In baseball – as in all of life – nothing captures the moment like a song.
And when it comes to the Chicago Cubs, “that song” TV viewers hear at the end of every Cubs home victory has quite a history of heartbreak, and triumph, all its own.
The name of the song – and, yes, many of you have been asking, haven’t you? – is “Go, Cubs, Go.” The singer, and songwriter, is the late Steve Goodman. And the story of why the song was written, and how it came to be embraced by the fans, is a fascinating slice of Cubs’ history that belongs right up there with Ernie Banks, Harry Caray and even that darned old goat.
First, about the song: If you’ve watched any baseball this postseason, chances are you’ve heard it. And, unless you’ve been to Wrigley Field, chances are you’d never heard it before.
But, not unlike the power and polish of these modern-day Cubs, it’s a pretty difficult song to overlook. An incredibly catchy chorus – especially with thousands of proud fans belting out lines like “Hey Chicago, whatdya say?” – has sent scores of curious baseball fans to the Internet to find out just what in the heck it is they’re hearing.
(In fact, if you go to Google at this very moment and type “What is the Cubs’ … ,” the word “song” pops up as the fourth option, right after the words “curse,” “score” and “record.”)
The story begins, of course, with Goodman. Born in Chicago in 1948, Goodman was a lifelong fan of two things: music, and the Cubs. He battled fatigue throughout much of his young life and, at the age of 18, found out why: he had leukemia.
He spent the rest of his life living as if he was on borrowed time.
“Basically, (his) life and talent were directed by the physical pain and time constraints of a fatal disease which he kept at bay, at times, seemingly by willpower alone,” his wife, Nancy, wrote after his death. “Steve wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could … He extracted meaning from the mundane.”
As you might guess, getting “meaning from the mundane” was a perfect match for a musician who liked the Cubs. And, long before he penned “Go, Cubs, Go,” Goodman carved a rapid musical path that earned him a tremendous amount of respect from other singer-songwriters (if not a great deal of success commercially).
For starters – who doesn’t know the song that includes the lines “Good morning, America, how are you?”
That was Steve Goodman. He wrote “City of New Orleans.” No, it wasn’t Arlo Guthrie; in fact, Goodman had to bribe Guthrie with a drink to even get him to listen to the song in the first place.
Goodman wrote the song describing a train trip from Chicago to New Orleans in 1971. He saw Guthrie at a Chicago bar called the Quiet Knight that year and asked if he could play him a song; Guthrie begrudgingly accepted, on the condition that Goodman buy him a beer first.
(We imagine Harry Caray would approve.)
The deal was, Guthrie would listen to the song for as long as it took him to drink the beer.
By beer’s end, Guthrie told Goodman he wanted to record “City of New Orleans.” It became a top 20 hit for Guthrie and was recorded by dozens of other artists, finally earning Goodman a posthumous Grammy for “Best Country Song” after Willie Nelson recorded it in 1985.
Goodman hit jukebox gold again in 1975 with a song he co-wrote with John Prine called “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” Most people know the David Allen Coe version and the all-time classic country line, “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison;” yes, Steve Goodman wrote that, too.
The success of those songs, a tour as the opening act for Steve Martin and a lot of radio work around Chicago made Goodman a well-known name in the Midwest, if not nationally. He was revered by the likes of Prine and Guthrie and formed a long-lasting friendship with Jimmy Buffett, who recorded several Goodman songs (including “Banana Republics,” “Door Number Three” and “Woman Going Crazy on Caroline Street”).
But, not unlike the Cubs, who failed to ever win a championship for all of those years regardless of how many future Hall of Famers were in their lineup, Goodman never achieved great commercial success on his own. He released nine albums between 1970 and 1984, none so much as making a dent on the charts. And even though Coe name-dropped him in his recorded version of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” he seemed stuck in the role of perhaps the most talented yet least-selling singer-songwriter of the 1970s.
So, it was only fitting that he eventually gained perhaps his greatest fame by writing songs about America’s favorite non-winning baseball team.
