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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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