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By Joseph Hess
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By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
"What's better than a rose on your piano?" he asks. "Tulips on your organ!"
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."
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.
"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!'"
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."