Playing the Game

Being a part of the Dodgers' was a boyhood dream for lifelong fan Dieter Ruehle. Now it's come true — as the seventh organist in the history of the franchise.

Los Angeles Dodgers' organ player, Dieter Ruehle, in the box above home plate at Dodger Stadium.
Los Angeles Dodgers’ organ player, Dieter Ruehle, in the press box above home plate at Dodger Stadium.

As a kid growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1970s, Dieter Ruehle dreamed of being a member of one of his favorite sports teams. A huge hockey and baseball fan, he devoured Kings and Dodgers games on TV and loved it when his parents took him to Dodger Stadium.

When he was 11, Ruehle saw a segment on the local TV news called “Sports Fantasy” that gave viewers the opportunity to meet their favorite big-league players, try their hand at sportscasting or sit in the dugout during batting practice. He wrote a letter to KABC with an unusual request: He wanted to play the organ during a game.

Ruehle always paid special attention to the sound of the organ in the background of Kings and Dodgers games. He took piano lessons from Julie Rose Beres, a teacher who lived nearby in his North Hollywood neighborhood. He loved his lessons, and he didn’t even mind practicing, although he would often get distracted, transitioning midway through the classical pieces his teacher had assigned into the upward arpeggios of the “Charge!” fanfare.

KABC gave Ruehle a chance to live out his sports fantasy: On the day after his 12th birthday, he got to play the organ during a Kings game at The Forum.

Now Ruehle is the fulltime organist for the Kings and the Dodgers. He was first hired to play organ for an indoor soccer team called the Lazers when he was just 15. By the time he was 20, he was playing organ for the Kings. The 2018-2019 season will be his 24th with the hockey team.

In 2016, Ruehle added his other boyhood team to his repertoire, becoming the seventh organist in the history of the Dodgers’ franchise. He succeeded Nancy Bea Hefley, who played from 1988 to 2015. Like longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, Hefley was a beloved figure and a tough act to follow. But Ruehle says he faced the challenge of filling her shoes by just being himself.

Like so many other sports organists, Ruehle has developed a distinct sound. He is inspired in part by his sports organ hero, Nancy Faust, who played for the Chicago White Sox and other Chicago teams for decades and is famous for being the first organist to play “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and other popular rock songs at MLB games.

Ruehle’s playlists cover a wide range of musical tastes, incorporating everything from current hits by Drake and Ed Sheeran to classic rock from the ’70s and ’80s, grunge, punk and hip-hop from the ’90s, popular Mexican songs from the aughts and TV and movie themes.

Ruehle has developed his own unique style of playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and voicing the “Let’s Go Dodgers” chords. He navigates the modern tension between live organ music and pre-recorded pop songs by collaborating with the team’s DJ. When a Dodger makes a great defensive catch, he often jumps in with a few bars of that player’s walk-up song, giving each member of the team his own Wagnerian leitmotif. In 2017, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner told Ruehle he loved it when Enrique “Kike” Hernandez caught the ball in the outfield because it meant he got to hear Ruehle riff on Hernandez’s summer walk-up song, the mega-hit “Despocito.”

In early February, before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Ruehle was in his booth at an empty Dodger Stadium practicing on the Roland Atelier organ formerly used by Hefley. He took out his iPad and looked over his last playlist.

That playlist, containing about 40 songs, was left over from the last game he accompanied at the Dodger keyboard: Game Seven of the World Series, last Nov. 1. The atmosphere in Chavez Ravine that night was electric. The Dodgers had home-field advantage and the momentum that came from beating the visiting Houston Astros in Game Six the night before to tie the series. The team was just nine innings away from what could have been its first World Series win since 1988.

The memory of how that last November game ended still stings Ruehle, as it does any Dodgers fan or team member. When the Astros silenced Dodger Stadium by winning the World Series, Ruehle matched the mood of the crowd by playing “Under the Milky Way” by The Church, before ending the night the way he does most nights, with Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

He’s hoping for a more upbeat playlist to end this year’s season. In the meantime, he’s doing what he always does: pumping up the fans and doing his part for the home team by adding his distinct sound to the atmosphere of Dodger Stadium.

“I feel pretty fortunate that I have a job that helps bring a smile to fans’ faces,” he says. “Hopefully the whole experience of coming here is a happy one. And hopefully I add a little of that.”

Read on: What’s it like to watch an Olympic figure skating event with gold-medal Olympic champion Brian Boitano? We attended his San Francisco viewing party and found out.

L.A.-based pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Alta Journal, and more.
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