By Ken Feltman
I still sing his songs, sometimes just to myself.
– Johnny Cash
Do they still play the blues in Chicago
when baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away
do the Cubbies still play
in their ivy-covered burial ground?
From “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” by Steve Goodman
(a.k.a. Chicago Shorty)
When I was in college, we would grab the El train and head south to Wrigley Field. On some early-season days, fewer than 1,000 fans showed up and the ushers let us sit wherever we wanted. One cold and drizzly April day, Pat Piper, famous for having the most distinctive voice of any stadium announcer, reported that the crowd was fewer than 400. The game was decided when the Giants’ Willie McCovey (today of McCovey Cove fame) crushed a late-inning home run.
Fellow Cubs fan George Will says that following the Cubs is like having a fatal illness that never gets around to killing you off. Former Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse summed up the Cubs’ futility by observing that any team can have a bad century. Indeed, next year the Cubs will “celebrate” 100 years without a championship – unless Hell finally freezes over in the next few days.
Why do people follow a team nicknamed for an immature animal? Other teams are called the Tigers, the Braves, the Pirates, the Devil Rays – but we cheer for a team named for cuddly, docile baby bears.
Cubs fans or Wrigley Field fans?
For many years the Cubs ran TV ads promoting not the quality of the team but the ball park. “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game at beautiful Wrigley Field. Bring the kids and have a picnic in the fresh air and bright sunshine of the Friendly Confines of good old Wrigley Field.” No mention was made of the current, probably mediocre edition of the team that played in Wrigley.
You can buy shirts at Wrigley Field that say simply “Wrigley Field Established 1914.” Other shirts proclaim Wrigley Field as North Side Nirvana, Valhalla-on-the-Lake, Czech Heaven and Down Home Dominica. Irish? Get a green Wrigley shirt full of shamrocks. Latino? Wrigley o cielo (Wrigley or heaven). Others are available in Japanese, Greek, Russian, French, Korean, etc. You can spot a shirt that says Paris finished second and got a tower. We got Wrigley. (Substitute “London” and “a clock” or “San Francisco” and “a bridge.”)
Several books have been written about the park. Although hard to believe, it is gospel in Chicago that no other athletic venue except the Roman Coliseum has been written about so much.
Last month, Cubs fans Teri and Paul Fields of Michigan City, Ind., named their newborn son Wrigley. For five years now, a fan in Western Illinois has been building a replica of Wrigley Field for Wiffle Ball. The field endures, respected as the most beautiful and fan-friendly in baseball. The field is consistent. The field is everything anyone could want. Dare I say it: Wrigley Field is the Yankees of ball parks.
The announcers have usually been more celebrated that the players they covered. People speak reverently of announcers Jack Quinlan and Vince Lloyd. The spirit of the legendary Harry Caray is still invoked at every home game when a celebrity guest leads the crowd, as Harry did, in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The Bleacher Bums go nuts and grab for “another frosty.” It is more pageant than ball game, full of traditions and memories of the Billy Goat hex from 1945, the Homer in the Gloamin’ of 1938, the black cat of 1969 and the Bartman ball in 2003. The beauty of the ivy covered walls masks the futility of the team and these legends make up for dreary seasons of forgettable play.
Throughout the Middle West, families plan a trip to Chicago once a season to see the Cubs and Wrigley Field. Schools plan class trips to Wrigley. Churches plan an annual Wrigley Field outing. Chicago’s diaspora return faithfully to the place where their fathers taught them about the game.
City of New Orleans
One of those fans who learned to love the Cubs and Wrigley Field was Steve Goodman. You may not know him by name. He was not a ball player. He was a singer and songwriter. Most people know Steve because of “City of New Orleans.” Arlo Guthrie made it a hit. Cubs fans know him for “Go Cubs Go” and “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” This summer, as the Cubs stayed near the top of the standings, Wrigley rocked to Steve’s music.
I met Steve when he was a regular performer at Chicago’s Earl of Old Town pub in the late 1960s. He learned I was from the North suburbs and asked, “Cubs fan?” I admitted it. That was enough to create a friendship. He was one of those immediately likeable people. When he wasn’t studying, composing or performing, he was cheering in Wrigley Field, Cubs hat on his head.
The Cubs were in first place in 1969, seemingly headed for the World Series, when that black cat ran across the field. Suddenly, the Cubs collapsed. Steve remarked that the collapse was his second big disappointment of the year. I did not learn what the first disappointment was till a few years later. We commiserated by agreeing that the Cubs are more like a religion than a ball team.
Steve was so talented that people in the music industry called him “The Full Package.” He had written and performed songs as a teenager. Early on, he paid his bills by writing and singing advertising jingles. By 1969, Steve was a regular performer at several Chicago folk music venues. Like the ’69 Cubs before the collapse, Steve seemed to be on his way.
Kris Kristofferson heard him play and got him in touch with Paul Anka. A recording contract followed. Then Steve went to see Arlo Guthrie perform in Chicago and asked Guthrie to listen to a song. Guthrie tried to say no. Steve’s infectious friendliness overcame his resistance and Guthrie grudgingly agreed on the condition that Steve buy him a beer. Guthrie said he would listen only until he finished the beer. He never finished it. Guthrie’s version of the song became a hit in 1972. In fact, “City of New Orleans” was Guthrie’s only Top-Twenty hit. But what a hit it was.
“City of New Orleans” became an American favorite, known worldwide and recorded and sung by many other musicians including Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Denver and Willie Nelson. Guthrie, like almost everyone before him, became Steve’s fast friend. ABC television took “Good Morning America” from the song’s chorus.
I learned about that time what Steve’s second disappointment of 1969 had been. Steve had leukemia. My father had died of leukemia so I knew the twisting path of the disease. I knew that Steve would alternate between good days, even weeks and months, and bad days, with the good days becoming fewer and fewer as the years passed. How cruel: Just as his career was beginning to take off, Steve was diagnosed with leukemia. He fought as hard as he worked on his music and rooted for the Cubs.
He said that when he died, he wanted it to be when the Cubs were in first place.
He continued the battle for 15 years, writing and singing as the disease slowly sapped his strength. In mid-September, 1984, he called Guthrie to say that he was so tired, he did not think he had much time left. A few days later, on September 20, 1984, Steve died. He was 36.
The Cubs were in first place.
Eleven days later, the victorious Cubs played their first post-season game at Wrigley Field since 1945. Steve had been scheduled to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game. Jimmy Buffett filled in and dedicated the anthem and the game to Steve. President Reagan, a Cubs announcer in his younger days, sent a tribute to Steve. Many in the crowd cried. Despite their joy at their team’s success, they cried because Steve was not there with them. Then, they broke out in a loud rendition of Steve’s “Go Cubs Go.” The Cubs won that game.
Shortly after the season ended with the Cubs failing in the last game to make the World Series, Willie Nelson’s recording of “City of New Orleans” won a second Grammy award for Steve. A little later, against the rules but with unofficial permission, a few of Steve’s friends joined his widow to scatter some of Steve’s ashes at Wrigley Field, his ivy covered burial ground.
Today, the Cubs draw large crowds wherever they play. Often, Cubs fans outnumber the local fans, as they did over the weekend in Cincinnati as the Cubs clinched first place in their division. Why do so many people follow this hapless team? Perhaps the Cubs are indeed a religion and Wrigley Field is the sanctuary.
Best of all, Steve Goodman’s music fills the hymnal.