Before Monday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, Dodgers organist Dieter Ruehle was busy practicing a song he had never performed before.
After hearing that rapper Nipsey Hussle had been killed Sunday, Ruehle went home and began to practice Hussle’s “Racks in the Middle” on his keyboard.
“I figured I should do some kind of tribute to him,” Ruehle said. “I listened to some of his songs last night and sat in front of the keyboard and played a few, just learning by ear.”
It isn’t easy winning over a fan base that had grown accustomed to hearing stadium classics such as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the same person for more than a quarter century. Nancy Bea Hefley was the Dodgers’ organist from 1988 to 2015. She famously played “Master of the House” from “Les Miserables” whenever Orel Hershiser took the mound and “Food, Glorious Food” from “Oliver!” when the scoreboard advertised food specials. There was a special bond between Hefley and Dodgers fans that would be almost impossible for any successor to duplicate.
Ruehle, who is also the organist for the Kings and had worked for the Lakers and Clippers, replaced Hefley after she retired in 2015. He quickly became a fan favorite. It was a dream job for a kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and fell in love with the organ listening to Hefley’s predecessor, Helen Dell, at Dodger Stadium.
“I knew I had big shoes to fill, and during my first season in 2016 I think I tried too hard not to sound too different and I wasn’t being me,” Ruehle said. “It wasn’t until my second year that I let loose …”
Being himself meant doing songs that had never before been performed by an organist at Dodger Stadium and occasionally ignoring his playlist in order to highlight something special or pay tribute to someone. That was never more evident than during the Dodgers’ opening series against the Arizona Diamondbacks last week, when he played “Baby Shark” to razz the opponent and then “Baila Esta Cumbia” to mark Sunday’s anniversary of Selena’s death.
“Earlier [in March], Arizona did their own ‘Baby Shark’ music video and when it came out people were bashing them for it,” Ruehle said. “So I thought I’d have some fun with that. I didn’t play it until we were winning on opening day, I didn’t play it Friday, but I played it Sunday because it was a day game and there would be more kids there. I’m poking fun at the Diamondbacks, but kids love that song. It got quite a reaction on Twitter.”
Ruehle was at his creative best during the Dodgers’ 13-inning loss to Arizona that started Friday night and ended after 1 a.m. on Saturday. Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser were basically playing “Name That Tune” between pitches in the broadcast booth as fans on Twitter praised Ruehle for his song selection in the wee hours of the morning.
“When we went past midnight I played, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ from ‘Oklahoma!’ and then I played ‘Saturday in the Park’ from Chicago because it was Saturday and we were at the ballpark,” Ruehle said. “When it got to one o’clock I played ‘One’ by U2, but then later I was kicking myself because I should have played ‘One’ by Three Dog Night. I also played ‘The Longest Time’ by Billy Joel. I’ll usually play that if the game is over four hours. You never plan on playing past midnight. Those are things you just think of on fly.”
Dodgers executive Lon Rosen has known Ruehle since he was a kid. Ruehle was so determined to get his foot in the door as an organist for a team that he would write to Rosen, who worked at the Forum, inquiring about being an organist at the arena. Rosen gave him a shot to perform for the Lazers indoor soccer team in 1984, when Ruehle was 15.
“We were big fans of Nancy Bea, but when she retired Dieter was the first name that came to mind,” Rosen said. “I remember when I first met him as a kid. His mother used to drive him to the games when I used to work there. I love what he does. He really adds so much to the experience. It’s not just background music. You look forward to hearing what he’s going to play next.”
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