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With the Boston Red Sox in the World Series this month, sports writers have felt compelled to make innumerable references to the so-called Curse of the Bambino, brought about when Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees in 1920. Before then, Boston had won more World Series titles (5) than any other team, winning their last in 1918. Since then, they have won none - until this year.
I expect that for most people, the "Curse of the Bambino" is just shorthand for an 85 year period of futility, but there are at least some who take it literally.
Is there anything beyond the bounds of probability about a team failing to win a championship in this period of time? Has there been a real curse? Is there something supernatural about this extended failure?
If we assume all things being equal* and take into account the expansion of Major League Baseball from 16 teams in 1918 to the current 30 teams, then the probability of failing to win a championship from 1919 to 2003 inclusive is about 1.2%. Perhaps that seems like long odds, but remember, the average chance of winning the World Series, that is coming out on top of all the other 29 teams, is 3.3%.
In fact, if we consider the probability of a team winning eight straight games against two relatively equal opponents, as Boston did this year to take the American League Championship and the World Series, that is 0.4%, or about one-third the probability of going 85 years without winning the Series.
There is nothing extraordinary about these numbers. There has been no curse.
Ah - but the Chicago Cubs and the Billy Goat Curse - well that's quite another matter.
* Of course all things aren't equal each and every year. Some years there is more talent on a team than in other years. But over the long term, things usually balance out. But the Red Sox have had the misfortune to play in the same league, and since expansion, the same division, as the New York Yankees, a team which has had the financial resources to choose from the best players in the game. Consequently, they have a higher chance of reaching the World Series, and thus blocking the Red Sox. Given that basic fact, the chances of that 85 year streak of failure are probably more like 2.5% than 1.2%.