This year's White Sox home opener, April 7 against the Tampa Bay Rays, was familiar in lots of ways. It was teeth-chatteringly cold; $7.25 Miller Lites flowed freely; Carlos Quentin was still apparently pursuing the record for most hit by pitches. But one thing was very different. For the first time in four decades, someone other than Nancy Faust sat behind the stadium organ, leading the seventh-inning stretch, mocking opposing pitchers, and hammering out jaunty, weirdly harmonic-laden versions of Journey and Bob Seger songs.
I was wary of the change, partly out of loyalty to Faust, with whom I'd felt cozily friendly (a response entirely in line with the intent of the White Sox organization). I'd also heard that the new hire, Lori Moreland, had no background as a stadium organist, neither as a big-league veteran nor as a scrappy rookie who'd caught the right ears while toiling in the minors on a tinny Casio—she was a music director in a local church.
Perhaps it was unfair of me to listen so critically to someone working her first day on a high-pressure job in front of 38,000 people, holding melodies together while taking nonstop direction over a headset. But I've grown to expect a lot from my team's organist, and frankly I thought Moreland's syncopation didn't quite jibe with the game's rhythm.
"Opening day was a little scary," she says. "I had a couple of guys come in and tell me they lost something underneath the pedals, so I'm playing and they're crawling underneath the pedal board, and I'm like, 'OK!' I had to call Jeff [Szynal, who runs game-day production] and say, 'You might have to take me out for a couple of minutes, because I've got guys underneath my legs here.'"
Maybe I would've been less suspicious if I'd known then that Moreland, a 53-year-old resident of Crete, Illinois, is far from a hobbyist accompanying some corner congregation—she spent 25 years as music director for the 3,000-member Saint Ann Catholic Parish in Lansing, Illinois, before taking her current position at Calumet City's Our Lady of Knock, where she still plays early Sunday mass, even on game days.
I didn't yet know these things a few Sundays later, when my four-year-old son and I attended a game together, but my attitude about Moreland changed anyway. Since 1960, when populist owner Bill Veeck moved the organ into the center-field bleachers, the White Sox have maintained an open-door policy, allowing fans to visit the organist midgame. My son and I made our way to the newly dubbed Nancy Faust Organist Booth behind home plate to say hello to Moreland, and immediately I realized that by nitpicking her tempo choices and Adele arrangements I'd missed the point.
Technical skill is important for any musical gig, but for this one personality is key. Looking like she was born to wear her Sox jersey, Moreland greeted us with a cheerful smile and in a warm midwestern accent asked my distracted son his name. She and I bonded right away over a couple of old snapshots of her two sons she'd put up—in one, labeled "first inning," they looked bright and eager, and in the other, "ninth inning," they were bedraggled and barely awake. Faust had kept a wall of fan pictures, and though so far Moreland only had one such pic to go with her family photos, she meant to uphold the tradition.
And tradition is serious business in this gig: Chicago is a stadium-organ town. The Cubs are credited with introducing the organ to baseball in 1941. The instrument remained Wrigley's primary music-making machine until 2010, when the team began introducing players with the canned jams typical of the rest of the league instead of Gary Pressy's pleasant playing (a move they've since reconsidered). The organ at Chicago Stadium was so legendary that late-50s LPs of Al Melgard playing the "World's Largest Theatre Pipe Organ" showcase the instrument on their covers, not its beloved player, who accompanied thousands of Blackhawks and Bulls games between the 30s and the 70s. And of course Chicago was home to Faust, who redefined the art form in the early 70s and retired last year after 41 seasons at Comiskey Park and U.S. Cellular Field.
What made Faust historical was that she introduced rock 'n' roll into venues that previously drew the line at "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window." Throughout the 50s and 60s, Major League Baseball ignored Elvis, the Beatles, and the Woodstock generation, but that changed when Faust took her job with the White Sox in 1970. Emboldened by her interactions with fans, she began drawing on Top 40 hits to pump up the crowd, including perhaps her most famous innovation, Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." She improvised musical puns on ballplayers' names (Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" for Pete Incaviglia, Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" for Omar Vizquel), used songs to comment on the game (the Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man" after a base on balls), and between innings stretched out with jaunty versions of Doors and Queen hits.
