Sports Curses: Seriously?


Josiah Griego, Author

It seems as though a malicious curse has been placed on some teams, and even some locations, due to the almost endless streams of bad luck they experience, such as injuries, losing for long periods of time, and much more.

Instead of involving teams, curses might affect places. The NASCAR circuit was set up by racing driver Big Bill France. He constructed an incredible speedway track in Talladega, northeastern Alabama, in 1969. According to the legend, a local native tribe asked France to leave since his track crossed sacred native land. A medicine man cast a charm on the land after France refused. 

Strange things have undoubtedly occurred since then. Talladega is the track with the most accidents. In 1973, only 39 of the 60 cars that started the race were still on the track after ten laps. A big crash destroyed 21 vehicles and seriously injured some of the drivers. One of Richard Petty’s crew mates was killed by a pressure can explosion in 1975. Driver Tiny Lund was killed in a collision that same year. Since then, there have also been an array of further injuries and mysterious vandalism events at the track. Talladega is second only to Daytona for the number of deaths in NASCAR racers.

Curses have also severely affected the baseball world. The alleged Curse of the Bambino, involving Babe Ruth, is well known. The Boston Red Sox went 86 years without winning the World Series, from 1918 to 2004, after the so-called greatest ever player was traded to the New York Yankees. But other baseball teams have also been the target of “evil spells.” 

William Sianis, a Greek immigrant and proprietor of a bar, attended game four of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers in 1945. He bought two seats, one for Murphy, his pet billy goat, and the other for himself. Murphy apparently had a strong smell, which upset fans who were near the beast. Sianis and his goat were consequently ordered to depart. 

The details of the curse that followed are unclear, but according to some accounts, Sianis cursed the Chicago Cubs on behalf of Murphy. The squad did lose the 1945 World Series, as he’d predicted. Years of ineffectiveness followed. Something needed to be done. Sam, the nephew of William Sianis, and Murphy, the goat, were frequently invited to opening day by the Chicago Cubs’ management. Sam always claimed that the curse had been removed, but the Cubs didn’t win baseball’s highest prize until 2016. (The team had last won in 1908.) After the Cubs won the World Series, former Cubs general manager Theo Epstein consumed a goat in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Epstein’s stomach was dutifully employed to bury the Curse of the Billy Goat. 

Curses tend to spread the love around when it comes to the sports they affect. One severely tarnished an NFL franchise for many years. 

As he cleaned out his locker, Bobby Layne was filled with rage. He was one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and had just been traded by the Lions for a prospect and some draft picks. The 1958 season was only two games old. The reigning NFL champions were the Lions. 

As the vibrant, quotable, and highly popular Layne packed his bag for Pittsburgh, teammates and beat writers crowded about. Layne supposedly fired one last shot at his foolish ex-employers as he exited the Lions’ locker room: He predicted that the team wouldn’t win for another 50 years. 

Layne’s words were not used by any of the sportswriters present. But after hearing Layne’s command, it seems the football gods condemned the Lions. The team was lost for six decades amid quarterback scandals, losing seasons, and playoff disappointments. The Curse of Bobby Layne continues to plague the hapless Lions. 

That is how the tale goes. But like any good urban myth, there is more to this story than first appears. In 1958, on the tragic day of his trade, Layne almost definitely did not curse the Lions. But what actually occurred was quite extraordinary. 

Layne played for the Steelers for a couple respectable seasons, but he never guided them to the postseason. After the 1962 season, he retired, went into the oil industry, and vanished from public view. 

By the late 1950s, it was clear that the Lions had some issues within the team. The team declined for a while, but under Wilson, they came back with a strong defense led by Dick “Night Train” Lane (it’s probably for the best that Layne and Lane were never teammates), as well as some competent quarterback play from Earl Morrall and Milt Plum. Despite the 1960s Lions’ failure to make the playoffs, a thorough search of newspaper records revealed no evidence of any lasting Layne “curse.”

On Dec. 1, 1986, Layne passed away. Numerous anecdotes from veteran columnists who partied all night with Layne were included in newspaper eulogies. They honored the suave gunslinger, yet not one of the eulogies spoke to Layne’s dislike of the Lions or an old tale about how a furious Layne cursed the team that traded him. Detroit was a very talented team in the 1990s; Barry Sanders took them to the playoffs five times in ten years. However, they continued to lose in the playoffs, largely due to a run-and-shoot approach that made subpar quarterbacks look like Layne until the postseason brought stout defenses and frigid weather. 

The Curse of Bobby Layne is ineffective even as a way to frame Lions history. The deal made sense for the team, and they got a decent return. In addition to winning nine games for the Dolphins’ unbeaten 1972 season, Morrall established himself as one of the best backup quarterbacks in the annals of professional football. He went 13-1, started Super Bowl III in place of Johnny Unitas in 1968, and achieved other notable feats. Roger Brown, a lineman for the outstanding Lions defenses of the early 1960s, was one of the draft picks the Lions obtained in exchange for Layne. Roger Brown would go on to be chosen for five Pro Bowls. 

Real or not, sports “curses”  have undoubtedly affected teams and their fan bases — for better by strengthening the loyalty of fans, or for worse.