Baseball’s Greatest Hit

The summer I was 18, I must have heard Steve Goodman’s “The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” somewhere between 200 and 300 times. An old family friend had hired me as a groundskeeper at the local, college-level baseball park. I did 20 or 30 hours a week in the mornings, mowing the grass, smoothing the infield and raking the warning track, laying down the chalk lines, sweeping up in the dugouts and the stands. If it was a game day I had to be on hand to clean up the infield in between starts, but for the most part I was on my own at the park during off-hours.

This might sound like an idyllic situation for an aspiring writer – all that time to think! Except that someone had programmed a cassette of Baseball’s Greatest Hits, an anthology of novelties curated by Rhino Records, to play on a never-ending, sanity-smashing loop over the stadium sound system.

What is it like, you ask, to listen to Abbott & Costello go through “Who’s On First” three or four times a morning every weekday for an entire summer? For a while, my admiration for the classic wordplay remained unalloyed but, gradually, I came to realize that Abbott & Costello were demons. By August, though, I had found some peace in the knowledge that the job at the baseball park was a fever dream. Peering through the mist of this hallucination, I discerned that Today, Tomorrow, Who, What, and Why were actually the nicknames of my closest friends in the asylum’s arts-and-crafts center.

And can I say anything on behalf of an individual operating under the alias of Bruce Springstone, and his faux-Boss interpretation of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”? Not even Darrow could have mounted a defense. Each hour The Intruders insisted that “(Love Is Like) A Baseball Game” and it was such a sweet notion that I wanted to believe them, I really did, but more than anything I wanted them to try singing the song very, very quietly. “Baseball Card Lover” by Rockin’ Richie Ray includes this line: “I was having wet dreams over Wally Moon.” Before the song is over, Rockin’ Richie is engaging in an all-out orgy with the baseball cards of Charlie Neal, Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Frank Howard. I’m not a prude. There’s obviously nothing wrong about having sex with baseball cards – as long as they’re your baseball cards – and, in fact, there may not be a more quintessentially American activity. I’m just saying that after you’ve heard Rockin’ Richie Ray ejaculate, literally hundreds of times, over a Wally Moon baseball card, you are changed.

Terry Cashman’s “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke,” which is reminiscent of both “American Pie” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“the Scooter, the Barber, and the Newk / They knew ‘em all from Boston to Dubuque”), except 10 times as cloying, was probably the song I hated the most, although I’ll grant that it’s ripe for use as the ironic backdrop to a gory murder scene in a slasher film. The fact that Cashman was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for this evil ditty should be the final word on baseball’s cultural wherewithal. 

One of the main characters in Rachel Kushner’s justly acclaimed 2013 novel The Flamethrowers is haunted by Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions”; it stays in his head for years …

When I read this passage it produced a hideous flashback to that summer. Baseball’s Greatest Hits was a musical infection against which there was no immunization. It got down deep.

The only thing that saved me was Steve Goodman and his song, “The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” which arrived in the middle of the second side of the album like a shot of vitamin B. I’d hear those first few chords and I’d stop halfway between third and home. I’d take a big breath and let my ears relax, lean on the handle of my line marker and just listen.

Goodman tells the story of a nameless Cubs fan, stricken:

Around his bed, his friends had all gathered

They knew his time was short

On his head, they put this bright blue cap

From his all-time favorite sport

The fan’s life has been cruelly disrupted by the habitual failings of the Cubbies: They introduced him to “alcohol, gambling, dope, football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis” and left his hopes like “so much popcorn for the pigeons beneath the L tracks to eat.” The tune is a gorgeous jaunt with an elegant, ragtime flavor, and between the bridges Goodman doesn’t sing, he just smoothly tells it. There’s a neighborly quality to his voice that makes me think of all the smart, wisecracking guys I’ve ever found myself sitting next to at ballparks, and made afternoon-long best friends with.*

* The only aspect of Goodman’s talent that “The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” doesn’t fully showcase is his outrageous guitar skills. The man could carve it up. Check YouTube for evidence. I would also suggest the posthumously released The Easter Tapes, which for my money contains his most vivid playing. Goodman struck plenty other songwriting gold, too, such as “The City of New Orleans” (made famous by Arlo Guthrie) and “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (made famous by David Allan Coe and written with John Prine). 

