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These half-hour intros prior to the first pitch -- and the three or four bossa nova medleys Hays plays at the conclusion of the games -- are the only features of his ballpark performances that have gone unchanged over the years. Within days of Fatback's arrival, management relieved Hays of his decades-long tradition of playing his signature "Fanfare" ditty following a Cardinals base hit. In place of the simple dee-tee-dee, dah-tee-dah, the fan is subjected to yet more pre-recorded pop music.
"I'm left scratching my balls," gripes Hays. "The issue here is creativity. I pour my heart and soul into this, and now all they do is punch buttons. That's not creative!"
Today, Hays estimates, he plays one-fifth the amount he did when he auditioned to become Busch Stadium's first-and-only organist back in 1971.
Back then an organist had much more interaction with players, working with them throughout the season to select and perfect the athlete's identifying music. So it was that each time Lou Brock stole a base, Hays regaled the crowd with the theme song to Shaft. Third baseman Ken Oberkfell came to bat to the symphonic sounds of Star Wars. When Ozzie Smith turned a double play, Hays was right there to launch into a rendition of The Wizard of Oz.
Trained as a classical pianist, Hays began playing the piano at the age of seven. By fifteen he was giving private lessons in his hometown of Houston, Missouri, some 45 miles south of Rolla. In his booth alongside the stadium's third-base line, Hays still has an ear for the traditional. While White Sox organist Nancy Faust added Green Day's "American Idiot" and OutKast's "Hey Ya" to her repertoire this year, Hays is now working on Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which he may unleash during this week's National League Division Series.
It's not that Ernie Hays can't play popular music; it's that he simply won't. "Half that crap they play today -- I wouldn't play that shit on a bet!" he scowls. (The Black Sabbath song "Ironman," which fans may recall hearing a time or two this season, is the work of Hays' 22-year-old protégé, Scott Schaefer, who occasionally accompanies his mentor to the ballpark.)
With plenty of idle time -- especially during the top half of the inning, when the visiting team is at bat -- Hays frees himself from his cramped quarters and heads out into the adjacent press box, where he's developed a reputation as a courtroom jester among the beat reporters.
"He's like Henny Youngman -- the great one-liner," effuses press-box fixture and erstwhile KMOX (1120 AM) and WGNU (920 AM) talk-show host Skip Erwin. "Whenever you see Ernie, you know he's got another funny one he's going to tell you. And his music! No one I've ever heard handles the organ better than Ernie. The way he blends it into the game, it's masterful! He's like Jimmy Durante."
After purloining a Budweiser from the KMOX suite, Hays shuffles over to Rick Adamie, who sits alone in the press box, having accompanied his pal and former Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez (now a Mets broadcaster) to the stadium this evening.
Adamie's father, the late Lou Adamie, ran the scoreboard at Sportsman's Park and Busch Stadium for 42 years, during which time he and Hays became fast friends. Rick Adamie used to accompany his father to work as a young boy. He recalls how a four-piece Dixieland band trumpeted its way though the stadium aisles prior to the addition of the organ. At the Cardinals' previous roost in Sportsman's Park, catcher Joe Garagiola's wife, Audrey, played the organ.
Adamie also remembers how Hays kept a scrapbook of jokes clipped out of the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, which he'd test on Lou and the other grunts working behind-the-scenes at the ballpark.
Decades later, Hays is still the jokester, greeting Adamie with a new collection of wisecracks.
"Hey, Rick, you know how to tell if a woman is ticklish?" inquires Hays. "You hit her with some test-tickles." Pause. "You know what a Cardinal can do that a Cub can't? Whistle out of its pecker!"
Hays is back behind the organ, and the Cardinals are mounting a late-inning rally. When Hector Luna singles to score Abraham Nuñez to tie the game at two, Hays breaks into a rousing rendition of "Here We Go Cardinals, Here We Go!" Atop the Cardinals dugout, team mascot Fredbird gyrates to each syncopated stroke of Hays' keyboard.
Other repertoire staples include the obligatory "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and Hays' signature tune, "Here Comes the King," which he played spontaneously during a Steamers soccer game in the late 1970s. The song, first made famous in Budweiser commercials, became an instant favorite. Grateful for all the free advertising, the brewery later signed Hays to a fifteen-year contract to play corporate and private parties.
Hays still makes a name for himself playing dozens of private parties each year -- gigs that allow him the opportunity to slip back into his role as a piano-bar minstrel and Casanova.
Seated in the basement of his Maryland Heights home, Hays reminisces how he and his college bandmates at Drury University and Southwest Missouri State University set a goal of bedding 200 women.