For Dodgers organist Nancy Bea Hefley, it all comes down to family – both her own, as well as her Dodger family here at Chavez Ravine.
After all, what else would compel Nancy and her husband Bill to spend three hours each day completing the round trip drive from their in-season home near Lake Arrowhead to Dodger Stadium? She’s battled snow and fog to make it to nearly every home game in 2010, and every year, in her 22+ year career as the official organist of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“She is the Dodgers to most people,” said Nancy’s sound engineer, Patrick Sweeney. “She’s very well respected. When people from other ballparks come here, they go over [to see Nancy]. It’s very special and unique.”
In fact, two hours before the game on the night I visited, Nancy Bea, as she’s known to Dodger fans everywhere, was at her usual spot in the dining room of the Vin Scully Press Box, having dinner with her husband Bill and an old friend from the broadcasting team for the New York Mets.
As she makes the short walk over to her famous corner of the press box before the start of the game, the parade of visitors and well-wishers begins.
Former Dodger and current Fox broadcaster Eric Karros stops by to say hello. “Nancy, how are you?” he says as he extends a hand over her organ, while also offering her a piece of candy.
Dodger legend Manny Mota arrives with a huge smile. “I’m her number one fan,” he tells me sincerely.
Broadcaster Steve Lyons stops by and sings along to Nancy’s rendition of ‘Food Glorious Food.’
“I feel so lucky, because I’m right next to her every game,” said Sweeney. “She’s kind of like my West Coast mom….but also like a best friend. Just wonderful to be around.”
Team employees, security staff, members of the media and VIP fans constantly swing by Nancy’s organ throughout the game to meet Nancy, take pictures or simply chat about the ups and downs of life. It goes both ways. They know about Nancy, and she knows all about their lives outside the stadium.
“As you can see, this is kind of a meeting place. It goes on like this all night,” said Nancy. “That’s why I stay.”
Nancy Bea Hefley must be considered the Ironwoman of professional organists. Over the course of the 22 and a half years that Nancy has been playing at Chavez Ravine, she’s missed exactly eight games out of more than 1,800…and only one of those was for being sick. For the record, two of her absences were so she could attend graduation ceremonies for her granddaughters, one was so the Dodgers could train a replacement in case she ever became sick (she still played the organ that night…just at the MTV Rock & Jock Basketball Game) and the remaining four were while she was on a family trip to Iowa. But did I mention that she still managed to play a four-game stint with the Iowa Cubs while on that same vacation?
By my count, as of Sunday, July 25, 2010, Nancy Bea Hefley has played the National Anthem and ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ exactly 1,851 times at Dodger Stadium (she has also played ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ exactly once) . These totals include all home playoff games since 1988, as well as the World Baseball Classic finals. Of course, it does not include the daily rehearsals with the Anthem singers (sometimes twice) and the countless times over several decades she has performed the National Anthem at horse shows across the country. According to my math, Nancy Bea will have her 2,000th public performance of both songs at Dodger Stadium during her 25th season with the club on or about June 25, 2012 (give or take a few days for future playoff games). Needless to say, Nancy Bea Hefley truly loves playing the organ.
The Early Years
Nancy’s love for music began when she was just four years old. She would listen to her 17 year-old sister play the piano and, even at that young age, she could pick out what she was playing. Her mother convinced a music teacher at their church to give her piano lessons, despite the teacher’s concerns about her young age. “He discovered that I had perfect pitch,” said Nancy. “After about six months, he said, ‘I can’t go any farther with her.’”
At the age of seven, Nancy’s mother introduced her daughter to the accordion and she learned to play classical music with it, despite the fact that the instrument was far too big for her.
“I went on with the accordion and became a concert accordionist…and worked Vegas, Tahoe and television.”
But she never gave up on the piano – and was always intrigued by the organ. “At 13, I talked my piano teacher into at least showing me the basics of the organ. So I had about six lessons that way. And that’s my organ [training].”
