Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2015.
OMAHA, Neb. -- TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, in its fifth year as the host of the College World Series, is a modern ballpark in many senses. It’s an impressive venue for catching a game, for both the contemporary luxuries around the park and the traditions that have been carried on through the years at the College World Series.
One of the best ways that a ballpark tradition can make a fan feel, at least temporarily, a connection with years gone by is the organ. Once a fixture at ballparks, fewer and fewer stadiums employ an organist to serenade crowds. That’s not an issue in Omaha, though -- when it comes to the College World Series, it’s a staple in the experience.
Jerry Pawlak, a 74-year-old resident of Lincoln, Nebraska, has been providing Omaha’s premier event with melodies for the past five years, after he won the audition to play for the College World Series in 2011. He had big shoes to fill, following CWS organ legend Lambert Bartak. Bartak started playing the organ at Rosenblatt Stadium in the 1950s, but as the CWS moved on from Rosenblatt, Bartak retired at the age of 91.
Although he didn’t play at TD Ameritrade Park, a plaque with a photo of Bartak rests above the stadium’s organ in the video production room next to the press box. Pawlak, eager to carry on the tradition, sees some room underneath for perhaps a plaque of his own some day.
The fact is that there are not many people around who can handle the responsibilities of playing an organ at a ball game. It’s not just knowing the music, but being able to handle the sporadic and ever-changing nature of the game. There is a schedule set as to when Pawlak will play, but baseball games have a tendency to be unaccommodating to set time frames and schedules.
“Just being involved in the game, I like the game, and trying keep up the tradition of the organ,” Pawlak said on his draw to the gig.
As for the music he plays -- it’s all by memory. He has the schedule and some song lists on his stand, but no music sheets.
He’ll play during mound visits. He’ll play a short melody after the third out of an inning is made. Really, he’ll play whenever he gets the chance. Pawlak said he’s noticed some songs get a bit more of a reaction out of the crowd than others. It’s the simple songs -- something like “If you’re happy and you know it” -- that work best.
“You try to be very reactive to the crowd” Pawlak said. “There’s a live, actual person, not just a recording. You’re supposed to make the crowd happy.”
Pawlak is a Chicago native who has been playing keyboards since he was six years old. He played in restaurants and lounges in his home city for more than 30 years, and moved to Nebraska 27 years ago. In his time in Chicago, he filled in at a White Sox game, but that was his only baseball experience before playing in Omaha.
Now, he is the Secretary/Treasurer of the River City Organ Society, which works to maintain organs in Lincoln and Omaha. They will hold an annual concert at the Rose Theater in Omaha on August 9. He also plays as a substitute at the Lincoln Salt Dogs, an independent professional baseball team.
For Pawlak and for the College World Series, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The ballpark gets to carry on the tradition and add to fans’ experience, and Pawlak gets the satisfaction of playing his personal role in that.
“It keeps me involved in music,” Pawlak said. “It’s an interesting venue. It’s very uplifting to be a part of.”