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Ballpark organists: They’re out

Times Staff Writer

The fate of baseball organists is best symbolized by which of these ballpark anthems:

a) “Another One Bites the Dust”

b) “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”

c) “Hit the Road Jack”

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d) all of the above

The answer is d. Earlier this year, the L.A. Angels of Anaheim became the latest team to sack its keyboard player in favor of prerecorded organ music and rock songs.

Peggy Duquesnel, an accomplished jazz musician who had tickled the ivories for the Angels since 1998, was dismissed before the season started.

Ballpark organists have “kinda gone the way of the dodo bird,” says Nancy Faust, who has been playing keyboard for the Chicago White Sox since 1970 and doesn’t expect to be replaced when she retires.

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Duquesnel, whose organ repertoire includes about 1,000 songs from various genres, says prerecorded music lacks spontaneity: “Times change, but I still think live music is valuable. There’s a feeling that comes through that you can’t get mechanically.”

Baseball purists have decried the trend toward recorded music as another example of the sport abandoning its roots. But by that logic, ballparks never should have allowed organs in the first place. Although fans might assume the instruments have been a fixture since baseball’s beginnings, that isn’t the case.

Ballpark entertainment has taken a number of twists over the decades, from tightrope walkers and exploding scoreboards to giant chickens and outfield geysers. In the 1800s, brass bands strolled through the stands, says Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Organ music didn’t debut until 1941 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. And even then, it didn’t immediately catch on -- nor has it been unanimously admired by fans over the years. During the 1970s, the Sporting News published letters complaining that organs “detract from the game” and should be “removed and put back in church where they belong,” according to John Odell, co-curator of the Hall of Fame’s forthcoming “Sacred Ground” exhibit on ballpark history.

Despite such protests, the organ has carved out a memorable niche in baseball lore. During the streaker craze of the 1970s, for example, a naked man sprinted across the field in Philadelphia, prompting the keyboardist to play Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”

Even in the organ’s heyday, however, teams kept experimenting with new ways to amuse crowds. In 1960, Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck pioneered the exploding scoreboard. When one of his batters homered, the contraption erupted with strobe lights, pinwheels, fireworks and the sounds of sirens, fog horns and crashing trains.

Another turning point in ballpark theatrics occurred in 1974, when Ted Giannoulas donned his radio-station chicken costume and began cavorting in the bleachers at San Diego Padre games, paving the way for legions of team mascots. A year after the Chicken hatched, the Baltimore Orioles ushered in the era of rock music at ballgames, an idea that quickly swept through the majors.

The transition to electronic entertainment wasn’t always smooth. The first time Giannoulas requested rock music for a skit, in 1978, he discovered the ballpark’s sound system was so prehistoric that he had to bring in a boombox and have the stadium announcer hold a microphone next to it, he says.

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Although rock songs and mascot antics chipped away at organ time, the real beginning of the end was the video scoreboard, which premiered in 1980 at Dodger Stadium. Slowly but surely, blooper reels, dot races, fan cams and other displays began displacing organ music.

“When I started 15 years ago, it was just myself and the organist,” says Angel public-address announcer David Courtney.

Today, like most ballparks, Angel Stadium is as electrified as the Las Vegas Strip, with flashing billboards, fireworks, geysers, videos and a deafening soundtrack -- all operated by a 30-person entertainment crew.

A notable holdout in the audio-video revolution is Wrigley Field. “It’s like walking into a baseball time capsule,” says Chicago Cub spokesman John McDonough. “I’m not sure that playing Velvet Revolver between innings is consistent with what we’re trying to market.”

At least for now. Although live organ music still has the upper hand, rock songs were added to the soundscape a few years ago, McDonough says.

Across town, the White Sox have sharply curtailed organist Faust’s playing time, except on June 22, a throwback game billed as “Nothing but Nancy Day.”

Dodger Stadium scaled back its live organ music last year but reversed course this season after complaints, says Drew McCourt, director of marketing. And various sportswriters have lambasted what one calls the “loud, artless, artificial, force-fed noise” of modern ballparks.

A big irritant seems to be the music used to introduce batters as they step to the plate. In the old days, organists improvised the “walk-up” tunes. When Mark Grudzielanek batted at the 1996 All-Star game, the organist played Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” (Such improvs occasionally backfire. At a 1985 minor league game, keyboardist Wilbur Snapp was ejected by an umpire for playing “Three Blind Mice” after a controversial call.)

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Now, stadium DJs cue up thumping rock and rap themes chosen by the batters. But Giannoulas, a.k.a. the San Diego Chicken, says that has gotten out of hand: “I don’t think seniors or a family of four can identify with White Zombie. Who’s the game for, the guy at bat or the guy who paid to get in?”

Even DJs sometimes lose patience with the songs. “They’re the biggest thorn in my side,” Bruce McGuire confides during a Friday night game at Angel Stadium. When infielder Dallas McPherson goes to bat accompanied by music from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” McGuire chuckles and says, “If it works for him, great. But for me, hearing it three or four times a night, just shoot me now.”

For many fans, however, the audio-video blitzkrieg is part of the fun. “Loud? It could never be too loud,” says Dan Sbur of Riverside, a 44-year-old math teacher who has been attending Angel games since he was 6.

At Angel Stadium, the entertainment and pyrotechnics crew follows a 30-page script during games. The document maps out music, ads, scoreboard videos, trivia games and other events down to the quarter-minute. “The only thing we can’t script is the final score, unfortunately,” announcer Courtney says.

Communicating via headsets with director Peter Bull, the entertainment group camps out in an area above the press box, occasionally ducking foul balls. At their disposal: banks of TV monitors, assorted clapping sound effects, video editing bays, push-button song selectors and canned organ music, including “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 12 keys.

Many fans seem unaware of the change, which has received scant publicity. “I wouldn’t have guessed [the organ music] was on tape,” Sbur says after a recent game.

Faust, the White Sox organist, says replacing organs with rock songs is costing baseball part of its identity. “We’re losing a sound associated with the game,” she says. “Now, we’re hearing the same music you hear at the shopping malls. There’s nothing baseball about it.”


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