One thing is certain: Organs have been entertaining crowds for more than 2,000 years. An Egyptian barber, Ctesibius, invented the water organ in the third century B.C. by putting together flutes of various sizes in a frame and directing air from bellows via a keyboard. It was the world's first keyboard instrument. Organs went over big in Rome. Every time there was a great to-do, organs were used for background music. Nero played the organ at public events (he also played bagpipes)—during circuses, gladiatorial battles (Take Me Out to the Colosseum'!) and horse races.
It may be that the organ's greatest virtue, since the very beginning, has been its volume. The Roman Hydraulus (an organ that utilized water to keep air in the air reservoir at a constant pressure) could blast out a sound that could be heard miles away. It was so loud that the organists had to wear earplugs, and the keys were so wide that they had to bang them with their fists, or with hammers. It's hard to believe, but because of the rowdy gallivanting associated with organ music, the early Christians banned the instrument. It wasn't until the fifth century that organs were commonly used in churches.
Because of its versatility—the organ has a wider range and variety of tone color than any other instrument—it bellowed through several centuries seeking to fulfill its potential by getting bigger, louder and more complex. An organ at Winchester Cathedral in England required 72 men to work it; two played it and 70 pumped the 26 bellows to fill 400 pipes with air. Two centuries later multiple keyboards and pedals were developed, thanks in part to Albert van Os, a Dutchman, the first full-time organ builder.
In the 15th century the Abbot of Baigne in France temporarily departed from the trend toward grander organs when he devised one for Louis XI that was made out of hogs. According to Bouchet's Annales d'Aquitaine: "Out of a number of hogs, of several ages, which he mustered up, and placed under a tent or pavilion, covered with velvet (before which he had a sound-board of wood, all painted, with a number of keys) he made an organ, and as he played upon said keys with little spikes, which pricked the hogs, he made 'em cry in such time and consort as highly delighted the king and all his company."
The king and all his company would be delighted by some of the organs at various ball parks today; the attached synthesizers that growl and say "wow" could easily say "M'lord."
The largest and loudest organ—or musical instrument for that matter—ever made is the Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City. Built in 1930, it has two consoles with a total of 12 keyboards, 1,477 stops, and 33,112 pipes from [3/16] of an inch to 64 feet in length. Its flat-out volume, generated by blower motors of 365 horsepower, equals that of 25 brass bands. Operated by pressure of up to 100 inches of water, its pure trumpet tone is six times louder than that of the loudest locomotive whistle. It is the organ to end all organs. Not long after it was built, the electrification of the mechanical parts of the organ reversed the trend toward monstrous size and overwhelming power. Like the Wizard of Oz, the guy behind the curtain, most ball-park organs today can fit into the back of a station wagon. But they can really put on a show.
When a player comes to bat in Houston's Astrodome and his name is announced over the public-address system, Don Baker, the organist, tries to create a sound on his two-keyboard Kawai organ that approximates the player's name. When the opposing team walks a batter, Baker tries to make a chicken sound while the message board lights up with a picture of a chicken.
"We have suboctave ranges," says Phillies organist Paul Richardson, "and with the synthesizer you can get a good amount of g-r-ooww-ling sounds. You do that when a guy is grumpy. And I can slide into the violin thing, the old Jack Benny routine." Richardson has a Yamaha, but not the newest model, which makes Star Wars sounds. "Mine has a pulse analogue and a digital system so you can create a lot of effects with the synthesizer," says Richardson. "It also has a separate synthesizer, a portamento, which gives you more effect...squ-eea-ling sounds."
"The portamento is kind of the heart of the synthesizer," says the Angels' organist. Shay Torrent, whose Hammond X-66 is equipped with one. "It does what the organ won't do, i.e., go up and down and slide at any speed."
Fernand Lapierre, the organist at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, has a Kawai EX-700. "It has digital sound." he says. "Perfect pitch. I can play like a drum corps when Youppi [the Expos' mascot] is marching on the dugout. I can make trumpet sounds that are just like a trumpet. We used to have a lot of echo in the stadium, a revolving sound, but now with this Kawai we don't have any trouble. It's like vegetable soup. You put it through a blender. You know it has peas, but you can't find the pea. With this, you'll see the pea. You'll see the carrots. You'll see the cabbage."