December 8, 2014 / Praxis
Karen Swallow Prior meditates on the slow marriage of North and South.
June 9, 2016
My first musical love was the 1984 Chicago Cubs. You may have missed their contribution to the great American songbook—they’re better known for bringing the ballclub to the postseason for the first time in thirty-nine years and then promptly losing to the Padres. For reasons unclear to me, at some point in the mid-1980s, five Cubs players recorded “Men in Blue,” a country-flavored ode to their employer. The song features Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, Gary Woods, and Rick Sutcliffe summoning their best twang and a few painfully forced rhymes, undeterred by their varying musical ability:
As sure as there’s ivy on the centerfield wall,
The men in blue are gonna win it all.
It might be better if this little ditty were lost to history, but some time back I discovered it on a cassette in my junk drawer. It’s not even the strangest song on the tape. Titled The one and only more or less official CUBS PARTY ALBUM and Rally Starter, the collection includes nine Cubs-themed songs that share the best and worst of mid-1980s production values. There are surf-rock guitar riffs and jangling keyboards, each note bathed in the sugary, upbeat tone of commercial radio. Almost every song shoehorns a marketing line like “you can catch it all on WGN.” One remakes Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy” in homage to right-field slugger Andre Dawson: “There he goes, just a-walkin’ to the plate, swingin’ do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.”
Talentwise, the highlight is probably the Beach Boys making an appearance to recast two of their hits as Cubbie anthems. “Barbara Ann” becomes “Here come the Cubs,” and “Surfin’ Safari” becomes “Cubby Safari.” The harmonies are great as ever—they make you want to grab your bat and ball and go surfing—but this was not a high point in the band’s career. As far as I can tell, the songs originally aired as broadcast filler during ballgames on WGN Radio. In 1987, the station sold the collection as a mail-order promotion for $6.99. My aunt Kathy bought a tape and made me a copy.
Aunt Kathy was one of the only other Cub fans I knew. I grew up south of the city in a family of loyal White Sox fans. It was the same at school, where us few Cub fans suffered mockery and persecution akin to the early church in hiding. Or so it felt.
The Cubs, of course, haven’t won a championship since 1908. They haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1945. They went nearly forty years without making it to the postseason. Until their recent success—which is upending everything I thought I knew about the world—the team has appeared in the national media mostly as a punchline about the hapless loyalty of its fans. That only strengthened my stubborn affection as a child. To my mind, the Cubs’ red, white, and blue uniforms evoked the other good guys I loved, the USA and Superman. Together, the three represented a righteousness so much more inviting than the sinister black-and-silver of the White Sox.
The song that captured my childhood heart, even more than “Men in Blue,” was a surprisingly devotional number awash in synthesizer. “You’re My Cubs,” by Alan Barcus and Gary Pigg, chronicles a journey I made at least once a summer. It describes the trip to Wrigley Field on a beautiful summer day—“listening to WGN,” of course—culminating with:
I hear the call of the ivy on the wall
God’s own green grass, let’s play ball
Growing up, I was taught never to use the Lord’s name in vain, even casually. That reference to “God’s own green grass” rang out as vaguely sacrilegious, as something my Sunday school teachers might not like. It also thrilled me because I knew exactly what it meant to want to praise that stunning emerald field.
Every year, usually for my birthday in June, my parents took me to Wrigley Field. We would drive into the city, past the thicket of downtown skyscrapers, and into the North Side. Wrigley stands in the heart of an urban neighborhood, surrounded not by vast parking lots but by the heave and bustle of the city (as anyone who has tried to find parking there could attest). I’d hold my parents’ hands as we walked along the crowded sidewalk, the El train clattering overhead. We moved through turnstiles into the concourse, weaving through the fans pushing toward hot dogs and beer.
I don’t remember a single play from any of those games, but I remember the moment the ballfield came into view. We climbed steps through a concrete tunnel, rising out of dim light, and suddenly the field appeared, expansive and gleaming. Green ivy traced an arc across the outfield wall. The oldest scoreboard in baseball, men inside changing the wooden numbers by hand, stood sentry above. And my heroes, the men in blue pinstripes, moved languidly around the field, tossing long warm-up throws, swinging bats three at a time, and joking with the easy confidence of athletes in their prime.
The sight caught my breath every time.
Looking back, I wonder if the stadium itself charmed me more than the team. Devoted as I was, the Cubs could be difficult to love. Their 0–14 start in 1997 was a tough one to defend at school. Wrigley Field, on the other hand, never had a bad year. Built in 1914 and home to the Cubs since 1916, the stadium was packed with stories. Aside from the old green scoreboard and the ivy, the red marquee out front stood as a throwback to an era before jumbotrons. The outfield bleachers were famous for beer-fueled revelry, which I could enjoy vicariously, even if I’d never sat there or tasted beer. The broadcaster Harry Caray, in a younger era, announced games from the cheap seats, leading the bleacher bums in calls for the beer man. Long before he became the subject of lame Saturday Night Live skits, Caray gave Cub fans beloved catchphrases and, more than that, an unashamed enthusiasm for our team.
