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The Stadium Organ Is Alive And As Goofy As Ever

Los Angeles Kings music director, Dieter Ruehle, plays a 1941 Wurlitzer organ during the ribbon cutting and reopening of the LA Kings Iceland at Paramount on October 26, 2022 in Paramount California.
Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images|

Dieter Ruehle at his organ in the LA Kings arena.

John Benedeck sits at Wrigley Field’s stately stadium organ in a Hawaiian shirt, absolutely ripping the chorus to The Champs’ “Tequila.” He plays the lead-in; the crowd responds with a resounding “TEQUILA!” He nods, satisfied. Another day at the office.

At age 30, Benedeck represents the next generation of stadium organists—improvisational all-stars who have helped revitalize the practice in MLB stadiums. Over the last decade, several Major League teams have returned to the organ as an important piece of in-stadium entertainment, hiring musicians like Benedeck to keep the grand tradition alive through a more modern sensibility.

Since 1941, baseball fans have delighted in the organ’s strange, wooly tones. That’s when Ray Nelson, who is widely credited as the first organist to ever rock the keys at a baseball game, slipped behind the grandstand at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Shortly after, Gladys Goodding became the first designated professional organist for a major league team, holding court at Ebbets Field from 1942 to 1957. For the next half-century, stadiums recruited musicians from television, radio, and classical piano backgrounds to amp up fans and players alike.

Then came the dark years: a brief but notable decline in the mid-aughts, when teams like the Los Angeles Angels ditched the live organ in favor of pre-recorded tracks. But Major League  teams quickly came to their senses, re-investing in the organ’s traditional sound. Jeremy Boyer, the St. Louis Cardinals’ organist—who, like Benedeck, has a sizable TikTok following—joined the team in 2011. The Miami Marlins hired Tabitha Barattini, one of the few female stadium organists, in 2014. The last few years have seen an even bigger spike in the craft: The Chicago Cubs hired not one, but two replacements for Gary Pressy, who retired in 2019—the aforementioned Benedeck, along with Josh Langhoff, who also works as a professional church organist. Meanwhile, this past May Dave Calendine became the Detroit Tigers’ first live organist since the team moved to its current stadium in 2000.

Langhoff, the Wrigley Field organist hired alongside Benedeck, believes the organ renaissance is proof of the value of live music at sporting events. “Wrigley has very high customer satisfaction ratings, and I think John [Benedeck] and I have something to do with that,” he says. “[The organ] is a unique sound that people automatically associate with the ballpark, even if they have no idea what songs we're playing. Even if our little jokes are just completely sailing past them, it's a sound associated with that environment that marks it as its own iconic space.”

Sir Foster, the former Atlanta Hawks organist and current University of Georgia sports DJ, agrees, though his approach skews less traditional than Langhoff’s. He developed a large following for his wildly creative multi-instrumental setup during his time with the Hawks—a combination of the organ, keyboard, and saxophone.

“Say it’s the fourth quarter [in basketball],” Sir Foster tells me. “There’s two minutes and 30 seconds left, and you’ve got a tense moment—maybe you have a video review after a call. The crowd is on edge, and we’ve got to stop and wait for the officials to do their thing. The review could take 30 seconds; it could take five minutes. And so as a sports musician, I have to meet the crowd where they are. I've got to keep their energy high so we can jump right back in after that video review. You could lose your crowd at that moment. And if you lose 20,000 people—if you can't harness their energy—that can be the difference between a win and a loss on the professional level.”

Sir Foster and Benedeck both regularly share behind-the-scenes footage showcasing the hidden elements of their craft. “There seems to be a kind of organ enlightenment happening—[attracting] people who didn't otherwise pay attention at baseball games, or didn't even pay attention to baseball,” Benedeck says. “It’s inviting a whole new fan base on the internet from all over the world.” He compares the appeal of watching the organ on TikTok to “videos of some guy building a pool in his backyard,” adding: “Maybe it’s something that you would never think of doing, but you can’t help but be intrigued by it because it's unique and interesting.”

Sir Foster notes that social media is also a great way to raise awareness of the unique intensity of live sports musicianship. “I have to be paying attention to 10 things at one time,” he says. “I gotta be paying attention to the game itself, the crowd; I've got to listen to my in-game producer. I'm listening to the people on my TikTok and Instagram Live feeds. I'm watching the players’ body language. I’m watching my instrument.” 

Of course, not all franchises recognize the value of the craft. From 2020 to 2023, Dustin Tatro was the official organist for the Texas Rangers, single-handedly redoing the pre-recorded organ library at the Rangers’ stadium. Prior to the 2024 season, Tatro was let go and the organ tracks were replaced by pre-recorded guitar covers. “I don't think it was ever a priority for the majority of the ownership,” Tatro tells me. “They switched everything to this very loud and obnoxious electric guitar, and totally dropped all organ music. It’s a heartbreaking situation, to be honest with you.”

The Rangers seem to be an anomaly—at least for now. That’s great news for artists like Langhoff, who argues that live organists bring something completely unique to the table. “As we're getting into the era of AI music, there are things that humans on instruments can accomplish that AI just has no hope of accomplishing,” Langhoff says. “Part of that is real-time interaction with fans—sensing when the crowd needs to cheer, and when they need encouragement to cheer. That's something that can't be replicated by a machine.” 

For example: organists’ playful responses to opposing players’ names, which Langhoff cites as one of his favorite parts of the job. “I played ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca to tease [Padres shortstop] Xander Bogaerts, just making the Bogart–Bogaerts connection,” Langhoff says. “I did ‘Paperback Writer’ for [Yankees center fielder] Trent Grisham, making the John Grisham connection.” Subtle, but scathing—and fun for attentive fans.

Organists are also responsible for real-time responses to events, both on and off the field. Case in point: Los Angeles Dodgers organist Dieter Ruehle played Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” when an earthquake shook the stadium in 2019. “I like to acknowledge things as they’re happening during the game—what's going on in the world around us, what's happening in the stadium or on the field,” Ruehle says. “Hopefully, I can give the fans a chuckle or bring a smile to their face.” 

Langhoff says that he and Benedeck are constantly working to expand their repertoires; he included current-day hits like Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” in the initial audition to replace Pressy. Staying relevant is a big part of continuing to connect with fans, Benedeck explains, and it’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. 

“I get to be a Cubs fan as an occupation,” says Benedeck, who was raised in the Chicago suburbs. “Going to Wrigley was one of those things—listening to [Cubs broadcasters Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer] on the radio, watching games with my dad—all of these things culminated in my love for music.” Now, it’s his turn to inspire young fans—and it all starts with “Tequila.”

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