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Has this always been your dream, lady?" said the yellow-shirted grounds-crew person who stuck his head in the door of the little room that looks down over home plate at Three Rivers Stadium. "Huh? Playing the organ at a major league ball park, hunnhhh?"
"Mrrmm," I mumbled. I was in the middle of a play. My right hand was scurrying up the keyboard; it slid on the back of its index finger into a high D, picked itself up, shook off some fine dust and bolted off to steal yet another octave. Meanwhile my left hand plunged sideways (not unlike Graig Nettles) down to catch a low diminished chord. All right! I had just pelted the air with a flurry of 32nd notes that guided the ball like an escort of bees straight into the rightfielder's glove; at the same time, the diminished chord hunkered down a few feet in front of third base, slowing the runner just enough to get him tagged out.
"Game starts in a couple hours," the grounds-crew person said. "Keep practicing. S'long."
What did he mean? The game had started four hours ago. The home team was winning by 63 runs, thanks in part to several assists from the organist. Oops, top of the order. Crack! Fwinngg! My right hand was gone. A sluice of 64th notes sliced across the top of the squarely hit ball, shaving some stitches as it dropped the ball into the shortstop's glove. Deep in the leather, the stunned cork hummed a low E.
I had no grass stains, no bruises or pulled muscles to show for it, but for four hours my hands had done laps up and down the two keyboards of the organ, firing off salvos of notes as palpable as golf balls. The visiting team never knew what hit it. Melodic pitch coils had done counterpoint with curves, knucklers and other pitches; second inversion chords turned over double plays; quick phrases sailed down the first-base line and carried fair balls into foul territory; balls disappeared completely into whole-note rests only to reappear out of the blue in the next inning; umpires' cheeks were pricked red by staccato notes when bad calls were made; gangs of slow-moving triadic harmonies wandered into the outfield and set small fires. It was late in the afternoon. Even though the roving flocks of pigeons and swallows couldn't actually see any players out on the field, they must have felt the strange rifts in the air.
No. Playing the organ during a major league baseball game hasn't always been my dream. I would much rather play centerfield. But because I never got drafted (although I did go to spring training with the Dodgers five years ago to improve my throwing), I had to settle for playing the organ. I was practicing all afternoon my fourth day at Three Rivers Stadium. That evening the fourth and last game of a Pirates-Phillies series would be played. Nothing I had contributed to the first three games, not even a ragtime version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, had helped at all. The Pirates had lost all three, and I knew if they lost the last game I would never be invited back to be the relief organist again.
"If they don't win tomorrow you ain't comin' back, honey," Vince Lascheid, the Pirates' organist, had said to me. "You're no good-luck charm. You've got plenty of charm but no luck."
I had to get at least one RBI that night; I just had to.
Nobody is sure exactly when the organ was first used during a major league baseball game. Buzzie Bavasi, the California Angels' executive vice-president, thinks Larry MacPhail started the tradition in 1939, when he owned the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"MacPhail had a pregame show planned," says Bavasi, "what he called an 'extravaganza,' which included a foot race among three great milers, Glenn Cunningham, Gene Venzke and Joe McCluskey. I made the deal to get them to come to Ebbets Field and Larry said, 'We have to have music' An organ company donated the instrument, which became part of the regular entertainment."