Excerpt from “The Cubs” : The Real Dope on the Real Goat

The Real Dope on the Real Goat

In the 1940s a Greek immigrant named Bill Sianis operated the Lincoln Tavern at 1855 West Madison Street, a modest establishment opposite Chicago Stadium not much different from any other in the neighborhood, which also featured a number of “girly” bars and illegal but still tolerated casinos. 

Sianis was something of a character.  Since immigrating to America in 1906 at age fourteen and hopping a freight train to Chicago, he had worked as a newsboy and then sold hot dogs before opening his tavern.  Due to its proximity to Chicago Stadium, Sianis became acquainted with a number of Chicago sportswriters.

In recent years his restaurant had gained a small measure of notoriety due to Sianis’s pet goat named Sonovia.  Sianis, who told reporters he had once been a goat herder in his native Greece, claimed that in 1933 he’d found the goat with a broken leg on a Chicago Street after it fell of a truck.  He nursed the animal back to health, usually keeping it in a pen behind the restaurant, but also allowed Sonovia to enter the bar at times, where patrons bought the goat drinks, helping Sianis’s bottom line – at the time he claimed to be grossing only seven dollars a day.

But a goat in a restaurant was a violation of city health regulations.  Someone complained and Sianis was hauled into court.

An attorney for the Tribune took notice and told Sianis, “This will be worth a million dollars worth of publicity for you.”  He represented Sianis in court, got the charges dismissed and cajoled the judge into “paroling” the goat into Sianis’s custody for life.  As Sianis later told a reporter, after all the publicity over the goat “Receipts began to go up $100 a day and more.  People came from the Stadium after all the sports events.  They stood four deep at the bar and some nights we never closed.”

Sianis was smart enough to know that the goat was good business and began to milk the connection for all it was worth.  He grew a goat-like goatee himself and soon found himself being called “Billy Goat.”  His tavern became a popular stopover and Sianis soon made the acquaintance of just about anybody who was anybody, particularly in the press, as time and time again he and his goat found their way into the newspapers.

In 1938, for example, Sianis, a citizen since 1916, lost his citizenship papers and filed for a replacement copy, submitting a photograph of himself sporting his new whiskers.  The federal government didn’t recognize the photo, which didn’t match the clean shaven picture he had originally submitted.  They rejected his claim, but Sianis took advantage of the situation and got the story into the newspapers.  He not only received a new copy of his papers, but the tavern received another shot in the arm from new patrons curious about the two old goats.  A few years later Sianis out-fitted his goat with a sign that read “Buy Defense Bonds” and marched him into the Tribune’s public service office. Sianis purchased a $1,000 war bond and an intrepid photographer snapped his picture for a small story in the paper.  Clearly, the goat was good business.

The World Series of 1945 offered Sianis another prime opportunity for some free advertising.  Sianis bought two box seats for game five, one for himself and one for his goat, and showed up for the game early, goat in tow.  The animal wore a blanket with a sign pinned to it that read “We Got Detroit’s Goat.”  The game was briefly delayed by rain and Sianis and his goat were allowed inside and even got to parade around the field for a while before they were ushered into the stands.

The goat, however, wouldn’t cooperate and ran back on the diamond, which probably alerted team officials to the fact that having a goat in the stands was not the best idea. There were, after all, over 43,000 fans in Wrigley Park that day, some of whom had paid scalpers as much as $200 for a box seat. Nevertheless, for a time, Sianis and his goat were allowed to watch the game seats.

Other fans, however, weren’t enthralled with sitting next to a goat, particularly one that smelled, sported a pair of sharp horns and was prone to chewing on anything it could reach.  Ushers asked Sianis to leave.  He did, but not until he and an usher staged a faux photo op for the press, Sianis waving his ticket, the goat resting it’s forelegs on the turnstiles and a smiling usher blocking Sianis’s path into the park.

That evening the Chicago Times published the picture of Sianis and his goat, and the next day Arch Ward mentioned the incident in his “In the Wake of the News” column in the Tribune.  Business at the tavern boomed.

There was of course, no mention of a curse.  Despite the legend and lore that has since grown to surround the incident, at the time there was no suggestion of any hex or curse placed by Sianis on the Cubs, what has since come to be known as the “Billy Goat Curse” that would forevermore keep the Cubs from the World Series.  The closest Sianis came to that was sending a telegram to Phil Wrigley after the Series that read “Who smells now?” a ploy which got Sianis yet another mention in the papers. 

Sianis’s curse is as spurious as Boston’s “Curse of the Bambino,” the  utter piece of fiction that claimed Babe Ruth cursed the Red Sox after being sold to the Yankees.  The notion of a “billy goat” inspired hex or curse was, in reality, a later product of the press, one that Sianis was savvy enough to play along with.  In fact, before the 1990s, when Boston’s curse was invented from whole cloth and gave the whole hoary notion a platform, the Billy Goat curse barely existed apart from a few brief newspaper stories that began appearing in the late 1960s more than twenty years after the 1945 World Series. 

Until December 26, 1967 there was nary a mention of such a thing in the Chicago Tribune.  Then the Tribune’s William Granger, quoting Sianis, mentioned the hex in passing in a story about Sianis and his tavern, but Sianis claimed he had removed the curse at the request of Philip Wrigley, a request Wrigley apparently communicated only to Sianis.  Then, as the Cubs challenged for the pennant in 1969 columnist David Condon wrote several columns around Sianis.  In the first, which appeared in April, Sianis again “lifted” the curse that hardly anyone had ever heard of.  In the second column, which appeared in September after the Cubs collapsed, the tavern owner had to explain the whole notion to Condon once more, and then claimed that he had removed the curse and that the Cubs had really lost the pennant because “The New York Mets just played like hell!”  Over the next few years Condon made regular use of the idea in  subsequent columns and other journalists ran with the idea.

The attorney who once said that the goat was worth “millions,” was correct.  Sianis would eventually re-name his establishment “The Billy Goat Tavern,” and move it to Michigan Avenue.  Later he opened a second bar near Wrigley Field.  For the Sianis family, the curse has been nothing but a blessing and a windfall, absolutely the best thing that ever could have happened. 

So, too for a generation of Chicago journalists.  Like their brethren in Boston, the notion of a “curse” has made easy copy over the years and has been used as an excuse to ignore the real reasons that the Cubs have not returned to the World Series since 1945.  The true story, like Boston’s, isn’t quite as cute and cuddly as that of Bill Sianis and his pet goat.  Besides, if Sianis had rally hexed the Cubs after game five of the 1945World Series, how in hell did the Cubs ever win game six?