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The Greek Shepherd Who Became Chicago’s Greatest Marketing Genius

Marketing Genius Bernie
Bernie Sanders pictured outside the Billy Goat Tavern in another of his ubiquitous memes. Credit: Facebook/Billy Goat Tavern

A Greek-American tavern owner may have well been the marketing genius to top them all. William “Billy Goat” Sianis rose from being a penniless shepherd in the hills around Tripoli to becoming the owner of a legendary tavern and one of the greatest marketing geniuses of all time, transforming his “brand” into part of Chicago folklore.

Billy Goat Sianis
Billy Goat Sianis shows off his goat’s dog tags during the Second World War. Credit: Facebook/Billy Goat Tavern

It all started in 1895 in Greece when William, later known as “Billy Goat,” Sianis was born. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1912 where he taught himself English by reading newspapers. He became a devoted Chicago Cubs baseball fan and bought the Lincoln Tavern across the street from Chicago Stadium, where the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team team played.

According to legend, Sianis repaid the debt for the tavern after a baby goat fell from a truck just outside the building. He decided to adopt the goat as a pet and named him “Murphy.” Sianis became Murphy’s number one fan and somewhat of a goat aficionado, which led him to rename his bar “The Billy Goat Inn.

Genius marketing moves during political convention of 1944

Sianis was quick to earn a reputation for being a shrewd business owner and an expert in publicity stunts. His first hugely successful promotion, using a bit of reverse psychology, was in 1944 during the Republican National Convention in Chicago held at Chicago Stadium.

Sianis posted a sign outside his tavern stating “No Republicans Served Here.” Angry Republicans, naturally, stormed inside to inquire as to the reason they were barred from the establishment. Instead, they were served and welcomed with a smile.

You might very well ask yourself who does things like this and how this type of marketing genius could pop up out of nowhere out of the fields of Greece.

Sianis and goat
William “Billy Goat” Sianis and his goat named Murphy getting kicked out of Wrigley Field during the World Series. Credit: Facebook/Billy Goat Tavern

“The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more”

But it was the fateful moment just one year later in 1945 when Sianis decided to bring his cherished pet to the World Series game at Wrigley Field where the Cubs were playing that brought him everlasting fame.

Clad in a jaunty Cubs jersey, who wouldn’t have let the adorable goat named Murphy take part in the momentous day at the hallowed ballpark?

Ballpark security, that’s who. Ordered to take his “smelly” goat back home, Sianis angrily declared before all who were within hearing distance that “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more! The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed on Wrigley Field.”

Of course, the Cubs lost that game, which lost them the entire World Series, and they never even made it back to another Series until 71 years later in 2016. Sianis’ words echoed all across America and what became known simply as “The Curse” has gone down in sporting history, becoming a touchstone in the nation’s cultural life.

In spite of (or maybe because of) The Curse, to this day, the Billy Goat Tavern has proven to be a great success story with the establishment boasting a high-stacked burger known, of course, as the “Cheezborger.” Made with baseball and the Cubs in mind, it has become a home run for all who feast on it.

Today, there are several Billy Goat Taverns in the Greater Chicago area, at O’Hare Airport, and even in Washington D.C.

The origin of William Sianis’ genius

Who does things like that –  growing an empire across the US after immigrating as a 17-year-old who didn’t know any English? William Sianis, the marketing manager from the fields of Greece! That’s who!

His grand-nephew, William Sianis, spoke to Greek Reporter recently about “Billy Goat’s particular genius and how his early life in Greece shaped him, and the journalists, actors, and other public figures who came to know “Billy Goat” in his lifetime.

He related that “Billy Goat” was born in 1894 in a small village called Paleopyrgos. As a young man, he heard his dad, George, and his brother Frank talk about their experiences in the United States. “They had traveled to San Francisco in 1903 and came back to Greece in 1906 after the big earthquake,” Sianis recalls.

Just six years after that event, Billy Goat and Frank decided they would up stakes and throw their lot in with the United States once again. Sianis says that all he knows for sure about this decision is that his own father, Sam, had told them that there was a substantial Greek population in Chicago at that time and that the city was growing and looking for workers.

“After a 40 to 50-day long boat trip across the Atlantic they ended up in New York, where they took a train to Chicago,” Sianis says.

Shining shoes and delivering newspapers

Upon arriving in the Windy City, Sianis and Frank got to work doing anything they could get their hands on to get along, including shining shoes, delivering newspapers, selling small items like cigarettes, candy, magazines, and any other such work they could find.

In 1916, William became an American citizen and began work as a copy boy for the Chicago Tribune. “This is where he gained the love of newspapers and the reporters who write for them,” Sianis says. “He learned to speak English reading the paper and working for the paper,” he explains.

“After years of saving money and with prohibition having just ended, Billy Goat had decided that he wanted to own a bar. In early 1934, he saw a place at 1855 W. Madison Street, called the Lincoln Tavern,” he recalls.

