NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Music meets the gates of Dickey-Stephens Park with an echo, a memory, singing from an encased area behind Section 210.
Patrons lean against the wooden bar like in a tavern, and on its counter rest a coke, a beer, an empty tip jar. Someone drops in a few dollars, and the organist plays on.
At one point, management of the Arkansas Travelers offered to move the 29-year-old musician upstairs, into the air-conditioned press box, among the deadline-busters and microphone-breathers. But Trey Trimble chose to stay at the edge of the crowd, near the crackle of bat against ball.
"It's a good feeling, knowing that people can see this," Trimble said. "There's a little bit of pride for me, them knowing that I'm actually playing."
And so, on a blue-sky evening of baseball, what is disappearing can be seen: Trimble is one of the last live organists in minor-league baseball.
More than half of major league teams still do, dating back to April 26, 1941, when Ray Nelson of Chicago's Wrigley Field became the first ballpark organist. By the 1960s, over half of major and minor league teams acquired their own musician.
But since then, ballparks across the small markets of America have abandoned organists. The Winston-Salem Dash (Class A-Advanced) want "more modernized entertainment"; the Down East Wood Ducks (Class A-Advanced) of Kinston, North Carolina, lack the "space and manpower"; and the Tacoma Rainiers (Class AAA) had "honestly, no specific reason."
These three responses are the main reasons why out of 160 MiLB teams, only six have full-time, live organists.
A few hours before first pitch in Rochester, New York, Fred Costello is planning his set list against the prerecorded competition.
Actually, it's hardly a set list and more of a genre structure: a little jazz, a little funk, whatever he usually plays in the nightclub in town.
Costello, 75, hasn't kept his seat in the Red Wings (Class AAA) press box for 41 years on proficiency alone. His advantage is spontaneity and impulse — something the computer across the hall struggles to provide. The second an erratic pitch hits a batter, Costello's fingers can tremor an improvised, "It Only Hurts For A Little While," by The Ames Brothers. Outs will pass, runs will score and Costello, as always, will win his battle against the machine.
Costello is the live organist's John Henry, a music-driving man who has split time with recorded music at Frontier Field for the past several years. When CD's were introduced to the booth, Costello wasn't concerned. He had tinkered with recorded music himself in the 1970s and 1980s, slotting in a cassette tape to play Willie Nelson's "The Party's Over" when pitchers were pulled.
"I used it as an addendum," Costello says. "Not to replace myself."
As cassettes moved to CD's, and CD's to MP3's, Top 40 lists shuffle, and Costello watched stagnant organists lose their jobs to the waves of new music. So each season, he added 15 of that year's most popular hits to his repertoire. Today, he has added Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop The Feeling."
"If you stay ahead, you stay on top of it," says Costello, who is the nation's longest-tenured ballpark organist. "You never want to get to the point where you can be replaced."
More than 700 miles to the south in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the video board in center field flickers at BB&T Ballpark, but no organist can be heard. Constructed for $48.7 million in 2010, it is by all measures a modern minor-league ballpark. Kids run the bases on weekends, fireworks blast on Fridays and music spouts from strategically arranged speakers.
At some point in Winston-Salem's 112-year history, Dash radio broadcaster Brian Boesch said, there must have been a live organist. But the memory has been lost during Winston-Salem's recent seven-year of attendance success in the Class A Carolina League, when the Dash have placed first or second in crowd averages.
"I'm an old-school baseball guy, I love that stuff," Boesch says. "But I also recognize you have to have something for everybody."
The between-inning time slots are dedicated to smile cams on the video board, races on the foul grounds and comedy skits on the concourse. Frontier Field has more than 200 different options of in-game entertainment.
Similar in-game entertainment is used at Travs home games, where a balance has been established between organ and modern gimmicks since Alfreda Wilson began her 35-year run at Ray Winder Field in 1970.
"I told them I'd give them a five-second delay," Trimble says. "And if there's nothing there, I'm just going to start playing."
Trimble took over for a piano bar player only known as "Frisbee," who played during the first season at Dickey-Stephens. Before him, Wilson shared time with former MLB first baseman Marvin Blaylock, who died of a heart attack in 1993.
"Since this team has been around since 1901, the organ has become a staple," Travs General Manager Paul Allen says. "Other new teams, they didn't come with that connection to history."
