The most famous case happened in September of 1969.
The Cubs, who had dominated the National League all season, were suddenly losing control, having lost five in a row already. That afternoon, they were at Shea Stadium and hoping to build on their their half-game lead over the surging Mets. It wasn't meant to be.
In the first inning, with Ron Santo standing in the on-deck circle, a black cat jumped onto the field and sauntered over to the dugout. As if embracing its status as the symbol of bad luck, the cat crossed between Santo and his teammates and stopped for a moment, staring deep into the Cubs' very souls. The North Siders would go on to lose the game, their spot atop the National League East, and their best shot at the World Series in decades. The Mets, meanwhile, won the World Series a month later. The event has gone down in the Cubs long history of losing as the Curse of the Black Cat.
Perspective matters, though. For decades, the focus of this story has been on how the cat caused the Cubs to lose the game and their season. Why? We don't treat other stories like that. The 1960 World Series isn't the story of how Ralph Terry lost the World Series for the Yankees; it's the story of light-hitting Bill Mazeroski bringing a title to Pittsburgh with a home run. Baseball's greatest stories have always been about the heroes.
Heroes like a certain black cat who ran out onto the Shea Stadium grass one September afternoon and charmed his beloved Mets into history.
Are cats always such good luck charms, though? If a ballplayer happens to see a frisky feline frolicking on his home field one night, should he take it as an omen?
Here's where the Miracle Mets become merely an anecdote. According to the data, that careless cat is hardly a certified charm. Looking back at 17 (relatively) easy-to-find ballgames that were interrupted by a cat on the field, the data are as wishy-washy as Charlie Brown on his best day.
A brief rundown:
September 9, 1969: Cubs at Mets (video). The mother of all cat stories. A black cat runs on the field, the home team wins 7-1.
May 7, 1990: Yankees at A's. A little black cat disrupts the game. Manager Tony La Russa takes care of the poor guy personally, even naming the cat and delivering him to the shelter himself. The home team wins 5-1.
July 23, 1990: Mets at Phillies. A black cat interrupts the game while the visiting Mets are in the field. Philly's Dickie Thon hits a grand slam later that inning, en route to a 7-4 victory by the home team.
April 10, 1991: Phillies at Mets. A black cat tries to get a front-row view of the game late in the night before scampering off. The home team loses 8-7 in extra innings.
September 23, 1991: Red Sox at Orioles. A black cat wanders out of the visitors dugout just before the visiting Red Sox commit an error that pushes in the go-ahead run. The home team wins 4-3.
May 15, 1999: Mets at Phillies. A "not black" cat runs in from the bullpen, but no entrance music is played. The home team would go on to lose 9-7.
August 8, 2001: Brewers at Mets. The black cat who ran onto the field with two outs in the seventh inning was merely hoping to be a part of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". The home team wins 5-4.
June 7, 2005: Blue Jays at Cubs. The black cat interrupts an inter-league contest between the Jays and Cubs. If only he had waited a few days, he would have been interrupting an historic matchup between the Red Sox and Cubs. The home team would go on to lose this game.
April 13, 2009: Padres at Mets. The first game at Citi Field. The Mets can't go anywhere without their cats, so an orange guy jumps out of the stands to make everyone feel at home. The home team loses the inaugural game 6-5.
April 21, 2009: Reds at Cubs (video). A gray-and-orange calico runs onto the grass in the outfield before being lifted off the field by his tail (poor guy!). The home team would go on to win this game 7-2.
August 5, 2009: Mariners at Royals (video). A brown tabby runs all over the field, looking for a way out, at one point resting on the infield dirt. Eventually, the grounds crew is able to lead the cat into one of the fenced-in bullpen areas. The home team would go on to lose the game
July 30, 2011: Hickory Crawdads at Augusta GreenJackets (South Atlantic League). A cat of unknown coloring took advantage of a meeting on the mound to try out as the team's mascot. He spent the rest of the game dodging little kids in a play area he inadvertently ran into. Meanwhile, the home team came from behind to win 6-5.
September 7, 2011: Mets at Marlins (video). A black cat briefly hopped onto the field from the stands before returning to the seating bowl. He might have been trying for a foul ball. The home team would lose the game 1-0.
September 9, 2011: Indians at White Sox (video). The game was briefly delayed when an orange/brown cat strolled along the warning track in center field before heading into the White Sox bullpen. The home team would lose the game 8-4.
June 23, 2013: Hillsboro Hops at Everett AquaSox (Northwest League, video). A mangy brown cat led the team in a sprinting drill as he went from one corner of the outfield to the other (and back again!). He was eventually picked up by a Hillsboro pitcher who wrapped him up in his jacket. The home team won the game 6-5.
For those of you not counting at home, that's a 9-8 record for the home team after some form of kitty-on-the-field antics. Not exactly overwhelming evidence one way or the other in the dispute over a tabby's talismanic tendencies.
But what about the black cats? The cat that helped the 1969 Mets achieve their miracle was black after all, and his brothers in fur are certainly peppered around the list. In fact, in the 17 games mentioned above, nine involve miniature Salem Saberhagens. Maybe their magic works better? Alas, no. The home team's record in those nine games was a completely uninspiring 5-4.
It's almost like random events spread out over years and years have little or no effect on athletic competitions. And that writers seem to find a cat on the field interesting enough to write about only if it adds a little color to the game story.
It's almost like that, but we know what the data are really hiding. Cats are smart and they know when the team needs them. If the home team won every time a feline jumped onto the field, we'd be on to them. Like the guy who tries to hide his insider trading by suspiciously losing the exact amount of money he earned the day before. Or like Biff Tannen going on a lifelong winning spree with his sports almanac. A cat isn't going to make that mistake. Instead, they jump onto the field in seemingly random games in order to throw us off the scent. Don't fall for it. One of these days, a cat is going to run onto the field and inspire the home team into a miracle run at the pennant. It's practically preordained.
And when that cat finally appears, he'll be a hero. Just like his Shea Stadium ancestor.