Dirty Ernie

The Cardinals' legendary organist tickles the keyboard -- and a lot more

All great musicians have their quirks. Beethoven, his paranoia. Vivaldi, his arrogance. Tchaikovsky, his headstrong impetuosity. Bach, his temper.

And St. Louis Cardinals organist Ernie Hays, his notorious potty mouth.

"What's better than a rose on your piano?" he asks. "Tulips on your organ!"

Jennifer Silverberg

Difficult measure: The studio Hays shares with stadium announcer John Ulett (right) is crowded with the addition of computer sound-man Damon "Fatback" Oliver.
Jennifer Silverberg
Difficult measure: The studio Hays shares with stadium announcer John Ulett (right) is crowded with the addition of computer sound-man Damon "Fatback" Oliver.


Then: "You know why I prefer the piano to the organ? All the damn foot pedals get in the way of the blowjob!"

No doubt about it, Ernie Hays has a great gig going. After all, asks Hays, "How many people get paid to play with their organ?"

These days, very few. Just half of the 30 American major-league ballparks continue to employ a full-time organist, making Hays an endangered species.

"We're going the way of the dodo," confirms long-time Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust, who says all but two major-league ballparks had organ players when she won the job as the Sox's keyboardist in 1970. "Now, ball clubs have literally thousands of songs available at the push of a button. Besides, no one expresses an interest in the organ anymore."

In recent years two of the game's most renowned organists have departed to baseball's Elysian Fields. Wilbur Snapp, made famous for being ejected from a minor-league game when he heckled the umpires with "Three Blind Mice," died two years ago at the age of 83.

Long-time Yankees organist Eddie Layton passed away last December. Credited with scoring the ubiquitous, fan-favorite "Charge," Layton won the hearts of fans not just for his music, but for his eccentric personality -- arriving at work outfitted in oversize glasses and a captain's hat, spending his free time piloting a maroon-and-green tugboat on the Hudson River.

Still carrying the torch is the indomitable Hays, who may be the most-heard maestro of sports, having played at Cardinals games for 34 years and performed for nearly every other professional and amateur sports club to make its home in St. Louis.

"He's the answer to the trivia question: 'Who's the only person ever to play for the Cardinals, Blues, Steamers and Big Red?'" says Marty Hendin, vice president of Cardinals community relations and Hays' one-time boss at Busch Stadium.

Without question, Hays is an unapologetic throwback to baseball's politically incorrect glory days. It takes little coaxing to get him boasting of his sexual magnetism: "You can look like King Kong in this business and still get hit on."

He acknowledges God but renounces religion: "Organized religion is all about guilt and making you feel bad about yourself. Who needs it?"

He offends old ladies while playing ribald recitals at senior centers: "They don't like my sex jokes. But don't they know God invented sex?"

A practicing hypnotherapist, Hays uses his mind, voice and music to assist people in exorcising the demons of smoking and obesity. A believer in past-life regression, he fully expects to be reincarnated as a human being or an extraterrestrial. "I'm a creative spirit having a human experience," he says.

But his most defining characteristic is his innate ability to survive. A 70-year-old grandpa, Hays has battled heart disease, diabetes and, one could argue, Darwin's theory of evolution in order to rule over a profession that shares its future with that of typewriter repairmen, travel agents and door-to-door salesmen.

Largely because of Hays' popularity, the Cardinals will buck a modern-day trend in baseball and take the organ -- and Ernie -- with them when they move into their new ballpark next season.

"I'll hang around 'til one of three things happens," the organist predicts. "My health diminishes, I lose interest, or assholes come along in the administration. I've gotten to the age where [if you] piss me off, I'll pick up a bat and break your face. That's why I left the Blues. The former general manager was a registered asshole. Why, he'd fuck his own mother for a quarter!"

It's not as if Hays hasn't suffered his share of indignities during his three-plus decades as the Cardinals' organist. Last spring, stadium construction cost Hays his reserved parking space at the ballpark, forcing him to travel to work from his Maryland Heights home with the lunch-pail crew on MetroLink.

In the 1980s, he sat by helplessly as pre-recorded pop music replaced half of his improvisational repertoire. In the '90s, video theatrics reduced his role even further, with corporate-sponsored contests and gimmicks broadcast over the stadium's big-screens between innings.

His latest disgrace came just last month, when the Cardinals organization crammed part-time Internet DJ Damon "Fatback" Oliver into the phone-booth-size studio Hays shares with stadium announcer John Ulett. As the "in-game entertainment specialist," Oliver sits in front of a computer and, with the click of a mouse, blasts pre-recorded pop tunes through the hundreds of speakers lining the ballpark. The addition of Fatback's fat ass has Hays backed into a corner -- literally.

"Ahh, horseshit!" shouts Hays as he struggles to cram his six-foot frame into the narrow crevice now afforded in the booth.

It's a weeknight game against the New York Mets, and Hays -- at last settled in behind his Yamaha AR80 electronic organ -- greets the arriving fans with a jazz-inspired version of the Little Anthony & the Imperials classic "Goin' Out of My Head." As his withered yet lithe hands dance across the double-decker keyboards, Hays scats along to the music: "Bop-bee-dop. Doo-bee-bah."

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