By early 1981, the Cubs had already gone 35 years without winning a pennant and 72 years without a World Series title. Goodman, his health already in serious decline, knew his odds of ever seeing his team reach the postseason were slim. So he combined the two in an incredibly beautiful ode to baseball and death called “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.”
The song told the story of an old Cubs fan, on his deathbed, bemoaning the fact that his team had let him down “year after year after year … after year after year after year” and even included the line “As for you, the living, you’re stuck here with the Cubs – so it’s me who feels sorry for you.” In between, he tells of his last wishes, which include his coffin being carried around the bases, being called out by all four umpires and his ashes being blown onto Waveland Avenue after he’s cremated at home plate in a pile of burning baseball bats.
The song captured the imagination of the Cubs fans as perhaps nothing written before or since (“Go, Cubs, Go” notwithstanding). It even included odes to announcer Jack Brickhouse and watching outfielder Keith Moreland “drop a routine fly.”
Goodman debuted the song in a 1981 concert at the Park West Theater. Two days later, he played it on WGN.
The phone lines lit up. Everybody loved it.
Except the Cubs.
Word had it the song was especially despised by general manager Dallas Green, who insisted that the song never be played at Wrigley.
So, it was a bit – shall we say – odd that just three years later, when WGN was looking for an official “Cubs song” to play on their broadcast, one of their executives, Dan Fabian, figured Steve Goodman would be the perfect man to write it.
And write it, he did. Crafting basically an anti-version of “A Dying Cub’s Fan’s Last Request,” Goodman put together an upbeat, catchy tune that bordered on cliche-baseball at parts, but packed a powerhouse of a chorus.
“Go, Cubs Go!
Go, Cubs, Go!
Hey Chicago, whatdya say?
The Cubs are gonna win today!”
Some say it was partially written as an eye-wink at Dallas Green. Others say it was the final great song from a dying man. Everyone agreed he had hit it out of the park.
And, this time, the Cubs agreed – especially the players, many of whom had been recruited to sing by Goodman during his clubhouse visits. You hear several of the Cubs on the chorus in the recording – even Keith Moreland, who apparently didn’t take the reference in “Last Request” personally.
Go, Cubs, Go. And go, the Cubs did.
It seems both cruel, and perfect, that just as the Cubs were finally turning things around on the baseball field, Goodman’s long battle with leukemia was turning out to be a loss.
Those 1984 Cubs – led by the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Leon Durham and Rick Sutcliffe (who went 16-1) – won 96 games and became the first Chicago team since 1945 to reach the postseason.
With “Go, Cubs, Go” capturing the mood of the season and atmosphere in the stands so perfectly, Cubs management had an easy decision to make: they invited Goodman to sing the National Anthem at their first playoff game since 1945.
He never made it, proving the adage “baseball, like life, is a losing proposition.”
Goodman died Sept. 20, 1984, at the age of 36. Four days later, the Cubs clinched the NL East. Eight days after that, they played their first postseason game in 39 years. Jimmy Buffett stood in for his late friend in singing the anthem, and dedicated the song to him.
From there, the Cubs ended up losing three straight after jumping to a 2-0 lead over the Padres, and, not unlike “Go, Cubs, Go,” faded away for a few years. But in 2007, after a Goodman biography called “Facing the Music” was published, the song was re-discovered. The Cubs began playing “Go, Cubs, Go” after every home victory, and this time, the tradition stuck.
A few years later, Cubs fans really had something to sing about. With general manager Theo Epstein putting together the second curse-killing team of his career, and rock-solid motivator Joe Maddon calling the shots from the dugout, the Cubs of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester were too good to lose. They wrapped up their first National League pennant since 1945 with a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, October 22, 2016 – the 36-year anniversary of the death of billy goat owner Billy Sianis.
And, the spirit of Goodman – 36 when he died – was definitely there.
A few days before that 1984 playoff game, Goodman’s widow and some of his friends went into Wrigley Field field and buried his ashes beneath home plate, where, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, a few remain today.
It was that dying Cubs fan’s last request.
Go, Cubs, Go.
Related story: Album review — John Prine revels in real country music LINK