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OKI Wanna Know: Who Plays The Organ At Great American Ball Park?

Editor's note: This story originally ran in July 2020. John Schutte says he will be back in the ballpark for 2021.

Baseball is a very ear-friendly sport. There's the crack of the bat, the sound of a fastball hitting leather and the roar of the crowd. There might not be fans in America's ballparks as this COVID-shortened season starts - which just might make sound all the more important. Bill Rinehart has more about the organist for the Cincinnati Reds in this chapter of OKI Wanna Know.

Who plays the organ at Great American Ball Park? Well, the short answer is John Schutte. You may know him as a member of the local band The Rusty Griswolds. Schutte says about 10 years ago, the band was meeting with the Reds to talk about a post-game concert.

"During that meeting a conversation came up about if they still had the organ from the old ballpark, from Riverfront. We got talking about that and found out the Reds didn't have an organist," he says. "I just threw it out there. I said if you want somebody to play, let me know. They said, 'Well, if you're not doing anything on Sunday, come on by.' "

The Reds had been looking at what fans valued. Senior Vice President of Business Operations Karen Forgus says the research shows with the rise of smartphones and improvements in technology, fans still wanted something familiar.

"If tradition matters here then we are going to keep a traditional piece like the organ," Forgus says. "People see baseball as a time play: I'm going to come somewhere for a few hours. They like on the radio the ambient background sound of the game. They like to have some quiet and hear the crack of the bat. But when they're at the ballpark, they want to be able to be able to talk to people around them and they want to be entertained."

Erwin Grubb used to entertain the fans at Crosley Field. Most fans knew him as Ronnie Dale and he played the stadium's Hammond organ for 12 years. He died at the end of 2018, but his legend lives on.

"He's the one that came up with the cavalry charge," says Rick Harris. He is a Hammond organ aficionado and now owns the same instrument Ronnie Dale played at Crosley Field. Harris says Dale was thrown out of a game once.

"Because he was playing the charge and the umpire felt like it was disrupting the game. I think they took it to arbitration or something and it was decided he could still play the charge all he wanted and so he did," Harris says.

That hasn't happened to John Schutte. When he's at the keyboard he plays anything from Glenn Miller to "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred.

And he does take requests.

"Someone a week ago or two weeks ago suggested the theme from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, (the 1966 film) with Don Knotts. I'm like, 'I don't know what that is but I'll take a look,' " Schutte says. "I listened and I tried it and it didn't quite work. Anything I hear, it's always in the back of my mind - will this song work on the organ? Are there good situations where this song would work at a ballgame?"

What does work? 

"That's really kind of a good question. I wish I could give you easy guidelines. I think the chord structure and the melody sometimes lend themselves to the way the organ is played and sometimes they don't," he says.

Schutte can read music; he studied at UC's Conservatory of Music. But when he's at the ballpark, he plays by ear - no sheet music. He says it streamlines the process.

"Sometimes I'll be sitting down and I'm at the ball game and someone will say 'Can you play this song?' and I'll be like 'Give me five minutes,' and I'll listen to the recording and pick it out and be like 'Alright! It's ready to go!' and next break, I'll play it."

Schutte says overall, he hopes no one really notices him. He wants the organ music to be subliminal; something that sets the mood for the game.

For fans like Rick Harris, the organ is a pretty important part of baseball. "I'm biased of course. The people who I've spoken with, a lotta people say they miss it. They really miss it, because a lot of ballparks don't have organs today."

Schutte says he's been in contact with the Reds about this season. He says their plans for now don't include an organist, but he says that could change if fans are allowed back in the ballpark. When that happens and you want to hear something specific from Schutte, you can make a request through Twitter at @TheRedKeys.

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Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.