How Nancy Faust and her organ set the tone for America's pastime

This story originally was published on Aug. 30, 2020.

FIFTY YEARS AGO this season, during the peak of what was later dubbed "Three Years in Hell" for the Chicago White Sox, Nancy Faust took her seat at the organ in the bleachers of Comiskey Park for the first time. Alongside rumors of a move to Milwaukee and general fan disinterest, the 1970 White Sox lost a team-record 106 games. Attendance was at an all-time low -- two September games drew only 672 and 693 fans.

Nancy was more or less alone in the outfield bleachers as she played standard organ fare like the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Over in the grandstands, however, a petition was circulating among the remaining die-hard attendees. Some of them didn't think a woman should be employed at the ballpark. It should be a man's job, they said, someone who knew the game inside and out. What the men in the stands didn't know -- what Nancy didn't even know at the time -- is that over the next 41 seasons, Nancy Faust would save the sound of baseball.

She was the first to use the organ to react to the game itself. She is the reason fans sing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" when a visiting pitcher is pulled from the game. She made a stodgy, centuries-old instrument suddenly funny and irreverent. She invented walk-up music, for heaven's sake. By having a nearly infinite mental songbook and an astonishingly accurate ear, Nancy pulled the sound of the organ from the teetering edge of a forgotten, vaudevillian yesteryear and created a new kind of nostalgia for baseball fans -- one that we didn't know we really needed until now, baseball's silent summer.

The fans she spent decades entertaining are conspicuously absent from the ballparks this year. Instead, the music played over the sound system reverberates off of empty seats and cardboard cutouts. To celebrate her impact on the game is only to be reminded of the things we miss most this year. We all want to be taken out to the crowd.

IF THERE WAS a defining moment in Nancy's path to Comiskey, it almost certainly came in the early 1950s when her parents brought home an organ. Her mother, Jackie, had made quite a name for herself as a professional musician in Chicago playing piano, violin and the organ. She played daily on the nationally syndicated "WLS Radio Barn Dance," for live vaudeville acts and at banquets and receptions all over town. They decided to buy an organ so Jackie could practice at home.

"It captured my fancy because at the time, I was about 4 years old, and here is this big instrument with all the draw bars and all the keys, and my parents found me just being able to pick out simple tunes on the keyboard without any instruction or anything," Nancy said. "I just spent my whole life developing my ear, not relying on reading sheet music, because that comes very hard to me. I tried to major in music in college and I couldn't cut it because you have to be a good reader."

When Nancy was a kid, the organ was really having a resurgence. What was once an instrument reserved for cathedrals started showing up in theaters, shopping centers and -- eventually -- baseball stadiums. A story from the Los Angeles Times in 1920 put it this (oddly specific) way: "No longer is it associated only with dreary Bach fugues and solemn accompaniments to the clatter of the collection plate. The king of instruments has, after a thousand odd years of stately existence, taken on a livelier air, for all the world like a gray-haired bachelor scientist who suddenly learns to flirt."

Nancy got so good, she eventually started filling in for her mother on occasion. One such gig came when she was in her early 20s and covered for her mother at a luncheon attended by White Sox management. General manager Stu Holcomb was especially impressed with Nancy's repertoire. (Her arrangement of "Moon River," in particular, is a real crowd-pleaser.) He offered her a job to play the organ for the upcoming 1970 White Sox season.

WHEN NANCY STARTED at Comiskey Park, her job description was pretty standard. She played "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "The Star-Spangled Banner," maybe freestyled a bit as fans entered the park. In the 30 years since it had first made its way into baseball stadiums, however, the organ had ceded the crown as the king of instruments. Rock 'n' roll was dominating the charts and the radio, and the organ wasn't really keeping up.

The petition to have her fired and keep baseball as a good ol' boys club failed to get anything but an eye roll from Holcomb. Aware of the scrutiny but generally unbothered, Nancy kept on playing.

The thing about Nancy is, in addition to having the ability to play just about anything by ear, she also thinks in song titles and lyrics. Everything from someone's name ("Till You Marry Me, Bill" from "Wedding Bell Blues") to a player's number ("Take Five," "Love Potion No. 9") instantly brings a potential playlist right to Nancy's mind. So as she picked up more and more of the game itself, she wrote out different scenarios and common plays on a piece of cardboard that she kept at the organ, with some song ideas jotted down just below them.

"I'd make a list of my songs for stealing a base. You know, like, 'I got this feeling somebody's watching me,'" Nancy said, half singing. "Or, 'You've got know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em' -- the 'Gambler' song. 'Smooth Criminal,' something like that. I think even that in itself was a form of entertainment for a certain segment of the fans. Like, why is she playing this or why's she playing that?"

The crowds loved it. Nancy didn't use the organ simply to provide background music to the game, she used it to react to it, to score it like a film, to make the fans' experience even more sensory.

Of course, in baseball as in life, the occasional unexpected event would arise. A cat would run onto the field ("Cat Scratch Fever"), a full moon would rise over the scoreboard ("Bad Moon Rising") or a blow-up doll would be tossed onto the outfield ("Just the Two of Us" and "Getting to Know You").

