(Pictured: a vintage postcard view of Wrigley Field.)
While it’s true that history is written by the victors, songs are written about losers. At least that’s been the case with the Chicago Cubs, the most famous underachievers in sports, currently trying to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and to win it for the first time since 1908.
The most famous song about the Cubs is probably “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” by native Chicagoan Steve Goodman. Goodman wrote a number of songs about the city, including “The Lincoln Park Pirates” and “Daley’s Gone,” as well as “City of New Orleans,” made famous by Arlo Guthrie, and the country hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was first heard in 1981. In 1984, the Cubs would win an unlikely division championship. Less than a week before the clincher, Goodman, who had already been invited to sing the National Anthem before the Cubs’ first playoff game, died of leukemia at age 36.
“A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was not a favorite of Cubs management because it refers to the team as “the doormat of the National League.” So Goodman wrote another song, “Go Cubs Go,” as a sort of antidote. “Go Cubs Go” became the Cubs’ radio theme in 1984, replacing “It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame” by the Harry Simeone Songsters, which dated back to 1960. (That’s the same Harry Simeone whose chorale recorded the eternal Christmas hit “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1958.) “Go Cubs Go” was heard blasting from Wrigley Field after the Cubs won their playoff series over the Cardinals the other night.
(Read more about “Go Cubs Go” here.)
During two of the Cubs’ most magical seasons, players got together to sing/chant/shout their way onto 45s. In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, and Gary Woods recorded “Men in Blue.” The Cubs suffered a painful playoff collapse that year, but as bad as it was, it wasn’t 1969, the year in which the Cubs crashed in slow motion over the last month of the regular season, and the New York Mets won the pennant and World Series that might have been theirs. But while the Cubs were riding high that year, future Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo, along with Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Nate Oliver, and Gene Oliver, recorded “Pennant Fever,” based on the Little Willie John original made famous by Peggy Lee. It was released on Chicago’s legendary Chess label.
(The flipside of “Pennant Fever” was a blazing organ instrumental credited to the Chicago Cubs Clark Street Band called “Slide.” Larry Grogan looked into the history of “Slide” several years ago, and his best guess is that it was recorded in Philadelphia by studio musicians, licensed to Chess, and ultimately stuck on the flipside of “Pennant Fever” instead of collecting more dust in the Chess vault. It’s likely that “Pennant Fever” was recorded in Philadelphia, too.)
We did not have a copy of “Pennant Fever” at my house. We did, however, have another 1969 favorite, “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel.” The music was written by Chicago musician Johnny Frigo, a jazz player and producer who was heard on Chicago radio for 23 years leading a band called the Sage Riders. The lyrics were written by somebody named I. C. Hoag, who remains obscure. Credited to the Len Dresslar Singers, “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel” gets its title from the home-run calls of Cubs broadcasters Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd. My parents’ copy of the song is not one of their records that made its way into my collection. Neither have I been able to find it among the records they still have, and that disappoints me greatly.
In 2007, Cubs fan Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wrote “All the Way” at the request of some Cubs players past and present.
And when the day comes with that last winning run
And I’m crying and covered in beer
I’ll look to the sky and know I was right
To think someday we’ll go all the way
The Cubs are already down 2-0 in the National League Championship Series, yet hope springs eternal. After all these years, it has to.