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"A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request": The Story Behind the Song

By Clay Eals

* Excerpted from Steve Goodman: Facing the Music by Clay Eals.

© 2007 by Clay Eals. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd.

Since early childhood, folk music singer-songwriter Steve Goodman's life had been imbued with baseball, and particularly the hapless Chicago Cubs. His emotions bounced from anguish (“Being a Cub fan is like being a Jew because long periods of suffering are involved,” notes Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, wife of Steve’s childhood friend Stuart Gordon) to anger (“The Cubs are a shit organization,” Steve had told folksinger Chris Farrell). What few realized, however, was that Steve’s desire to write a baseball song had run deep for more than a decade, and his attempts had been frequent and futile.

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In the empty grandstand of Wrigley Field, Steve performs his recently written "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" for a Bob Sirott story on WBBM-TV in late July 1981. It became the only time Steve played the song at Wrigley, because in future years General Manager Dallas Green barred the lovingly mocking epic from the ballpark. (Video capture courtesy of Bob Sirott and Jessica Kaplan.)
Mocking himself with diamond lingo, Steve told his audience on Oct. 2, 1973, at Bubba’s in South Miami that he had been trying to pen a song about baseball since 1969. “I get about three-quarters of the way through it, and then I walk somebody and take myself out,” he said. “I never get to finish the damn thing. It’s true. I get about three-quarters of the way through it, and then I’m struggling, it’s a hot afternoon, and I’m lookin’ to the bench, and the manager comes out and yanks me. I get pinch-hit for all the time.”

Not infrequently, baseball fueled his onstage improvisations, such as the weekend of Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 1975, at Club Passim in Cambridge when he made up a song about the sixth game of the World Series two weeks prior. The 7-6 Boston win over Cincinnati was feted as the best-played Series game ever. Red Sox rightfielder Dwight Evans supplied one of its many highlights in the 11th inning with an acrobatic, game-saving catch of a Joe Morgan fly followed by a quick throw to first base to double up Ken Griffey. In his song, Steve delighted his Beantown crowd by rhyming the name of Evans with a phrase about him snaring “a ball hit to the heavens.”

Steve trained his baseball sights homeward in August 1978, improvising at the Earl of Old Town a Cubs song to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Its 10 verses shrewdly commented on the team’s slugger, Dave Kingman, and ace reliever, Bruce Sutter, as well as Bill Veeck, owner of the “inept” White Sox of the South Side. Steve’s made-up lyrics also aired his fervent hope for a World Series between the Cubs and White Sox but crassly pointed out, “The chances of that are as good as that of me pissin’ on the moon.”

“Dave Kingman,” which Steve composed on assignment for Chicago’s WMAQ-TV in early 1980, also pricked Steve’s baseball longings. While the chorus and first two verses of the tune focused on the cranky Cubs slugger, Steve also slipped in hints of a more generalized song about the team, including a reference to Kingman’s homers landing outside Wrigley Field on nearby Waveland Avenue. Tellingly, the song’s final verse was a lament for “the fans in Chicago who have waited so long for a winner to cheer” and for “the city that’s so tired of sayin’ ‘Wait till next year’.”

Likewise, in his Jan. 26, 1981, interview with Peter Bekker for WCBS in New York, Steve tied his fervor for baseball to his resignation over the Cubs’ perennial failure. “I require the Chicago Cubs to win sometime during my life,” he said, “but I must admit, I despair having this requirement filled during my lifetime.” Acknowledging the hypocrisy of a descending musician criticizing a losing baseball team, he added, “They (the Cubs) could say the same thing about my band. I’m sayin’ if you interviewed the Chicago Cubs about my music, you would get the same thing.”

When Bekker tried to sympathize by noting his own St. Louis roots, Steve jumped in with a correction. “Now, you guys won a baseball championship during the lifetime of most Americans here,” he said, alluding to the champion St. Louis Cardinals of 1967. “The Chicago Cubs won the pennant the same year that World War II ended. I thought that in some way that that was symbolic, that that was the last time. Now, I must admit that if they are ever again going to use nuclear weapons in wars, if that’s the next time the Cubs win, I hope the Cubs never win, OK? Because those were the two things that happened that year — the Cubs won the National League pennant, and people destroyed each other a lot. I don’t think they’re tied up, either, but those are really the two major events of that year, somehow.”

“Well,” Bekker replied, “they were both unprecedented.”

“Yes,” Steve said, “and, my God, I hope one of ’em’s repeatable. I know which one that is.”

A month and a half after the Bekker interview came Steve’s “dream,” late the night of March 13. His reservoir of motivation and effort resulted in what many consider the most evocative baseball song ever written. It was an ironic homage to the Cubs, but it also was a meditation on mortality and futility that underscored the countless and eloquent essays making the case for baseball as a metaphor for American life. It was, as Steve titled it, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

The song’s narrative hook was that of a terminally ill “old Cub fan” spelling out to friends his explicit vision of the perfect “doubleheader funeral” — an elaborate cremation at Wrigley Field that invoked two dozen details and phrases familiar to Cubs enthusiasts and diamond fans of any stripe. Peppering the lyrics were Frosty Malts and crushed paper beer cups, “bleacher bums” and pigeons beneath the El tracks, Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks’ buoyant “Let’s play two” and a live organ rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye.” Permeated with dry humor, the words built to a conclusion that relied on an irresistibly spiritual pun while also referencing the big-league team just 18 minutes away from his Seal Beach home. In the song’s instantly classic punch line, the dying man assured his friends that he soon would be using “season’s tickets to watch the Angels” but added, “You, the living, you’re stuck here with the Cubs, so it’s me that feels sorry for you.”

For those close to Steve, the song would swell with worrisome symbolism because it could be seen as referencing his “dying” recording career or, more directly and poignantly, his fatal disease. But because Steve’s leukemia was still a secret to the masses and because the lyrics were cast in third person and labeled the protagonist as elderly, the song could stand on its own without triggering unwanted inferences. On its face, the tune linked Steve and its main character in only one way that was obvious — both were long-suffering fans of the Cubs. It was a theme that could spark widespread empathy from baseball devotees who anguished during sustained failure and rooted in vain for the underdog.

SteveGoodman-FacingtheMusic-300.jpgSeattle journalist Clay Eals is author of "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music", the comprehensive, untold story of a young man whose hilarious, touching and heartening music — "City of New Orleans," "You Never Even Call Me by My Name," "Banana Republics," "A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request" and many more stellar songs — uplifted millions from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and continues to do so today. Included with the book is a CD of 18 songs written after Steve's death that pay tribute to him or mention him significantly, and one track of interview clips with Steve himself.
Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 10:38PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , | Comments21 Comments | References37 References

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