On April 26, 1941, the Chicago Cubs introduced organ music to the baseball field, opening up the game with the now iconic sounds. Since then, organ music has become an integral part of the baseball experience.
The idea of having organ music at a baseball game was not an entirely original idea, as live music had made an appearance before at many sports games. Pep bands, which would play to the crowd and celebrated scores that the teams made, had been around in baseball for several years before the organ was introduced.
“There’s accounts of hockey stadiums in the ‘30s that had organists, so it was not some new, crazy, wild idea. In fact before that, in the early 20th century, there’s a history of pep bands and that kind of thing being hired at baseball games, so the notion of having live music performance at sporting events had been around,” Josh Kantor, an organist for the Red Sox, said.
The organ was definitely the instrument of the era. Because of its cultural power, it created an environment around baseball that was immediately recognizable.
“The ‘50’s was definitely an era of great popularity for the organ, as an in-home instrument — before every kid wanted to play an electric guitar. But, you know, the Red Sox had organ music at all their home games continually since the start of 1953 … he was there for 37 years,” Kantor said when discussing the longstanding tradition.
The first organist at Wrigley Field was Ray Nelson, and the tradition would continue many years after Nelson first entertained the crowd for the Cubs.
However, in recent history, the popularity of organists at baseball games has declined, as technology changes and music styles change. For many stadiums that have been rebuilt for the more modern era, organs were no longer part of the stadium.
But, there is still hope. Organ music is still widely recognized as the music of America’s pastime, and organists are updating their repertoires to play more contemporary music. Kantor commented that he had played the theme from the popular app “Angry Birds” when the Red Sox played the Cardinals, which got a rise out of the crowd.
Many teams are still trying to preserve the tradition of live organists, with more than half of the 30 MLB teams reintroducing organists back to their fields. Before 2005, many teams had thrown organists by the wayside, but recently they have regained attention. This is due in part to the fact that stadiums are not only having organists play newer songs, but organists are adding a more dynamic atmosphere in the way of musical commentary to the game, as well as performing in tandem with DJs.
While many teams have struggled to maintain the tradition, the Chicago Cubs has been one of the only teams to consistently have an organist perform throughout the long history of Wrigley Field. Gary Pressy has been the organist for the Cubs since 1964, and has played the quintessential tune for over 2,500 games. He plans to continue to play for the Cubs if possible.
After all, baseball without organ music would seem a little less authentic.