Are Ballpark Organists on Their Last Notes?
For a few minutes this week, it appeared that a 27-year career in major league baseball was going to be coming to an end after this season, and very few people were probably going to notice.
Nancy Bea Hefley, who has played the organ at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles since 1988, told the Los Angeles Times:
I am retiring at the end of this season. It's finally gotten to me.
It seems that in this era of walk-up music and 'kiss cams', Hefley felt there was no room for her anymore 'at the old ballgame'.
The tradition of having a live organ playing at a baseball stadium isn't as old as you might think. In an article on the history of ballpark organs, written just before this season started, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers chronicled the beginning of the marriage between baseball and the organ:
The first ballpark organ appeared at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, on Saturday, April 26, 1941. A year later, the first full-time organist was hired at New York's Ebbet's Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Ironically, Wrigley Field finally caved this season and is allowing walk-up music for the first time. It's not a coincidence that a Windy City ballpark was the first to feature an organ. The first organ at a sporting event came in 1929 at Chicago Stadium during a Blackhawks hockey game.
I grew up in the Los Angeles area and frequented both Dodger Stadium and Anaheim Stadium (now Angel Stadium of Anaheim), where I was treated to the dulcet tones of Helen Dell launching into "Happy Days Are Here Again" after every Dodger home run, or Shay Torrent tickling the keys to "California Here I Come" before an Angel game.
In fact, when Anaheim Stadium opened in 1966, the inclusion of an organ (in a "special sound-proof glass booth") was such a big deal that the Angels devoted an entire page to the new Hammond X-66 in the promotional material for their home. In the story, they raved:
The X-66 is considered the most revolutionary and most exciting instrument developed in the organ industry...capable of sounds never before heard by an audience.
How could you not be giddy to get to the ballpark after reading that?
I get that times have changed and that we've come a long way in music technology from an instrument more associated with sanctuaries than stadiums. But, there's just something about the crack of the bat, the taste of a hot dog, and the sounds of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" played on an organ, that make baseball more than just a game, but an experience. Hopefully I'm not the only one left who feels that way.
This story does have a happy ending (for now). Shortly after the L.A. Times story on Hefley's "retirement" appeared, Hefley says the Dodgers contacted her and made her an offer she couldn't refuse:
They said I had a job as long as I want the job, the job would not be open for anybody else. I will be signing a new contract at the end of the year.
That's music to my ears!