To many, organs give life to baseball
Several parks proud to embrace game's rich musical tradition
CHICAGO -- White Sox organist Nancy Faust could be described as one part entertainer, one part musician and one part mad scientist. How else could the following scenario be explained?
Let's say, for example, Cleveland's Travis Hafner is stepping to the plate at U.S. Cellular Field. What music does Faust immediately decide to play for the Indians slugger? Her choice is either J. Geils' "Centerfold" or Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," of course.
"Livin' on a Prayer" has the lyric "We're halfway there," thus relating somewhat to HAF-ner. But "Centerfold?"
"Because of Hugh Hefner," said Faust with a laugh, referring to how Hafner and Hefner have very similar last names. "That's the way my little brain works."
Faust's little brain has been working as part of the White Sox organization since 1970, when as a psychology major at North Park College, she listened to her friends and wrote a letter to the team about becoming the organist at Comiskey Park. She was hired almost immediately and only missed time out of her booth on the main concourse for the birth of her son during close to four decades on the job.
That stretch of consecutive workdays came to an end for Faust last Friday night, by her own choice. With television cameras and friends sitting around with her husband at their farm in Mundelein, Ill., Faust began her new employment structure of only working day games.
While Faust made the call in this particular situation, other organists around baseball have gradually been moved out of their position or reduced to lesser in-game roles. It's not exactly a bitter switch, but more an indication of the changing times and cultural tastes.
Baseball games are so much more than strategic battles between two teams over nine innings or more. There's a great push to hook the younger fans and keep them in place for many, many years to come -- even the fans who aren't true supporters of the game itself.
That hook usually means between-innings entertainment and even canned current music being played throughout the stadium. The organist is not always linked in that hip category, but it doesn't mean that organ music is without a place in baseball.
"It's tough because you want to be something for everybody," said White Sox vice president of marketing Brooks Boyer, on the role of the organist. "There are people who don't like organ music. Then, there are people who prefer it to be the only thing they hear at a ballpark. It's something that's really part of the history of baseball, and we certainly want to continue to offer it."
"We seek to orchestrate a symphony of emotional triggers that reach as many of our fans as we can," added Boston executive vice president/public affairs Charles Steinberg. "Baseball is personal, and music enhances that personal connection. That's why the organ still plays a key role."
For many lifelong baseball fans, organ music is as much a natural part of the game as hot dogs, long home runs and strikeouts with the bases loaded. In Chicago, it has either been Faust or Gary Pressy on the North Side of town who bring sold-out crowds to their feet for a rousing seventh-inning rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
In fact, Faust admits it was the late Harry Caray who first gave her notoriety at the old Comiskey Park by asking her by name if she was ready, over the stadium public address system, before belting out this classic. Presently, Faust plays an occasional "Charge!" one hour before game time and before the visiting players enter the batter's box.
All of the White Sox players have their own entrance music, of sorts, much like almost all of the players around baseball. But even with everything from the techno-pop to the not-so-golden oldies blaring before, during or after a particular game, some fans believe there's still room for a good old-fashioned dose of the personal touch delivered by the organist.
"That would be like them doing the National Anthem with a recording," said Myrna Harline, 69, from Ventura, Calif., speaking at a recent Dodgers game in Los Angeles, where Nancy Bea Hefley has been the organist since 1988. "It just wouldn't have the same feeling or impact. You might as well just watch [the game] on TV."
"It's a part of baseball, just like the grass on the field," added Mike Collier, 45, of Alameda, Calif., who was attending an Oakland contest. "I grew up with it."
"I would hate to come to a ballgame and not hear it," added Bill Talley, 41, who was interviewed at a recent Pirates game. "When you come to the ballpark, maybe at my age, you are a little old-school, but that's one of the reasons you come here."
When Talley's 10-year-old son, Zachary, heard this particular survey topic, the young fan responded with his own question.
"An organist? What's that?" Zachary asked.
"He associates more with the rap and the three songs they put up on the scoreboard to choose from," Bill Talley added. "That's society now."
Organists clearly seem to be as much a part of the individual baseball families as they are a part of the fans' lives, judging from their longevity on the job.
Pressy has been playing music for the past two decades at Wrigley Field. The Red Sox had a fairly legendary organist named John Kiley, who played from 1953 through 1989, also doing his fair share of Celtics and Bruins games at the old Boston Garden. Kiley passed away in 1993.
Eddie Layton served in this same capacity for the Yankees from 1967 until his 2003 retirement -- he died in December 2004 -- while Paul Richardson retired after 35 years with the Phillies during this past offseason. Richardson played for three stadiums in Philadelphia, but the new stadium, Citizens Bank Park, had no organ booth. Richardson was relegated to the stadium concourse, playing for one hour before game time before giving up the music.
"I wouldn't last with that [situation], either," Hefley said. "I think a mix [of organ and recorded music] is good. I have no problem with a mix. Unfortunately, most parks have eliminated [organ music]."
All hope has not been completely lost for Hefley's wishes to become a reality. The Brewers have used an organist since 2003, when Dean Rosko took over the post as a senior in high school. The team brought back the live organ after an informal fan poll at a town hall-type event in the winter of 2002.
Most parks still have an organist, in some sort of in-game capacity or another. But whereas they once served as the hub of entertainment, almost a focal point for some, now they seem to be more background music.
And despite her reduced workload, Faust has a job for as long as she wants one with the White Sox, according to Boyer. As for whether Faust will be replaced when she departs, well that's a situation to be decided at that given time.
"The analogy I used is, 'Who follows Coach K at Duke?' " Boyer said. "If we bring in someone else behind her, the person doesn't have a chance from the get-go."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.