And that was the fateful moment that eventually made William Sianis into the “Billy Goat” and catapulted him into the legend that continues to exist to this day. Across the street from the Chicago Stadium, the bar was in a perfect location for attracting the crowds who flocked to hockey games, as well as the sportswriters who covered them.

Goat becomes national icon

It was a harbinger of his native business prowess, as well, because the two checks (for $205) that he used to pay for the property ended up bouncing. Somehow – no one knows exactly how – Sianis convinced the owner that he could come up with the money in a single week.

As the current owner says, “There must have been events that weekend because [Sianis] was able to pay him after the first weekend.”

It wasn’t long before the famed goat that made the legend possible also showed up, literally at the door of the tavern. After few months of being open, “he heard a thumping sound on the front door. He opened the door and saw a goat outside,” Sianis recalls. At that time, of course, Chicago was known for its big stockyards where animals were taken for slaughter.

A truck destined for the stockyards had gone by earlier and the goat had fallen from the truck, he explains, and he simply had ended up at the front door of the establishment. “Billy Goat took the goat in,” Sianis says, and put it out in the back of the building in the small yard.

“That night there was an event at the stadium and the place was busy with customers, so he decided to bring the goat in and parade him around the bar,” Sianis relates to Greek Reporter and adds that “The people loved the goat; he saw the reaction of the people after having the goat around for few nights and decided to keep the goat and name him ‘Billy’ and he then decided to name the bar Billy Goat Inn.”

Billy Goat Tavern
Billy Goat Tavern became the place to be thanks to William Sianis’ genius marketing moves in the 1940s and 1950s. Credit: Facebook/Billy Goat Tavern

The Place to Be in Chicago

Never one to miss a trick, William himself adopted the nickname Billy Goat for himself, and he even grew a goatee.

Sianis related that Billy Goat simply had a “fun personality” which people enjoyed, telling jokes and tales about his adventures getting to Chicago.

The Billy Goat Inn soon became the place to be on account of Billy Goat’s personality. “He wanted to provide a show to his customers with a cast of characters like a few goats, a duck named Susie Q, and a one-toothed cat named Ruby,” Sianis says.

“When there were sporting events, the bar would attract reporters who Billy Goat enjoyed talking to because of his days working as a copy boy. He would tell reporters stories and they felt comfortable there. He even set up a wall of telephone booths where they could call in their stories after the event and then stay at the bar,” he noted; this was yet another mark of Billy Goat’s unique marketing genius.

“To keep the practical jokes going, he had one booth set up with a phone where if he squeezed a rubber balloon attachment he had behind the bar, it would squirt water through the phone while the person was holding it,” Sianis says. “When the circus was in town, the entertainers would come and sometimes bring an animal with them to the bar, from a donkey to an elephant even. Billy Goat had created this atmosphere,” he explains to Greek Reporter.

Billy Goat Sianis for President
Billy Goat runs for US President in another of Billy Sianis’ many marketing stunts. Credit: Facebook/Billy Goat Tavern

On the first day of the 1944 Republican Convention, held at the Chicago Stadium, the Billy Goat Inn had only managed to accumulate $20 in sales, however. Billy Goat, angry that the extra media that was there to cover the convention had blocked the bar with trucks, knew he had to come up with some kind of way to attract conventioneers and reporters to the bar.

From the depths of his native genius, he came up with the idea of putting up a sign saying “No Republicans Served Here.” It was no time at all before word spread about this sign and the place was packed with Republicans for the remaining days of the convention. “He was clever and promoted the place as much as he could,” Sianis adds.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

“In 1945 the Chicago Cubs had made it to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers and Billy Goat had decided to buy two box seat tickets, one for himself and one for his goat named Murphy,” he relates.

Normally, “the owners and ushers were accustomed to have Billy Goat show up with a goat for a sporting event or political event and they would let him in,” Sianis explains. But it was a different story that day, and that made all the difference.

“When he showed up at Wrigley Field with Murphy, the ushers let him in the stadium until they could get confirmation from ownership that it was ok to stay. That day it was raining, and a wet Murphy had a strong goat smell, so Cubs owner William Wrigley told the ushers to allow ‘Billy Goat’ Sianis to stay but not Murphy the goat because he smelled and he didn’t want him amongst the fans,” Sianis says.

And that’s when history was made. “Billy Goat got mad because he had brought Murphy there with him to help provide good luck for the Cubs, as the different goats he had owned had always brought him.

“As everyone knows, the Cubs lost the game, and the Series, prompting Billy Goat to send a telegram to Mr. Wrigley saying, ‘Who Smells Now?’ Sianis recalls.

Curse lasts 71 long years

“The Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908 but had been a good team often winning division titles and going to the Series up until 1945. After 1945 they started to lose and a few years later the reporters asked Billy Goat if he put a curse on the Cubs. He told them that as long as they wouldn’t let the goat in the stadium, they would never win a World Series,” Sianis states.

What became known as “The Billy Goat Curse” lasted for a total of 71 years.

William “Billy Goat” Sianis, one of the greatest marketing geniuses of all time, passed away in 1970, and as his grand-nephew adds, “was never allowed to bring the goat to the stadium” during his lifetime.

