Dirty Ernie

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

"It started out as a joke, but it didn't end that way," says Hays, careful to distinguish that he never accomplished that sexual goal all by his lonesome. "We were footloose and fancy-free, and there were a lot of horny women."

Later Hays played the old Celebrity Lounge in New Orleans, where he and his wife of 51 years, Loreta, lived in the late 1950s while Hays served in the Navy. When the couple moved to St. Louis in the early 1960s, Hays continued working the barroom circuit, appearing regularly at the Mayfair Hotel and other piano lounges around town.

"I used to play this bar in Olivette that was on Harry Caray's route home from the ballpark," recalls Hays. "You always knew the game was over 'cause he'd bust through the door with a woman under each arm and announce: 'OK, Harry's here. Let's start the party!'"

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.

In many ways the '60s and '70s remain Hays' golden era, and his modest ranch home pays tribute to those bygone days. A foyer lined with yellow felt wallpaper greets visitors, a hulking Star Trek-period "hi-fi" entertainment center dominates the family room, and on every other wall hangs a photo of the Hays family (the couple has three grown children) dressed in polyester duds fashionable during the Gerald Ford administration.

Directly behind the house lies Highway 270, and the high-pitched sound of traffic pierces every room but Hays' basement studio. Filling the room are two PCs and three Macs that Hays uses to book parties, edit music and schedule lessons with the fifteen to twenty pupils he teaches each week. The basement also contains an organ, an electric keyboard, a folded-up treadmill and nearly every Cardinals bobblehead doll and bric-a-brac promotion given away over the past ten years.

It's here, in the solace of his studio, that Hays can reflect on his legacy. He knows he'll forever be remembered as the organist for the Cardinals, but his days as a barroom busker were pretty fun, too.

"The Cardinals don't dare give me a microphone," says Hays, as he lets loose with one of the hundreds of limericks held over from his piano-lounge days:

"There was an old hermit named Dave, who kept a dead whore in his cave.

You had to admit, she stunk like shit, but look at the money he saved!"

Sixty-eight-year-old Loreta shakes her head at many of her husband's jokes, but over time she's come to appreciate his sense of humor.

"One of our sons complained to us that we kept him up half his life with our laughter," Loreta says. "I tell him it could have been worse. We could have been arguing."

With his trademark suspenders and red Mitsubishi Eclipse (complete with vanity plates reading "Charg-1"), Hays has grown accustomed to fans stopping him for autographs and photo ops. Each year he receives dozens of e-mails and letters from fans, and the only time he disappoints is when one of them asks him to record his baseball melodies on an album.

"Are you out of your fucking mind!?" Hays scolds them.

It's called job security. Earning better than $400 per game, Hays isn't about to lay down his tracks, only for an "entertainment specialist" like Fatback to replace him with sound clips of his own music. Besides, canned recordings could never do justice to Hays' extemporaneous play.

"I'm a motivational keyboardist," he says. "That's something you have to learn over time. If fans are positive, my job is to reinforce their attitude. If their mood is foul, my job is to work like hell to change that."

Yet even Patton had difficulty motivating the troops from time to time. Hays recalls the Cardinals' stunning losses during the Boston Red Sox's four-game sweep in last year's World Series as one of the most difficult times of his career. Try as he might, the great motivator could not stir the shell-shocked masses.

"Raquel Welch could have walked out onto center field naked, and it wouldn't have caused a buzz," reflects Hays. "Here I have this specialty to get people motivated, and they wouldn't respond. It was like I had my nuts cut off."

Which, of course, reminds him of one last joke.

"You know the difference between guts and balls?

"Guts is when you come home from a night drinking with the guys. Your wife greets you at the door with a broom in her hand, and you ask, 'So are you going to hit me with that, or are you going to fly it?'

"Balls is when you come home from drinking and she's already in bed. You climb under the covers, slap her on the ass and say, 'Your turn!'"

So, one may wonder, which does Ernie Hays have? Guts or balls?

"Me? I've got an enlarged prostate. Now excuse me, I got to take a piss."

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