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Organist a Hit at Dodger Stadium

September 23, 1989|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

Nancy Hefley looks like the meek lady behind you in the supermarket checkout line unloading a week's worth of groceries for the family. Tall and trim, her brown hair cut short and neat, butterfly-shaped glasses riding the bridge of her nose, Hefley hardly looks the part of a musician who gets standing ovations 80 nights a year from crowds that sometimes top 50,000.

But as an audience stood and cheered during a typical performance recently, Hefley turned from her keyboard, leaked a demure smile and said, "They always give me a standing ovation here." Then she turned back and put the finishing notes on yet another exuberant rendition of that seventh-inning-stretch favorite, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Hefley, 53, is the unseen purveyor of those familiar tunes that emanate from the Baldwin organ and reverberate through Dodger Stadium at every home game. She is the one who plays the national anthem in every conceivable key and tempo for a host of guest singers, the one who trumpets "Charge!" when the Boys in Blue launch an offensive attack, the one who triggers the applause when her downtrodden squad needs a shot of moral support.

She is also the woman who last year stepped into the venerable shoes of 16-year Dodger organist Helen Dell upon her retirement and, to Hefley's relief, into a world championship during her maiden season with the team.

"I'm glad it worked out the way it did--with them finishing first last year--instead of the other way around," said Hefley, who commutes to Chavez Ravine from her home in Yorba Linda three to five times a week, accompanied most of the time by her husband, Bill, whenever the Dodgers are in town.

She was referring, of course, to the Dodger nose dive from World Champs to fourth-place this season.

But what's the won-loss record got to do with a mild-mannered organ player who looks like the archetypal baseball mom?

"The players can be very superstitious. If they win, they won't change their shirt for a week. Or they'll eat the same thing they had for dinner every night. I know I have nothing to do with how the season comes out, but I would have felt terrible if they went to fifth place right after I joined." If it sounds like Hefley takes a proprietary interest in the team that employs her, she does. Although she is on a year-to-year contract with the Dodgers, she hopes to follow her predecessor's example in career longevity as only the fourth Dodger organist since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Taking her cue from this most statistic-minded of professional sports, Hefley keeps a clipboard at her side for all manner of musical score-keeping. From her position in the press box she logs each song she plays--she has logged more than 725 different songs so far this season--as well as the team the Dodgers play, who won, the pitcher, the soloist for the national anthem and what key it was played in ("I've played it in every key except C-sharp").

She also notes the likes and dislikes of the many members of the organization, and can always draw a tip of the L.A. cap from coach Joe Amalfitano by playing one of his favorite Neil Diamond tunes, or a nod and a smile from former pitching great Don Sutton whenever he is in the park by reeling off Charlie Rich's "Rollin' With the Flow," which became his theme during his final Dodger season last year.

Not surprisingly, the players interviewed said they concentrate on the game, not the music. "I've never listened to the organist," said pitcher John Tudor.

"To me," said right fielder Mike Marshall, "organ music is pretty much organ music."

But the person who, perhaps more than anyone else in the park, takes notice of what is echoing from the Baldwin is Dodger announcer Vin Scully.

"The thing about Nancy, more than any other Dodger organist, and this is not to take away from them, but I guess the word would be sophisticated ," Scully said. "She uses a lot of show music and a lot of great old classics. (Former Dodger owner) Walter O'Malley felt that the organ captures the feeling of a day in the ballpark, and in order for the organ to be a factor in that feeling, it has to be played well and with personality. I find I'm always commenting on her songs."

Before coming to the Dodgers, Hefley substituted periodically for Joe Tripoli, organist for the California Angels. When not spinning out a snippet of the "Mexican Hat Dance" to spur a round of applause for the Dodgers, she plays the occasional special function such as team-sponsored charitable fund-raisers. In the off-season or when the team is out of town, she also continues to play background music at horse shows around Southern California, as she has for nearly 25 years.

A lifelong Dodgers fan who grew up in Southern California, Hefley went to Bellflower High School and majored in piano before graduating from Fullerton College, she said her loyalty to the Dodgers was inherited, adding wistfully that her mother died before she got the job with their beloved team.

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