World Series
The new Billy was brought to the World Series in 2016 in a successful attempt to break the curse for all time. The Cubs won. Credit: Erik Drost, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

However, Cubs management attempted to assuage this slap against the dignity of the family in 1984 or, most likely, attempted to reverse the curse. “My father Sam was invited by new owners of the Cubs, the Chicago Tribune, in 1984 to walk the goat around the field in Wrigley Field to remove the curse,” Sianis recalls.

“So Sam and the goat ‘Socrates’ walked around the field on opening day, and that year, the Cubs won the Division Title and made the playoffs for the first time since 1945, ” he states.

William Sianis’ marketing genius knew no earthly bounds

Billy Goat’s unending promotions of his tavern provided interesting stories that reporters were only too happy to write about in the papers. In March of 1970, however, he showed his prowess in yet another way when he wrote a letter to US Secretary of State William Rogers to apply for the “first food and liquor license on the moon.”

He wrote, “The Greeks charted the heavens, and it’s only fitting that a Greek open a restaurant on the moon to serve our astronauts when they arrive so they don’t have to eat the synthetic food the space agency has been serving them.”

In 1964, The Billy Goat Inn had to move out of its original location and relocated to 430 N. Michigan Ave. It was known as the Billy Goat Tavern and Grill from that point onward. Sianis says that his grand-uncle kept the land at Madison Street for parking during events at the stadium, but the city wanted to tear down the buildings around the stadium to provide for even more parking.

At the Michigan Avenue location, which is still there, he decided to put a grill in, which later would become an inspiration for a famous Saturday Night Live skit, and in true Sianis form, this turned out to be another stellar way to promote the tavern nationally.

Mike Royko recounts William Sianis’ adventures, praises work ethic

This location was centrally located to four newspapers, The Chicago Tribune, American, Daily News, and The Sun-Times, making the new Michigan Avenue location into a hub for journalists of all media as never before, Sianis says. It was a place where they could gather and discuss topics or just unwind with a quick burger and beer.

One of the most famous journalists was Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Royko, who became a close friend to Billy Goat and had an almost brother-like bond with Sam, writing about the duo often in his articles.

Sianis relates that Royko loved the work ethic and the “American dream” story that Billy Goat had lived, coming here with nothing and developing the legacy that he had. When Billy Goat passed away, the journalist wrote an article about him in which he said: “It was typical Billy Goat that he would die during the only five hours of the day when his place wasn’t open for business. That’s how good a businessman he was.”

Like so many Greek-Americans who came to the Americas, Billy Goat never forgot where he came from, and he supoorted the family back in Greece by not only sending them money but also sponsoring them one by one to come to the United States and work or get an education, his grand-nephew says.

He had three brothers and two sisters who all came to the US for a few years to help at the restaurant, later returning home with the money that they could never have earned in Greece at the time.

“He also started bringing his nephews to the US, which included my father and uncles,” Sianis relates to Greek Reporter. “My father, Sam, came to the US in 1955 and worked along side Billy Goat until he passed in 1970.

“Sam then inherited the business because Billy Goat did not have any kids. While working at the restaurant with Billy Goat, my father learned what kind of work ethic it took to run the place and promote his uncle’s name, which he has passed on to us – now the third generation,”says Sianis.

After Billy Goat Sianis passed away, he adds, Sam kept his name and legacy alive. He kept the special relationships Billy Goat had created with the newspapers alive and thriving. In addition, he says, he would also continue to take the goat to different events, “including trying to take the goat into Wrigley Field,” he remembers.

The Cheezborger — with Chips and Pepsi only!

Then in 1978, the Billy Goat Tavern was catapulted onto the national scene yet again after a Saturday Night Live skit called “Olympia Diner” aired on television. From that point on, the famous phrase “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No Fries – Chips! No Coke – Pepsi!” has remained in the American lexicon.

Don Novello, the writer of the skit, had been a regular at the Billy Goat Tavern and Grill on Michigan Avenue when he worked for the Leo Burnet advertising agency. “He would come in for a burger and drink after work and saw how the business operated,” Sianis says.

“He would see Billy Goat walk around with his cane and jokingly tap people with it to keep them alert,” Sianis reveals, and “he said that a few times he hit Don on the head with a toy hammer that made a squeaky noise and told him to go get a haircut.”

“Billy Goat would walk the floor to entertain people and keep an eye on the bar,” he explains. “Sam would be behind the counter with a few other uncles yelling out the orders as they were taken from customers lined around the counter,” Sianis recalls.

“He would yell out ‘Cheezborger! Cheezborger!’ People would then ask for fries and get the response of ‘No Fries-Chips!’ And then order a Pepsi and get ‘No Pepsi – Coke!’ This was something Don Novello never forgot, even after going to New York to work for Saturday Night Live,” Sianis recalls, and he would regale John Belushi and Bill Murray with tales about Billy Goat, as well.

This most recent contribution that the former Greek shepherd made to American society proves yet again that he will never be forgotten, for his marketing genius, his work ethic, and his remarkable personality.

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