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Swan song for Ernie Hays

Ernie Hays retires on Sunday as the Cardinals organist.
Kelsey Proud, St. Louis Public Radio
Ernie Hays retires on Sunday as the Cardinals organist.

By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio


St. Louis – Can you name the only person to ever play for the football Cardinals, the baseball Cardinals, and the St. Louis Blues in the same season?

A hint: think about the different meanings of the word "play."

Still can't figure it out? Take your mind to Busch Stadium, 7th inning stretch. Clydesdales on the scoreboard.

Seventy-five-year old St. Louis native Ernie Hays was a teenager when he first played the organ at the Baptist church his family attended. About 20 years later, Hays when an engineer at Bell Systems when he ended up in the right place at the right time.

"Back in '71, a friend of mine who had several music stores got the option available to put an instrument in Busch Stadium for the first time ever. He says, so would you be interested in auditioning?," Hays said, sitting on a glorious Wednesday afternoon in the narrow space among the scoreboard operators and stadium DJs that holds his Lowery organ. "So I said, sure."

The organ at Busch was not the first to serenade Cardinals fans. Joe Garagiola's wife Audrey played at Sportsman's Park. But Hays was the first at the "new" Busch Stadium when it opened in 1966. The rest, as they say, is history.

At some point in a long career, Hays has played for seven different sports teams: baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer: both indoor and outdoor.

"I played for the ABA Spirits of St. Louis basketball team, and I did women's basketball, too," Hays said. It was at a St. Louis Steamers soccer game at the old Arena that Hays first played the Budweiser advertising jingle "Here Comes the King" to get the crowd going.

"Denny Long, the CEO of Anheuser Busch came over to the organ booth and said we can't afford to pay for the advertising that you're giving us for free. Never fear, we'll take care of you. They did. I had a personal services contract for years," he said with a grin.

These days, the Cardinals are Hays's main focus. He gets down to the ballpark about two hours before the game starts and grabs a bite to eat at the press box down the hall. Hays said he might sit and think about what to play for an hour or so, but that's rare. He uses no music: it's all in his head.

The organ and the Cardinals radio booth have always been down the hall from each other - a thrill for the "poor kid" who grew up listening to the team on KMOX.

"Even thinking about that gives me chills," Hays said. "Most of these people are gone now, and I had great, great great times with these folks." He still enjoys hanging out with Red Schoendienst.

For the first 12 years the Cardinals were at Busch, Hays was THE music. He picked and played the themes that accompanied Cardinal batters to the plate, including the music from the "Wizard of Oz" for fan favorite Ozzie Smith.

"Lou Brock was the theme from Shaft, his request," Hays said. "One day I was talking to Reggie, [Smith] the right fielder, in the clubhouse, I said what do you want to hear when you come to the plate. And Lou Brock heard that and he said, just play something spacey."

Over time, though, tastes in music changed. The Cardinals started adding pre-recorded music over the loudspeakers. Hays's playing time dwindled.

Now, he plays for 30 minutes before the game - some of which is overshadowed by on-field ceremonies - for 20 minutes afterward, and the well-known clap chants designed to get the crowd going. And of course, "Here Comes the King" at the end of the 7th inning.

Rarely anymore does he get to play two of his favorite songs, the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Local choirs usually handle those duties now.

Public address announcer John Ulett and Hays have shared space for nearly three decades. Before the high-tech scoreboards were the norm, Ulett and Hays had their own small room.

At first, Ulett said, Hays was upset by his diminishing role.

"We all fight changes like that when they come, but his role was never unimportant. I think Ernie caught onto that after awhile," Ulett said.

What most people don't realize, he said, is how much musical talent it takes to do even Hays's limited playing time.

"Once he's told to start, somehow, if we're telling him, hurry up and stop now, he's gotta come up in his own mind how to bring that to a proper musical finish, instead of just stopping," Ulett said.

Hays wrote some of the music he plays, including the pregame staple "Game Time," and the fanfare that echoes through Busch Stadium after a Cardinal hit.

Hays has played just a fifth of the home games this year. The rest of the duties fell to Dwayne Hilton, the heir to the Busch Stadium organ. Hilton started apprenticing after delivering a new instrument to the organ nook at the stadium.

Hilton said he plans to keep "Here Comes the King," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and a pregame rendition of "Meet Me in St. Louis."

"But yet I am going to bring my own flavor to the ballpark," Hilton said. "I feel like I already have in the last couple of years, and feel like I'm going to continue to that and always be aware of what that song of the summer is and just try to work that in."

The organ, Ulett said, will probably remain a part of games at Busch for years into the future, even as live music disappears elsewhere. He offered Hilton this advice.

"It's a pretty special position among the fans, and treat it that way and always be willing to talk about it to fans, and show them it's done, or whatever," he said.

Around 2pm on the last weekday game of the 2010 season, Ernie Hays remained at his Lowery organ long after most of the fans had left. To the rhythmic sound of groundskeepers repairing the field, he played the old blues and Latin hits he knows by heart.

Hays has no plans to slow down in retirement: there are students to teach, private parties to play, people to entertain. He'll even fill in for Hilton if needed.

Though you never know what can happen, he said, he will probably end his last game the way he always does: a slow, bluesy version of the Scottish folk song "Show Me the Way to Go Home."

And as always, it'll end with another Ernie Hays classic: "Shave and a haircut" - with a long pause before the "two bits."

>> Extra Interview and Images with Ernie Hays (audio slideshow)

>> More Photos of Ernie Hays (On Flickr)


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