Photo by John Nation

July 30, 2013

The music of baseball

Ballgames everywhere begin with the “Star Spangled Banner,” but the best version in this town (it says here) comes bubbling forth from the organ of Louisville Bats organist Bob Ramsey. His Slugger Field version of “The Anthem,” as he calls it, isn’t one of those long, dragged out things with add-on trumpet flourishes and over-dramatic warblings that threaten to stretch the start of a baseball game into a Wagnerian opera. Instead, he offers a jaunty rendition that skips along at a well-paced tempo.

“I think the way to honor the song is to play it the way it’s written,” says Ramsey, who is now in his 19th season with Louisville’s Triple-A baseball club.

And start to finish — one minute.

“But I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Ramsey says. “The reason it takes one minute is so it will be exactly one minute.”

“All this is timed,” Ramsey explains. “The radio guys lead up to the start of the game. The ballpark announcer has a script. The team takes the field. Everything is timed down to the second, and I don’t want to leave them hanging. That includes the pitcher, who is warmed up and ready to go — and I know he doesn’t want to just stand there forever. So it’s one minute.”

Ramsey found his way into the role of baseball organist almost by accident. In 1991, he was working as a studio musician in Phil Copeland’s studio when then-Louisville Redbirds assistant general manager Greg Galiette came in with an old cassette tape of baseball organ music. The tape was tired and almost completely worn out. Galiette asked Ramsey to re-record the tunes. In the process, Ramsey discovered what he calls the “Ernie Hays Baseball Songbook,” and the ball club discovered its organist.

“Ernie was the organist for the St. Louis Cardinals for something like 40 years, and the most famous organist in baseball,” says Ramsey. “On this tape, he’d recorded all the tunes that you associate with baseball. Plus stuff he’d invented and made famous.

Up in his booth in the press box, Ramsey doesn’t blast fans with sound like the Hunchback of Notre Dame filling up the cathedral. He’s more into the measured accompaniment of action on the diamond. The feel of the game. And the nuances beneath the notes. To demonstrate, he plays a couple of standard chords, then adds a note. “That’s the sixth element, making it a sixth chord,” he explains. “That’s what makes it sound like baseball.” And it does!

Dale Owens, the Redbirds GM, liked Ramsey’s new cassette so well he asked the organist to take over live at the ballpark.

“It was a kind of interim thing, because I was leaving on a tour with Leon Russell. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep the gig full-time,” Ramsey remembers.

A side note here: It was Russell who suggested Ramsey give himself a tonsorial makeover for the tour. “Leon said, ‘Rev. Bob, you need to look more fearsome.’” So Ramsey added a goatee and ponytail — that he still sports. When the Russell tour was cut short, Ramsey grabbed the baseball job. He set up his organ up in the stands at the Redbirds’ old Fairgrounds Stadium home and quickly became a favorite.

As advertising audio and video increased, the club told Ramsey they’d have to replace him with a computer. “I said, ‘Let me play the computer,’” and they did. Ramsey now choreographs all the sound and sight images fans see on the scoreboard. Plus the organ.

But Ramsey is a baseball man through and through. You ask him for just one more bit, and he reaches across the keys for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

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