ST. LOUIS – A franchise rich in tradition and history lost a key part of its past Wednesday night when longtime Cardinals and Busch Stadium organist Ernie Hays passed away at the age of 77.
Hays was a fixture at Cardinals games for more than 40 years, serving as their first and only organist until he retired in 2010. He was behind the keyboard for five National League pennants and a pair of World Series Championships in 1982 and 2006.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ernie Hays,” said Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. in a statement. “Ernie’s music shaped the soundtrack of Cardinals baseball for nearly four decades. He was one of the premier sports organists in the country, and a valued member of the Cardinals family.
“The entire Cardinals organization extends its sincere condolences to his wife Loreta and his entire family.”
Hays provided the first and only source of music at Busch Stadium when the Cardinals installed an organ and hired him to play at home games in 1971. Pre-recorded pop songs weren’t added until the 1980’s and video until the 1990’s.
But Hays was always a constant, using his improvisational skills to play the perfect jingle at the perfect time. He is credited in St. Louis with popularizing batter “walk-up” songs and for music when relievers enter from the bullpen. Hays would play, “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” when pitcher Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky would enter from the bullpen, one of the first examples of music being played for pitchers.
In addition to playing the Seventh Inning Stretch, Hays is probably best known for playing the Budweiser theme, “Here Comes the King” when the Budweiser Clydesdales would take a lap around the field on Opening Day or for playoff appearances. He is credited with starting the tradition that still goes on today.
His wife Loreta told STLSportsPage.com that they were leaving a family Halloween gathering Wednesday evening when he suffered a fall on the way to the car. She then thought he had fallen asleep on the way home before realizing what had happened. Loreta hurried him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Hays was known for his crude humor and language, but also his heart. He performed at numerous charity functions even up until his final days and did as many as 20 private piano and organ lessons a week.
“Please remember him for that,” his wife said. “He was such a jokester. We were talking here and after the initial shock, I just told the kids, ‘We have to celebrate his life and all his jokes.'”
Hays began playing piano at the age of seven before majoring in music at Drury College and Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State U.) in Springfield. He served four years in the United States Navy before returning to get an engineering degree at Washington University in St. Louis.
In addition to playing music for the baseball Cardinals, Hays also served as organist for the St. Louis football Cardinals, the St. Louis Blues, the St. Louis Stars and Steamers soccer teams and several area college teams. It was at a Steamers game where Hays first played, “Here Comes the King.”
Always one to tell a good joke, Hays enjoyed asking the trivia question, “Who was the only person ever to play for both the Cardinals and Blues in the same season.”