Peanuts! Cracker Jacks! Even the sounds of Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium, located in the city’s Elysian Park neighborhood, are iconic. There’s vendors doling out the team’s legendary Dodger Dogs, kids munching on some of the aforementioned snacks, and the team’s arch nemesis, the San Diego Padres, filing into the visitor’s dugout.
Hovering above the action sits the stadium’s DJ, known for deploying whimsical recordings such as a disembodied voice urging fans to “Clap, clap, clap your hands,” or the soundbite of a charging trumpet. Just above the DJ and to the left of the press box is the team’s resident organist, Dieter Ruehle, who provides a continuous soundtrack for the stadium. “I’ve heard from many people that it’s a piece of Americana,” says Ruehle. “You feel it. It’s like if you go to a college football game, what if there was no band?”
— Organist Alert (@organistalert) May 22, 2018
The day after Ruehle turned 12 years old, he applied to be considered for a recurring segment the Los Angeles ABC affiliate was producing. “It was called ‘Sports fantasy,’ so I wrote them a letter saying I’d like to play the organ at a game,” he remembers. “Ever since I was a kid, whenever I’d hear organs around baseball and hockey they always caught my attention.” From there, the preteen’s wildest organ dreams came true. Selected to live out his fantasy, he was thrown into the booth at an NHL Los Angeles Kings match, playing throughout the team’s first period. “I got a taste for it and I loved it.”
From there, Ruehle has spun his passion for organ music during sporting events into a successful career that has spanned over 35 years, playing for a variety of Los Angeles-based teams, including his current perch as the organist and music director for the Kings as well as the organist for the MLB’s Dodgers, one of only a handful of organists (18 by some accounts) who still provide the soundtrack for professional baseball games. It’s a tradition that stretches back to 1941 when the Chicago Cubs became the first club in baseball to hire an organist. (The Dodgers followed suit the next year.) Throughout the intervening decades, organists have gone through ebbs and flows, reaching ubiquity in the ’60s and ’70s. By 2005 however, The Los Angeles Times declared the tradition all but dead. Sensing changing times, the Dodgers dabbled with doing away with an organist for the 2004 season. After a revolt from fans, the team’s legendary organist, Nancy Bea, was brought back into the fold, continuing a career that initially began in 1987 and went uninterrupted until about five years ago. Enter: Ruehle.
“The Dodgers approached me during their 2013 season, wondering if I would be able to fill in for Nancy.” Bea knew she was going to miss a few games and the Dodgers needed someone to fill her shoes in her absence. “I remember coming into a game and sat down with her. She showed me what she did; when and what was played during the game and I took notes.”
Ruehle wound up becoming Bea’s main replacement until her eventual retirement in 2015, a moment when the Dodgers were at a crossroads: hire another organist full time or once again embrace the trends and solely rely on canned music? “I really didn’t know that they were going to do, what direction they were going to go in,” explains Ruehle. Not wanting to risk striking out with fans, the Dodgers decided to continue the club’s grand musical tradition with him at the helm.
— Jim Peel (@peelerjim) May 26, 2018
Ruehle’s daily routine typically starts when he’s given the rundown in advance of that day’s game. “It’ll map out the plan for the night. Like if we do a military recognitions, I’ll prepare the Army or Navy theme, but for the most part what’s played is left up to me. It’s not a rigid schedule at all; I’m very fortunate that they let me play whatever I’m feeling in the moment.” Using three different keyboards, Ruehle usually refrains from playing when the visiting team is batting (except for strikeouts or a defensive play), and plays along whenever the Dodgers are up, providing a light soundtrack to the team’s wins or follies. He’ll also toss in some random covers, from the theme to Futurama to a laid-back cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” Following Avicii’s death, Ruehle even threw in a spirited cover of the producer’s “Wake Me Up.”
Helping the audience root, root, root for the home team by leading musical chants of “Let’s go Dodgers” throughout the game, Ruehle also has the distinct responsibility of playing the famed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. “The Dodgers are the only team who plays it twice in the middle of the 7th, so it’s doubly awesome that way,” explains Ruehle who points out that its performance is typically a highlight. “It’s a great thrill to play it live and hear the fans sing along.”
Despite that thrill, Ruehle’s job is not for the faint of heart: he’s expected to play throughout the entirety of the game, some of which last upwards of four hours, with the exception of a minute-long bathroom break, if needed. “Other than that, I’m sitting up here focused on the game,” says Ruehle. As a result, he gets just as caught up in the action as the fans. “Maybe it’s too obvious, but the most exciting games were during the World Series,” he explains of the Dodgers most recent run, when they lost game seven during the 2017 series to the Houston Astros. “Those were amazing experiences and I can’t even imagine how the players must’ve felt. All of the emotions are heightened.”
With the Dodgers on another seasonal quest that will hopefully lead to World Series glory, Ruehle still can’t help but muse over hitting a homerun and scoring his dream job. “I feel very fortunate and very grateful being able to do something I love for a living,” he says, getting ready to gear up for the night’s game. ”I love music and I love baseball. To have the two come together in this job is pretty awesome.”