There is a dedication to the classic style, even if a team doesn't have a live organist.
Buy a ticket to see the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Class AA), or the Salem Red Sox (Class A-Advanced) in Virginia, and there will be computerized organ music.
"There's a romance to baseball's yesteryear," says Ben Gellman, 31, Salem's radio broadcaster. "Part of that is the music, and an organ is inextricably connected to that. There's the distinct sound that an organ can bring. It's a bit of romance and energy."
Sometimes that romance has never left a ballpark. In others, it is absent with no one passionate enough to spark it.
When Erin O'Donnell began her marketing career as an intern with the Corpus Christi Hooks (Class AA) in 2004, the Texas team did not have a live organist. Two years later, after moving to Springdale in Northwest Arkansas, she discovered the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Class AA) didn't have one, either.
Then in 2008, while walking the concourse at her new job with the Memphis Redbirds (Class AAA), O'Donnell heard an organ bleat Looney Tunes at the ballboys who scuttled after foul balls in the outfield.
It was there she met Bill Krieger, who has since retired and not been replaced.
"He was my first organist," says O'Donnell, 32, who is now the director of marketing with the Class AA Sacramento River Cats, who have a live organist. "It really makes a difference. There's definitely a difference in nostalgia, that classic ballpark feel. And the organ gives you that timelessness of the game."
It's O'Donnell's job to understand the vibe of her city, its ballpark, and craft an environment that people will want to visit. But some ballparks don't have the resources to make a live organist a part of the game day scene.
"I think a lot of it has to do with space," O'Donnell says. "Our press boxes aren't major league size. There's not a lot of room for a working organ."
Some teams, like the West Virginia Power (Class A), have both the space and a keyboard but can't find an organist. The low pay can deter specialized musicians from devoting 70 nights a year to hammering out ballpark ditties. Arkansas' Trimble makes enough for "the gas to get there and back." Rochester's Costello makes $77 a game, and the Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds' Liz Wigham makes $50 a game.
"I think some people would say it's not worthy of their time," says Wigham, 51, whose 16-year-old son earns almost the same rate working in the Emeralds (Class A-Short Season) parking lot. "But I realized this is just fun, and that I didn't care."
Wigham freelances for musical theater productions at local schools, where she has noticed a decline in trained musicians. And if the pool of performers is shrinking, why shouldn't smaller markets struggle to find a ballpark organist?
"You just don't see that anymore," she says. "It's died off among people."
Sacramento organist Gus Pearson, 82, remembers the day the organ died: Feb. 7, 1964, when a British rock band arrived at JFK airport in New York City.
"The death came when The Beatles came," says Pearson, who was a national sales manager for the Wurlitzer organ company at the time. "When The Beatles came, everyone wanted to play the guitar."
Until then, Pearson flew to ballparks across the country, rolling in a Wurlitzer and attempting to demonstrate that his organ sounded better than a Hammond. He'd sold one to the now-defunct minor league Lancaster Red Roses, one to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and another in his prized sale: Main Street, U.S.A., in Disneyland.
But once the Fab Four's hits rolled in, Pearson had "A Hard Day's Night" to find himself saying "I Feel Fine."
"The organ business is pretty well gone," he says. "From 1962 to 1968, there were 230,000 organs manufactured in the United States. Today, there are none."
Pearson watched as a new generation inherited the pianos and organs from their Baby Boomer parents, set them in the dusty corners of their homes, and made the art an afterthought.
So how could a team have a specific reason not to have a live organist when its people hadn't thought of it at all?
"That doesn't mean it won't come back," says Pearson, pointing toward the ever-improving and more mobile electronic keyboards.
He insists the organ is natural to a ballpark, that "it's nostalgia."
That word is a live organist's mantra; it's the power that keeps their craft alive.
"Do you remember your first game?" Pearson says. "If I asked you what you did two days later, do you know what you did? That's nostalgia. You were thinking of the good times when you were young. That's why people pay millions of dollars to watch someone that looks like The Beatles."
It's the word that Arkansas' Trimble invokes before he arrives at the enclosure behind Section 210.
"I want people to hear that classic organ, that Americana feel," Trimble says. "It's just being able to interact with the people and bring that nostalgic feel of baseball."