Listen closely the next time you enter a major league baseball stadium. The sounds of the game are changing, but these notes harken back to the past, with a new-school twist for good measure.
In years past, the soundtrack of a baseball game, much like the silent movies of old, was provided by an organist skilled enough to give every on-field situation a musical accompaniment. Stadiums housed large, ornate organs, and the men and women behind the keys became part of the fabric of the franchises. But as the game moved into the modern era, organists were slowly phased out by most teams in favor of pre-taped songs and sound effects that could be easily broadcast over the stadium's sound system without having to pay a musician to play for hours at a time.
Somewhere along the line, however, as teams returned to “classic" venues and throwback jerseys became hip again, the organ, one note at a time, has mounted a comeback of its own.
“When I was a kid, I associated the organ with baseball. I grew up in Chicago, and they prominently feature organ music at Wrigley Field," says Matthew Kaminski, the organist for the Atlanta Braves. “That's the sound I hear when I think about the sport. That sound is not as prevalent today, but to hear someone live, a real person playing at the ballpark, is a unique experience."
Photo credit: Atlanta Braves
About half of major league teams employ an organist. Kaminski has held his position for the Braves since 2009, when a chance encounter with one of his music students led to an audition and, eventually, a job offer. A jazz musician by trade, Kaminski said he knew his style would work in a baseball setting, but that he never considered working for a team in an official capacity.
But Kaminski has embraced the job and has become one of baseball's most well-known organists, creating a name for himself on social media and interacting with fans at his account, where he takes suggestions for songs.
“At first, one of the engineers started writing down what I was playing, and I kept getting asked about it," he recalls. “I was really tired of them asking, so I started my own Twitter account and started putting down which songs I would play. Once Braves fans grabbed on to it, it really spread. It took a lot of the work away from my end, instead of me thinking about songs that were associated with opposing players, people were having a really fun time trying to come up with songs. I was maybe getting 20-30 suggestions per player."
The connection and interactivity with fans is a big reason why organists are making a comeback at MLB parks. With a level of instant gratification thanks to social media, fans can participate and get closer to their teams in a way they might not have expected. San Diego Padres organist Bobby Cressey.
Photo credit: San Diego Padres
San Diego Padres organist Bobby Cressey.
Photo credit: San Diego Padres
“I am set up in the stands and so I can interact directly with fans. Every game I have about five conversations with fans who come up to me and pay me compliments and say they absolutely love hearing the organ at the ballpark," says San Diego Padres organist Bobby Cressey. “The friendships with fellow Padres fans have been a wonderful unforeseen side benefit to doing what I do. I've met lots of great people both living in San Diego and from out of town, and through interactions on social media I've met more still. I've been able to take requests.
“And when people hear their song being played by the ballpark organist, I'd like to think they feel as if the entire organization just acknowledged their fandom and gave them a thumbs up."
Cressey, who is a professional keyboardist, began working at Padres day games in 2010, and says the organ is part of the immersive MLB experience that fans crave.
“As the baseball experience and baseball audiences have matured, people have come to value both the idea of baseball as America's pastime and the wonderful traditions associated with it. Organ is seen as a part of this," he says. “Many people go to baseball games for the ballpark experience, not just for the game on the field. This includes the sights and smells of the ballpark, and it also includes the sounds."
Both Kaminski and Cressey hope their work can inspire more teams to use organs and allow fans to appreciate a slice of baseball's past in the present.
“Anything we as organists can do to bring people more into the game, I think will be a bonus. It's a great way for us to endear ourselves with current fans," Kaminski says. “I know that there won't be a ballpark that just has stand-alone organ music… it is going to have to be a combination of both, but I hope the organ sound continues for a long time."