At 17, she substituted for a friend who was scheduled to play the accordion at a pageant at the Orange County Fair. While there, the organizer asked her to also try her hand at a neglected organ. She never looked back. Nancy went on to play the organ at festivals and horse shoes across the country, including more than 30 years at the Pomona Fair.
But Nancy soon discovered that her musical skills were in demand at places other than horse shows – she was also becoming popular with the local sports teams in Los Angeles.
“I had substituted for the Angels back in 1986. They spoke to me about taking the job, and I said ‘No, I substituted for a friend. I won’t take a job away from a friend.’”
Nancy’s husband Bill also stated the Dodgers also had their eye on Nancy in the early years. “Tommy John tried to get her. When he was playing, we ran around with Tommy and Sally and [they] tried to get her to do it then. She said no, I won’t take anybody’s job.”
But things changed in 1987 when then Dodger organist Helen Dell announced she was retiring at the end of the season. “Then I felt comfortable,” said Nancy. “So I called, and it was at the end of the season…they had auditioned all year ‘round, I guess. And they said, ‘Come on in and play.’ I played and they said, ‘We definitely want a comeback.’ February 14, 1988, [the Dodgers] played an exhibition game with USC. There were three of us that played three innings each and they called me that night and said I had the job. I never thought I’d last this long. I didn’t think I’d like to play for a baseball game every night. Helen was here 15 years, and I thought, ‘Boy, I’d be doing good to get that far.’ This is my 23rd, and I’ve got a contract for two more years after this.”
Nancy and Bill
As you might imagine, Nancy and her husband met over music. At 16, Nancy was called one Sunday morning by the Bellflower Baptist Church, as they were in urgent need of an organist, as their regular organist was sick.
“Well it wasn’t a church that I attended, so I didn’t know how fast they sang the songs or anything. I ended up staying there, and that’s where we met.” Nancy ended up playing the organ at Bellflower Baptist, and a few other churches, for more than 55 years.
From then on, Bill has been a constant at Nancy’s side and attends every game with his wife. “I’m her driver,” said Bill.
“It’s 24/7 with us,” said Nancy. “We’ve been together 53 years now.”
The Dodgers have always been an important part of Bill and Nancy’s life…long before she joined the organization as the official organist.
Bill, a retired steelworker, was involved in the construction of Dodger Stadium, and Nancy was his source for tickets.
“When [the Dodgers] first came to down, I was working for KBIG Radio in Hollywood,” said Nancy. “I would give Bill tickets to the Coliseum to go watch the games. I wasn’t a baseball fan then. I was into music.”
But Bill certainly was. “I was there when Drysdale struck out 18 Giants,” he said. “I was there the night they honored Campanella. I went to a lot of games at the Coliseum.”
When she first joined the Dodgers, Nancy played all nine innings of every game. But that changed in 2004 when a new executive was brought in to run the in-game entertainment. Nancy found herself only playing the National Anthem and ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ She wasn’t happy. “We sold our place here, and bought land in Northern Nevada. I gave notice Opening Day .” She planned to retire at the conclusion of the 2005 season.
“Drew McCourt then called me and said, ‘Why? What can we do?’” A new schedule was put in place that allowed her to play between select innings and continue to leave after the seventh inning. Happy once again, Nancy rescinded her request to retire.
The Magic of Music
Besides her extraordinary tenure with the club, what Nancy is most known for is the clever way her song choice reflects the action on the field and in the broadcast booth. Incredibly, Nancy knows more than 2,000 songs, does not bring any music with her to the stadium and does not pre-plan what she will play on any given night.
“I fly by the seat of my pants,” said Nancy. “I don’t have anything planned, I don’t have any music. I know probably my first song and maybe the one after that.”
On the night I visited, I spoke to several Dodger ticket holders about the impact of Nancy’s organ music on the overall game experience.