But by introducing Top 40 to America's pastime, Faust opened a Pandora's box. Over the decades ballparks came to rely increasingly on piped-in pop—they filled every moment of silence with blaring bits of rock and hip-hop and allowed home-team players to choose pro-wrestling-style entrance music for each at bat. The few stadia that maintained organists starkly limited playing time. By the time Faust retired she was only performing at day games and was barely allowed to play at all during White Sox at bats. Between-inning breaks were so jammed with recordings, scoreboard videos, and ads that she could rarely squeak in a song's hook.
Moreland inherits a job that gives her relatively few opportunities to learn how to do it: only 14 of 39 White Sox home games so far this season have been day games. But given her background, she should be able to adapt quickly. Born in Fort Wayne, she was a child prodigy on organ; as a kid she regularly made the national finals of Yamaha's annual organ festivals, impressing panels of judges that included Henry Mancini, Sarah Vaughan, and Marvin Hamlisch. By her late teens she became a church organist, a music teacher, and a cover-band journeywoman. (She recalls one group named Alibi, but the rest are a blur; she's never recorded or performed original material.) In 1980 she moved to the Chicago area, where she worked in sales for Baldwin and studied classical organ at the American Conservatory of Music. A Lutheran convert to Catholicism, she made a career in the church, occasionally taking gigs playing pop music at parties. Last October a friend told Moreland about the vacant White Sox job, and she sent in an audition DVD.
Nichole Manning, the team's senior director of game operations, had received dozens of applications and auditioned about ten candidates; Moreland was one of the last. "We had numerous strong candidates, but Lori was a definitive and definite choice," she recalls. "There's so many different ways to entertain fans, and though we may revamp things we will always keep the core essence of Chicago White Sox baseball. The organ is part of that, and Lori, with her effervescent personality, is an excellent choice to carry on that tradition."
"When Nichole called to offer me the job, I just about died," says Moreland. "I totally didn't expect it." Though she'd been to "a million baseball games" when her sons played (they're now 16 and 14), she'd only been to U.S. Cellular a couple of times. "I didn't really have any experience knowing how a ballpark organist would handle things," she says, "and I was pretty up-front about that in the interview. I've played many venues, but obviously not like this one—but given some time and some experience, it would probably work out OK. . . . There's not really a lot of difference between this and other work I've done, other than this is the most fun."Speaking as a longtime lover of ballpark organ, I'd call Moreland impressive but with some room for improvement. She tends to play a lot of notes, often at a fast tempo, making some tunes hard to identify. As I watched, she furiously flipped through her thick sheet-music binder, zipping through a floral version of "Copacabana" and a busy "Hit the Road Jack." She may have played "The Hustle," but I couldn't be sure. She's still working on her song choices too. "I thought 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' would really go well here," she says. "But it just didn't fly. I guess they want to worry, I don't know."
Moreland showed off her strengths with a charmingly churchy "Got to Get You Into My Life," a warm version of Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the Toy Story soundtrack, and a technically impressive take on the theme music from the video game Halo (her kids sometimes suggest material). Faust used to keep a second keyboard atop the organ, which played programmed accompaniment triggered via MIDI, but Moreland has yet to plug in her own second keyboard. She's committed to the stadium's Technics organ, and has developed a loyalty to its "16-beat samba rock" rhythm setting. "This is truly a pop electronic organ, with all the bells and whistles and a great rhythm unit," she says. Her "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" may differ from the version played for the past 41 years, but I think it's awesome that it so unabashedly indulges in the distinctive sound of the organ.
I interviewed Moreland on May 30, at the ballpark but not on a game day, and as I turned to leave she surprised me by sending warm regards to my son—recalling by name the untalkative child she'd met briefly and only once several weeks prior. It didn't strike me as a marketing shill's mnemonic trick but rather as a genuine gesture, arising from the kind of personality that will serve her well in her new part-time job. Minutes earlier she'd admitted that she isn't yet comfortable making musical puns, then quipped, "After 35 years I think I'll be as quick with it as Nancy was." Considering that Moreland has already mastered the human aspect of the gig, she has a pretty good shot at sorting out the rest before 2046.