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Baseball Organist Tradition Lives on in Chicago - 2002-05-10

For long-time baseball fans in the United States, there are some things that just seem necessary for an afternoon or evening at a Major League Baseball game: a hot-dog to eat, maybe a team pennant to wave and music from the ballpark organ. But, only a few Major League teams still employ organists. Most others now use pre-recorded music. On the south side of Chicago the ballpark organist tradition lives on, there White Sox organist Nancy Faust has been keeping toes tapping for 33 seasons.

As you settle into your seat at Chicago's Comiskey Park on a warm evening to watch the White Sox and their opponents playing catch or taking batting practice before the game, organist Nancy Faust is already at work, providing background music . "I think that does set a mood," she says. "You do know you are at a ballpark because it is about the only place you hear organ music."

During the last 33 seasons, the White Sox have had hundreds of players, more than a dozen managers and two home stadiums, but only one organist. Ms. Faust got the job just after graduating from college, even though she did not know much about the game. "I had attended only one baseball game when I got the job here," she says. "I really was not a big sports fan, but I had a talent of being able to play anything, so I guess that kind of fit in."

Ballpark organists are among the traditions of baseball. The first team to hire an organist was the Chicago Cubs, back in 1941. But for years, teams had other forms of music to entertain the fans. St. Louis Cardinals organist Ernie Hays remembers those days. "They used to have strolling musicians," he says. "When I started in 1971, when they upgraded the sound system at Busch Memorial Stadium, they did away with four strolling musicians."

White Sox organist Nancy Faust says one of the challenges of the job has been keeping up with changing musical styles and tastes. "When I started, it seemed everyone was playing organ in those days," she says. "They were playing songs like, "Alley Cat," "Moon River," "Harbor Lights," easy polkas and things like that. As music changed, I think I was able to adapt to the style."

When she started working for the White Sox, Ms. Faust filled the time between innings with music. Now, most teams use that time for commercials and scoreboard games for the fans. "I do not play as much, I do not have as much airtime, but by job is still as intense because I have to pay close attention and be there when the time is right," she says.

Nancy now plays only briefly between innings, and when the visiting players are announced before their turn at bat. When White Sox players come up to bat, the stadium's disc jockey plays prerecorded music.

Faust: "The players request to the DJ what their favorite songs are."
Leland: "So the players have their own "theme songs" that are played when they come up to bat."
Faust:"Yeah, and to tell you the truth, that is one area I am not efficient at, and that is playing rap music. It is very hard for me to duplicate rap."

Since the White Sox are playing the Cleveland Indians on this particular evening, Nancy could play songs that refer to Indians. But with Cleveland among the teams criticized by some for using a Native American character as a mascot, she stays away from those tunes. "Everybody is so sensitive these days that I try to shy away from that. I think I used to be what today might be considered irreverent, but I used to be more uninhibited about everything I played," she says.

Occasionally, organists are called upon to get the fans clapping and cheering. Ernie Hays in St. Louis says choosing the right tune at the right time can create a lot of excitement in the stands. "Certain songs at certain times would put the crowd over the top," he says.

In Chicago, Nancy Faust found that out one night more than 20 years ago. On her way to the ballpark, she heard an old hit song called, "Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss him Good-bye." She thought it would be fun to play the song at that night's game. "It was a Friday night, we were playing Kansas City. They took their pitcher out," she says. "Our fans were really pumped [excited], as they always were on Friday nights when Bill Veeck owned the team."

When Nancy played the song as Kansas City's starting pitcher was being removed from the game, she was astonished to hear nearly everyone in the park sing along. It became the White Sox unofficial theme song, and the fans still join in, yelling, "hey, hey, hey, good-bye," as Cleveland's starting pitcher discovered when he was removed after the White Sox scored several runs late in this game.

Nancy gets to lead the crowd in another baseball tradition, playing, "Take Me out to the Ball game" during the seventh inning.

Today, Nancy Faust in Chicago and Ernie Hays in St. Louis are two of only eight ballpark organists remaining in the major leagues. Both can see a day when all ballparks use only prerecorded music, but both agree this is a pretty good way to earn a living. "This is a great view," she says. "The organ is located right behind home plate in the lower concourse. I have always enjoyed this because I've got some contact with the fans."

Both Nancy and Ernie say they will keep playing as long as their teams and the fans welcome them.