it on this deal and the guy behind it.
1 Fred Merkle
Over a century later, he is still the epitome of boneheaded plays in baseball. Merkle was only 19 years old in 1908 when he made the mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his life. In September, during a heated pennant chase, his New York Giants were playing the Chicago Cubs with Merkle on first base and another runner on third. Al Bridwell hit a single that brought Moose McGormack home, presumably scoring the winning run. Everyone assumed the game was over and Merkle headed to the dugout without touching second base. Realizing this, Johnny Evers grabbed the ball, touched the base and umpire Hank O’Day called Merkle out, nullifying the run.
The field was too crowded and the sun setting so the game could not be continued as league officials tried to weigh a protest by the Giants. They eventually concluded the game had to be replayed while slamming Merkle for his “stupidity” with his move. This would have been no big deal except for the fact that the Cubs and the Giants ended up tied for the pennant and that make-up game ended up winning the season for the Cubs.
Merkle was lambasted by the press and the fans, the cries of “bonehead” following him through the rest of his career. He eventually left baseball, spending years in self-exile and even upon his death, the stigma of that makes him the scapegoat of all scapegoats.