At Wrigley, home-run balls flew out of the park onto Waveland and Sheffield avenues, where ballhawks with gloves waited in lawn chairs. Visiting teams complained about the famously cramped clubhouse. Men and boys relieved themselves in long rows at “the troughs” (perhaps enough said about that).
For a scapegoat for the championship drought, fans could blame Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, who cursed Wrigley when his pet goat was kicked out of the stands during the 1945 World Series. And there was the 1988 controversy when Wrigley added lights and became the last major-league stadium to hold night games, bowing to pressure from the league. In a message with obvious divine origins, that first night game was rained out. During the downpour, four Cubs ran out of the clubhouse and slid belly-first across the bright blue tarp that covered the infield. I watched from home in awe, dimly aware that this night would become part of Cubbie history.
I can see now that these stories were what I loved about the team. I read about them wherever I could and even built a model Wrigley in my basement with Legos and two-by-fours. I think I craved such mythology because the place where I lived had nothing like it. I grew up on the outer fringe of Chicagoland, in a subdivision recently converted from a cornfield. Nothing in my town seemed more than ten years old. We had strip malls and golf courses and one choked creek trickling behind housing developments. None of the towns bore a distinct identity as one ran into another in the suburban patchwork.
Wrigley Field offered a sense of belonging to something older. Sitting beneath the steel rafters, watching the outfield flags snap in the wind off the lake, it was easy to imagine a crowd seventy-five years ago doing the same. They’d be wearing suits and summer dresses and straw hats, cheering for the same pinstriped team. I could feel a connection to something that began long before I was born.
After high school, I moved away and fell out of touch. Then a few years ago, I went to a game. I had forgotten about my old cassette until the top of the ninth, when the Cubs sealed the victory and a song came on that I recognized immediately. It was one of the corniest songs on the tape, and that’s saying something. The folk singer Steve Goodman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had written “Go, Cubs, Go” as a peace offering to the team. Earlier, he had written the darker “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” a wry, bitter song from the perspective of a dying fan to the team that had always let him down. This first (and much better) song had no marketing value to the team or its corporate parents at WGN. So Goodman wrote “Go, Cubs, Go” for WGN to play on the radio. There is little more to it than the title phrase and “Hey Chicago, what do you say / the Cubs are gonna win today.”
Here in the stadium, trying to explain my childhood affection to my wife, I listened as the stadium PA played the song. At the chorus, a sizeable portion of the crowd sang along, joining in the cheesy little tune before dispersing into the night.
I was reminded all over again why I love the gathering that happens in Wrigley Field. We so rarely sing in public—outside of karaoke and maybe church, it hardly happens at all. It was surprisingly moving to hear a crowd of forty thousand sing the same song, even for a moment. I realized that Wrigley Field is special not just because it’s old but because it’s loved by a group of people who have pledged their loyalty to this particular team. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the Cubs, the fans around me, and my parents, those dutiful Sox fans who took me to see the Cubs anyway.
Yes, professional baseball is lousy with greed, crass marketing, and a shameful record on steroids. It panders to the one percent in the private suites. Even the ivy wall at Wrigley now has Under Armour logos on the service doors, the clean visual sweep of green broken up by ads for overpriced spandex. Last year, the owners installed a jumbotron above the bleachers—one more place to blast beer ads at fans who need no convincing. The screen blocks home run balls from reaching Waveland Avenue, ensuring that souvenirs go only to paying customers. Baseball is as corrupt as any religion.
I was raised, like a good Calvinist, to believe that every place on earth is equally sacred and God-breathed. I was taught to believe that, in Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper’s formulation, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”1 In other words, temples aren’t the only holy places and priests aren’t the only holy people. God’s domain includes the dinner table, the streets, and every inch of creation, the entire stormy, husky, brawling world.
Sure, fine, I guess. Every inch may be sacred, but some places sure feel more sacred than others. Wrigley Field was the first such place to teach that to me but not the last. Wrigley taught me to look for particular places charged with grandeur and beauty and something that makes my heart swell and want to sing their praise. Instead of denying that the same quality could show up in other places (except maybe U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play), it makes me want to look for more holy places and study what makes them special.
So often they seem to involve music and art and some sort of generosity, even if it’s only the generosity of affection for a team that rarely wins. More than that, these places involve people coming together in support of something bigger than themselves. They involve people sharing sustenance, bread and wine or hot dogs and beer. I don’t fully understand this. Sometimes that makes me want to scrutinize them further, and sometimes it makes me want to sing in gratitude for their gift. The Cubs taught me to seek those places and to sing their praise long and loud when the chance comes. That’s better than a championship.
Jonathan Hiskes is a writer and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones, River Teeth, the Sun, Image, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. Read more of his writing at Jonathanhiskes.com.