There would be joy in Wrigleyville four days later. But on this date 30 years ago, September 20, 1984, there was only sadness. That was the day the music died for Cubs fans. The day that folk singer Steve Goodman lost his long battle with cancer at the age of 36.
Goodman embodied the spirit of Cubs fans like no other musician has or likely ever will.
A die-hard to the core, the folk singer-songwriter from Chicago’s North Side evocatively captured all the pain and suffering of Cubdom with irony and humor in songs like the immortal “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” and “When the Cubs Go Marching In.”
His warm voice, engaging stage presence and masterful guitar playing made him an icon of the Chicago folk music scene of the 1970s. He was a fixture at the legendary live music bar Earl of Old Town and closely involved with Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
He wrote intelligent, insightful and often wickedly funny lyrics that spoke to the heart of Chicago, including “Lincoln Park Pirates,” about the notorious Lincoln Towing Company, and “Daley’s Gone,” about Mayor Richard J. Daley.
He achieved his greatest success with a song he wrote about a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans. Arlo Guthrie’s recording of Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” in 1972 became a runaway hit and the song would become an American standard, covered by many other musicians including Johnny Cash, Judy Collins and Willie Nelson, whose recording earned Goodman a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1985. Goodman won his second Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1988 for his album, Unfinished Business.
All the time he was writing and performing these enduring songs he was keeping a secret from all but his family and closest friends. In 1969, the same year of the infamous collapse of his beloved Cubs, Goodman was diagnosed with leukemia.
The classic punch line to Goodman’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” has the dying man assuring his friends that one day they’d meet again “at the Heavenly Hall of Fame,” but until then, they should not worry because he would be using “season tickets to watch the Angels.” Then he 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,” author Clay Eals wrote in his Goodman biography, “Facing the Music.” “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.”
Goodman fought a courageous battle but didn’t last to see his beloved lovable losers become winners. Just four days after his death, the Cubs clinched the Eastern Division title in the National League for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945. Eight days later, on October 2, the Cubs played their first post-season game since the 1945 World Series. Goodman had been asked to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before it; Jimmy Buffett filled in, and dedicated the song to Goodman.
In his song, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” Goodman asks that his “ashes blow in a beautiful snow….over the left-field wall…to my final resting place out on Waveland Avenue.”
Goodman’s younger brother, photographer David Goodman, was determined to carry out that last request. It took three years, but just before Opening Day of 1988, David Goodman, with an assist from local singer-songwriter Harry Waller, surreptitiously entered the Friendly Confines with a portion of the ashes in tow.
They went into the bleachers: “We stood along the wall, sang the song and let his ashes flow in a beautiful snow,” David Goodman wrote in the anthology, “Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year.” “One problem: the wind. It was blowing in that day and instead of coming to rest on Waveland Avenue, Stevie landed jus’ a little short, (on the) warning track under the 368 sign.”
Goodman’s voice can still be heard at Wrigley Field, after every Cubs win. That’s him singing through the loudspeakers, “Go, Cubs, Go.”
Video of Steve Goodman performing “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” from one of the Wrigley Field rooftops.
Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, was released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.