By Scott A. Rowan
Though many athletes have tried, few have been able to make a successful crossover into the music industry. Sure, former New York Yankee Bernie Williams can brag that he was nominated for a 2009 Latin Grammy for his instrumental album Moving Forward. But Carl Lewis’ botched national anthem in 1993 was both a low point in musical history and a high point in unintentional comedy. John McEnroe, Pele, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Deion Sanders, Bronson Arroyo, Barry Zito, Ozzie Smith, Coco Crisp, and Chris Webber are only a few of the athletes who have attempted to make their mark in music history, with dubious results.
The Chicago Cubs have had several players try their hand at music. Former player/ manager Charlie Grimm often played his banjo and sang in the clubhouse, and he spent his off-seasons on theater stages throughout the Midwest entertaining crowds. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, former Cubs Mike Kelly, Cap Anson, and Rabbit Maranville all took to the vaudeville stage. And even gruff manager Leo Durocher sang and danced for the troops overseas after World War II.
In 1908, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers lent their name to a ghostwritten song called “Between You and Me” (a love song, strangely enough). The song’s real writer, Chicago music publisher Will Rossiter, simply thought he would sell more records with the Cubs players’ names attached and was apparently unaware that Evers and Tinker had an infamous feud that lasted decades. But the two apparently squelched their bitter feelings when the opportunity to make some money arose—although neither player sang in the recording.
The history between baseball and music goes back even further, to before the Civil War. In 1858, J. Randolph Blodgett wrote “The Base Ball Polka” while he was playing for the Niagara Baseball Club from Buffalo, New York. So, no, the Cubs cannot claim to have been the first team to have players who were singers. They cannot even claim to have the first teammates to form a band. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang of the 1930s had a group of players led by outfielder/ first baseman Pepper Martin who started a band called the Mississippi Mudcats. The group played popular country tunes in the clubhouse and occasionally on the radio.
All of these players turned musicians of the past played popular songs of the day rather than original pieces of their own. That all changed in 1969. That year Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who played the electric organ, toured the country, even playing in Las Vegas. Soon after, he began an unfortunate string of run-ins with the law that ruined his career and overshadowed his athletic and musical accomplishments.
That same year several Cubs players recorded the first song sung by teammates bragging about how good they were. The song was a folksy tune that appeared on an album called Cub Power. Entitled “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel” (GeoVerse™199), it featured utility player Willie Smith, second baseman Nate Oliver, and catcher Gene Oliver singing:
Hey! Hey! Holy mackerel! No doubt about it! The Cubs are on their way.
The Cubs are gonna hit today, They’re gonna pitch today, They’re gonna field today.
Come on, man, the Cubs are gonna win today
Hey! Hey! Holy mackerel! No doubt about it! The Cubs are on their way.
They’ve got the hustle. They’ve got the muscle.
The Chicago Cubs are on their way.
Sure, the lyrics are tame by today’s standard, but history must begin somewhere. The title of the song referred to the home-run calls of announcers Jack Brickhouse (“Hey! Hey!”) and Vince Lloyd (“Holy mackerel!”). The same trio of Cubbies sang another tune called “Baseball Baseball” on the album, and Nate Oliver and Smith did a number called “Pennant Feeling.” It was a feel-good album that even featured the Bleacher Bums singing versions of “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
In 1984, the Cubs once again found themselves bragging about their team in song. That was the first year since 1969 that the North Siders were any good, clinching the National League East division. Before the season ended, five Cubs recorded the song “Men in Blue” (GeoVerse™200), sharing their self-confidence with the world. Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, catcher Jody Davis, first baseman Leon Durham, and outfielders Keith Moreland and Gary Woods appeared on this country tune that included lyrics similar to “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel,” but with a modern edge:
It’s been a long time since 1945,
But the Wrigley Field faithful always kept the spirit alive, And now’s the time and here’s the place we even up the score, The hopes are high the pennant will fly,
Over Wrigley Field in ‘84,
And as sure as there’s ivy on the center-field wall, The men in blue are going to win it all
At the same time the Cubs were singing “Men in Blue,” the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers were taking advantage of a new technology— videotape—to record a rap song titled “We’re the 49ers.” Of course, this team had a right to brag: the 49ers went 15–1 in the regular season and crushed the Miami Dolphins 38–16 in the Super Bowl. Sadly, the Cubs did not fare as well that year, losing the National League Championship Series to San Diego in five games.
The 49ers’ song was a regional hit that didn’t get any national play. “Men in Blue” started out that way, with a local distributor expecting merely tepid regional sales, but orders soon poured in from across the country. The original pressing of 10,000 singles sold out almost instantly.
As most sports fans (and even many nonsports fans) know, the following year the Chicago Bears recorded “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—a song that would eventually hit No. 41 on the Billboard charts and garner an Emmy nomination in rhythm and blues. What the Cubs had begun, the Bears improved upon.
Soon there was no stopping teams in every sport from recording their own songs bragging about how good they were. In 1986, the New York Mets recorded “Get Metsmerized,” the Los Angeles Dodgers sang “Baseball Boogie,” the Los Angeles Rams had “Let’s Ram It,” and the Los Angeles Raiders made “Silver and Black Attack.” In 1987, the Calgary Flames recorded “Red Hot.” In 1988, the Philadelphia Eagles made “Buddy’s Watching You.” In 1990, the US World Cup soccer team helped record “Victory,” and the Miami Dolphins made “Can’t Touch Us.” In 1993, the New York Knicks made “Go NY Go.” In 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals and Bootsy Collins recorded “Fear Da Tiger.”
This list obviously doesn’t even touch on all the high school and college sports teams who have recorded songs since the start of the twenty-first century, particularly doing covers of the teen hit “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Some traditions are not worth emulating.
Gil Bogen, Tinker, Evers and Chance: A Triple Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 86.
Robert Cantwell, “The Music of Baseball,” Sports Illustrated, October 3, 1960, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1071836/1/index.htm.
Moira McCormick, “Cubs Go to Bat for Charity,” Billboard, October 13, 1984.
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