"We did have a streaker, and I was somewhat prepared because that rage took off over the winter, so I had a feeling when baseball season started it just could be something I'd need," Nancy said. "I had two songs ready, and I played them both. And one was 'Is That All There Is?' and the other was 'I've Got Plenty of Nothing.'"

After "Jaws" became a blockbuster hit in 1975, the same notes that spelled out impending doom for beachgoers on Amity Island became Nancy's go-to for a visiting pitcher in trouble as he watched the manager's long walk to the mound. As the pitcher in question was pulled from the game, Nancy played the one song that might have come to define her career as well as define that moment for so many baseball fans -- "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

Other teams started sending their organist to Comiskey Park to watch how she did it in the hopes of adopting their own comedy-drama soundtrack. And thus, Nancy saved the organ from the edge of irrelevance and turned it into a pop-rock showpiece, cementing its place as a staple of baseball Americana.

BEFORE MARIANO RIVERA had "Enter Sandman" and Chipper Jones had "Crazy Train," players were musically introduced in a way that was a bit more ... elevator-esque: with an organ rendition of their home state's song. Early on, if ever there was a state anthem she didn't know, Nancy would pick up the phone at the organ and call her mom. Jackie would hum the tune over the phone, and Nancy would play it by ear to the crowd.

Nancy realized the state anthems were feeling a bit sleepy, so she started to play some songs people actually knew. She'd see a player's name or number and, as it's always been, a song would pop into her head.

"I loved the name 'Bell,'" she said. "There were a couple of ballplayers with that last name and they'd strike out and I could play 'One Less Bell to Answer' or 'Ring My Bell' or 'Tubular Bells' [from the horror movie 'The Exorcist']. That's why it was always fun to play for visiting players, because the names always changed."

She mostly changed up the song for each at-bat, but some players earned their own personal anthem. For Dick Allen's seemingly unlimited home run production in 1972 (he hit 37 for the White Sox that year), Nancy bestowed upon him the overture to "Jesus Christ Superstar." This would become, as we know it today, walk-up music.

"She did her own thing. Like Dick Allen's 'Superstar,'" said Bill Melton, a White Sox third baseman in the 1970s. "If she couldn't think of anything, she'd ask you for your particular song, but most of the time we left it up to her. She had such a good mind for that stuff."

In its infancy, the walk-up soundtrack wasn't always music, per se. Take right fielder and DH Harold Baines, who mentioned Nancy in his 2019 Hall of Fame induction speech because ahead of each at-bat, she led the crowd in a chant of his name -- like a childhood dream come to life.

"It'd be late in the ballgame and there'd be a whole stand of people saying your name over and over with her playing to it. It'd be a tight ballgame, eighth or ninth inning, I'm coming up and 70% of the time I end up getting a hit to win the game, and that became the famous 'Har-old, Har-old,'" Baines said. "As the years went on, I'd see some of the players I'd play against and they'd say, 'Har-old, Har-old!'"

ANY STORY ABOUT Nancy wouldn't be complete without a mention of the day she came to work to play the organ like every other day before, but on this day she left with a new pet. See, the door prize that night was an advanced-age swaybacked donkey that went unclaimed. In the winner's defense, the options for where one could feasibly keep a pet donkey in the Chicago metro area are presumably limited. Nancy didn't want to see her shipped back to the amusement park, so she took her in, named her Rosita and gave her a loving home for the remainder of her years.

After 41 seasons, 2010 was Nancy's last behind the keyboard. Her final sign-off? Madonna's "This Used to Be My Playground."

Now 73, she still plays for special occasions here and there and makes an appearance or two at spring training, as she lives part time in Arizona. Prior to this season, her arrangement of the national anthem was still played at stadiums around the country. Although Rosita died, Nancy has two other pet donkeys, Mandy and Gigi.

She tunes in to a game here and there on the radio, this season listening closely for how the manufactured crowd noise and the music sound. If she didn't know better, she says, she'd think it was a real crowd -- but knowing better is the strange part.

When asked about some current players, she lights up at the possibilities of songs to go with their names. We talk about Aaron Judge (the "Law & Order" theme song, "I Fought the Law"), Mike Trout ("Under the Sea," "Baby Shark") and Mookie Betts ("Viva Las Vegas," "The Gambler").

On the walls of her music room at home in the Chicago suburbs, memorabilia abounds. There is a gold record from Mercury Records, presented to her for repopularizing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." There is a letter from President Barack Obama, a longtime White Sox fan, congratulating her on retirement that reads, in part: "Over the course of your career, you have demonstrated the ability of music to harness the energy of a crowd, capture the excitement of a moment and leave a lasting mark on our memories."

It's hard to overstate just how understated Nancy is about the whole thing. The lens of humility through which she views her career is so sharp that she doesn't really see what all the fuss is about. It isn't apathy or meekness masquerading as modesty, just a true, deep gratitude for the 41 seasons she had at the park.

As we spend this season at home, re-creating the ballpark in our minds one sensation at a time, the sound of the organ rises over the din of the crowd as a signal to cheer, a talisman of a time and a place to which we can't wait to return.

"Nancy, you could arguably say, really helped the entertainment of the game and helped evolve how music is in today's game," said Jeff Szynal, a White Sox scoreboard operator who worked with Nancy from the early '80s through her retirement. "She kept the organ alive, a huge part of baseball history. I just think her legacy is the best organist the game has ever seen."