“She seems to be keyed on the play, so when the action happens, she can hype the fans or bring them down. She gets everyone going,” said John from West Hills, CA. “I think it help gets the team up, it gets the fans up, it gets everyone going. It’s that added thrill about coming to the ballpark.”
Cathy from Oxnard added, “She (Hefley) can feel the vibes of the crowd and play that in where you can’t do that with CDs. It’s the live interaction with the crowd…whether it’s cheering up, or making everyone get to their feet.”
“The first year [the Dodgers] said they wanted me to come with a list of what I was going to play,” said Nancy. “I opened that up and started to play and then [the team] did something really rotten on the field and I was going to play ‘It’s a Happy Day.’ No, I don’t think so. So from then, I go with the flow. Things usually will trigger a song in my head and that’s how it happens.”
Nancy continued, “One time when Hu was on first base, I was walking to the restroom and I heard Vinny [Scully] say, ‘I wonder if in her vast repertoire, Nancy Bea happens to know the song ‘Who.’” So I’m thinking, wow, how does that go? So I sang it to myself as I came back and the next chance I had, I played it.”
But Nancy’s musical powers can also be used to send a message. “We had a pitcher from Ohio one time and he couldn’t even go a third of an inning…he could not get a batter out. They finally pulled him, so I played ‘Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?’ That’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
Nancy has also made some songs famous at the ballpark. In 1988 in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, Nancy ran into the general manager for the old Shubert Theatre, and he arranged for her to attend a performance of Les Miserables, which is where she first heard the song ‘Master of the House.’
“I learned it, thinking that I would play it for the umps when they’re introduced, because they’re in control of the game,” said Nancy. “Vinny came out of the booth…he was so excited. He started making it Orel Hershiser’s theme song. And to this day, when Orel is here, I’ll play it for him. Last time he was here he thanked me for playing it the time before. I said, ‘You’re getting it again tonight, because I don’t get to play it that often as everyone looks to see where you are!’”
When Friday night’s game started to get away from the Dodgers in the eighth inning, Nancy Bea stepped in. With Jeff Weaver struggling and Joe Torre heading to the mound for a conference, Hefley immediately started playing ‘Just a Little Help from my Friends.’ Shortly thereafter, Weaver was replaced by James McDonald. Hefley responds with ‘A Handy Man.’ “Hopefully he will be,” said Hefley. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, McDonald wasn’t, giving up a sacrifice fly to David Wright. Eventually McDonald was replaced by Jack Taschner. Silently noting to herself that he was making his Dodger debut, Hefley responds with ‘Consider Yourself One of the Family’ from the Broadway musical ‘Oliver.’
Nancy truly loves coming to Chavez Ravine each day, and it shows. Not only is it a way for her to spend time with her husband Bill, but with her extended Dodger family as well. “I really come here for the fun atmosphere…I don’t come her to work,” said Nancy. “I just come to see people and talk. The work is just a sideline.”
Earlier this season, Vin Scully noted to National Public Radio, “I’ve just enjoyed her and Bill. I’m so thrilled for their anniversary the other day. She’s a very classy, lovely lady and I’m delighted to take a minute to join all of the others and doff our caps and roll the drums and blare the bugles and salute her, because she’s a sweetheart.”
When the game was finally over and the Mets had beaten the Dodgers 6-1, Nancy Bea Hefley wrapped up the evening with two songs ‘We Had Joy, We Had Fun’ and ‘Forget Tomorrow.’ While the players will most likely want to forget Friday’s game, Dodger fans will never forget what Nancy Bea Hefley brings to the ballpark each day. With just a few full-time organists remaining in Major League Baseball, Nancy Bea Hefley is indeed a Los Angeles treasure. A great piece of music is often made up of several parts, and the same can be said at Dodger Stadium, with Nancy Bea Hefley, Vin Scully and the team on the field. So many fans appreciate and recognize the subtlety and nuances of Nancy’s music during the game. She truly provides the soundtrack for the season – and hopefully many seasons to come.
Photo Credit: Jon SooHoo