In the end, the Cubs fan asks for his corpse to be ceremoniously cremated on a pyre of Louisville Sluggers. Then, he looks forward to heaven. “I’ve got season tickets to see the Angels now,” he says, and asks to “hear that ‘Lonesome Losers’ tune,” and out goes the light.

It was, and remains, a spellbinding ballad: hilarious, mournful, clever and majestic.

There was so much about the song that pleased me. I recognized the humor in the lore even if, as a Red Sox fan in Maine, I didn’t have a clue about Chicago or the Cubs. When the Cubs fan dictates that Keith Moreland come out and “drop a routine fly,” I pictured Matt Young fielding a dribbler at the mound and then needlessly firing a 100-mile-an-hour throw 20 feet to the side of Mo Vaughn at first and into the right-field stands. The bit about the “prevailing 30-mile-an-hour southwest wind” reminded me of how miserably wet and cold and even foggy it could sometimes be at Fenway. I was enthralled by how involved the fantasy was, how it expanded outward from the fan’s deathbed, referencing players and locations and weather and trash, even boomeranging back to his friends’ protests of horror. The romance that Goodman found in losing swept me up. During high school I’d been obsessed with kicking ass – by winning friends, by impressing girls, by getting top grades, by making teams – and I was just beginning to grasp that maybe the future was going to require a different mindset.

Then, as a Red Sox fan of pre-21st-century vintage, my experiences with losing had seemed uniformly grotesque. There was 1986, of course, but closer to my heart were those brutal playoff games against the A’s: Mike Boddicker giving back the big lead, Roger Clemens inviting disaster by wearing those stupid Ninja Turtles on his sneakers, the Eck closing out games in a maelstrom of arms and legs and hitchhiking psychopath hair. But “The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” turned failure like the failure I’d witnessed into glory.

Now, all you Cubs fans, don’t let anyone tell you that being the champs isn’t awesome. I hope the Red Sox win the World Series every year and I hate it when they don’t. The three championships they’ve won since 2000 have been pure joy.

Only the first – David Ortiz’s homer off Jarrod Washburn, Dave Roberts’ steal, the bloody sock – really continues to stand out in my mind, though. Last year was the year of the beards, but the rest is already fading. In 2007, the Red Sox played the Rockies in the World Series, which is practically the definition of anti-climax. But all those seasons that came before? The Matt Young-Todd Benzinger-Butch Hobson-Butch Huskey-Wilton Veras-Brian Daubach-John Dopson-Rich Garcés-Kevin Kennedy-Jose Canseco years of scuffling, middling baseball?

I think about the championships and I’m happy. I think about all those other seasons and my life flashes before my eyes. There’s just so much more there. Your team usually does lose. Even the Yankees mostly don’t win the World Series.*

* This seems like an appropriate place to direct you to a lovely reflection on the song by Dan Pashman, who approaches it from the perspective of a rehabilitated Yankees fan.

And anyway, what’s the song in telling us how you got the brass ring?

Boasting generally isn’t attractive. When you tell how you tried and fell short, though, that’s something we want to hear about; that’s a melody anyone can appreciate.

But “The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” couldn’t keep going forever. There were 21 more songs waiting their turn. I’d straighten up and get back to work, walk the line marker the rest of the way down to the right-handed batter’s box and try to lock out the incessant rhythms of Baseball’s Greatest Hits. Which makes me think of this year’s Red Sox lineup: Ortiz and eight other guys.

“The Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is yoked, inevitably, to the fabulously talented Steve Goodman’s own early death (leukemia). I bet he’d be all right with that. A baseball fan couldn’t wish for a sweeter elegy. Like the Eck in his prime, death shuts the door on everyone, but Goodman didn’t go out with the bat on his shoulder. He got in his cuts.

Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature.