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The music at the ballpark

Take me out to the ballgame

Fenway Park Organist Josh Kantor Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

My wife and I recently went to an organ recital, a new experience for me. Our friend, Dick Harman, who I’ve written about before on these pages, was one of the musicians. The program was fantastic, and one of the organists, a young man named Riley Sindt, stole the show with his inspired and passionate playing.

On the drive home I began to muse about the state of organ music in major league ballparks.

The first organ to be played at a ballgame came on April 26, 1941, when Roy Nelson played an organ prior to the game. The organ was located behind the grandstand at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Gladys Golding is widely credited with being the first professional organist for a major league team. Golding was dubbed “The Ebbets Field Organ Queen” when she started playing for the Bums in 1942. She played until the team moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and was widely beloved by the Dodger faithful.

John Kiley was one of the most famous sports organists. His name was the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only person ever to play for the Boston Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins? His career with the three teams spanned from 1941 to 1989 and the guy was a legend in Beantown.

Nancy Faust, longtime organist for the Chicago White Sox, is another musician who attained cult status among the fans.

Hearing the organ at a baseball game was part of the fabric of the game for those of us who grew up in the 1950s through the 1970s. I’ll always associate two sounds with Royals Stadium. The first is the usher bellowing “Frosty Malts! Get your Frosty Malts!” I still hear that voice in my sleep and much like Pavlov’s dog, my mouth begins to water and my stomach grumbles. There’s no such thing as too many frosty malts.

The second sound is the organ, and over the years, the Royals have employed some very fine musicians.

I’ve been fortunate to have attended games in many cities and stadiums and I can say without fear of being labeled a homer, that Kansas City has always had some of the best ushers, vendors and organists in major league baseball. I’ll always remember my first game in 1973. It was a hot August evening, and my dad and uncle were throwing back an average of one Hamm’s per inning. This was the infamous Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski game. Once the beer vendor figured out who his bell cows were, he stayed nearby. After my pop and uncle drained a beer, all they had to do was raise a hand, and the usher was there, pouring two new ones. Obviously, this was long before it became unfashionable (and dangerous) to drive after drinking. I was only 12 and had only been driving for about a year (another mind-bending dangerous thought), and worst case, I probably could have navigated us back to my uncle’s Charlotte Street pad if necessary.

In 1976, we were late for the start of a game and arrived to find four young men occupying our seats. After they refused to move, the usher picked up the ringleader by the scruff of his neck and his belt and hurled him down the steps. And by hurled, I mean his body cleared the first three steps before gravity took over. The other three miscreants, fearful of flying, meekly filed out. I’ve had a soft spot for Royals ushers ever since. I also learned to never sit in someone else’s seat.

Back to the organ. The organ is the only instrument that can make a variety of sounds like someone singing, or different instruments playing. It’s a complex instrument with two keyboards, called manuals, couplers, a wide assortment of foot pedals and pull buttons on both sides which are called stop knobs. I’m not a musician, so don’t ask me for any more explanation than that. To see a master playing the organ is an impressive sight. And sound.

Today the American experience at most sporting events, including the ballpark, is primarily a video board and loud canned music. You like playing air guitar? They’ve got you covered. Dancing to YMCA? Check. How about the dreaded Kiss Cam? Whenever my wife and I end up on that, I feign picking my nose. That move usually guarantees a quick move to a more amorous participant. At a recent game, I saw a Simba Cam for the first time. Parents hoisted their infants and a few gung-ho guys tried lifting their girlfriends, Lion King style. The only cam that I truly love is the Barking Marmot. I absolutely love that thing and could probably mindlessly watch it for hours. If you haven’t seen it, a marmot barks, sometimes a single bark, other times a series of barks. The crowd does an identical bark back. This goes on for about 30 seconds, call and response. It’s hilarious.

The organ on the other hand, is a living thing with personality. The organist always plays the National Anthem and Take me out to the ballgame, two staples of the American baseball experience. You might also hear some walk-up music or something on the lines of Mexican hat dance or Tequila! Even kids not long from the womb seem to know the words to Tequila! In 1985, organist Warren Snapp was playing organ for the Clearwater Phillies. One of the umpires made a bad call, so Snapp played Three Blind Mice. The home plate umpire wasn’t amused and ejected Snapp from the game, thus becoming the first and from what I can tell, only organist ever ejected from a baseball game.

Data on the subject is thin, but it appears that about half of the Major League clubs still employ an organist. Some teams like the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and the Cubs have an organist at every game. Good for them. Others, like the Orioles and Guardians do not have an organist. Boo!

The Royals have employed several organists over the years. I looked back through my old Royal yearbooks and game programs and there’s nary a word about the team organist.

This has to a partial list, but my research turned up Joetta Moorman from 1975 to 1976, Sam Beckett from 2000 to 2008 and more recently, Walter Bryant and Chris Skau. I know there have been others and if any read this, I’d like to hear from you.

Moorman began playing a song called Georgie Porgie whenever George Brett came to the plate. It’s an old children’s nursery rhyme:

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie

Kissed the girls and made them cry

After the 1976 season, Moorman moved to Winter Haven, Florida, and eventually found her way back to the ballpark, playing spring training games. In 1992, she was playing a game featuring the Royals. As Brett approached the plate for the first time, Moorman broke into Georgie Porgie. Brett was totally caught off guard, not knowing that Moorman was behind the organ.

“He dropped his bat and stepped out of the box. He looked up at me and I smiled and waved. It was a special moment.” says Moorman.

Beckett, a Kansas City native and one of the more recent Royal organists, was almost destined to have the job. As a child, he caught a foul ball off the bat of Amos Otis at Municipal and has always been a Royals fan.

Baseball has made a few changes to the rules in recent years, most of the changes, like the pitch clock, have been good changes. Others, like the extra innings ghost runner are not so great. One thing I would like, as a fan, is to see every big-league club commit to having a full-time organist.