Ernie Hays took seven years of classical piano lessons as a youngster before earning an engineering degree. He gave it all up to play the organ.
For 40 years, crowds at Busch Stadium cheered and yelled to his organ music at Cardinals’ games.
He cranked up “Here Comes the King” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and played clap chants and the “Charge!” cheer at every baseball Cardinals home game.
His music was often the last thing fans heard as they left a game.
At one time or another, he also played for every other major sports team in St. Louis.
Ernest Milburn Hays died Wednesday (Oct. 31, 2012) at his home in Maryland Heights, his family said Thursday. He was 77.
Mr. Hays had open heart surgery to replace a valve in February 2006. He still made it to his organ two months later for the opening of the new Busch Stadium.
“I never missed an opening day in 40 years,” he said at his retirement in 2010.
Mr. Hays became the Busch Stadium organist in 1971. He was one of two final candidates. The other man played for a week and then Mr. Hays took his tryout turn.
He stayed on and became one of the few remaining ballpark organists, as more teams switched to canned music.
Mr. Hays was born in St. Louis on Jan. 1, 1935. His father played the banjo and worked for the Chevy division of General Motors. His mother was a seamstress who played guitar and sang in the church choir.
He was 7 when his parents bought him a piano. His teacher charged $1 a lesson and was surprised at how quickly he learned to play.
“Though I didn’t read music, I did have the ear for it,” he once explained to a Post-Dispatch reporter.
The piano lessons ended when his father retired and moved the family to Houston, Mo.
At Drury College in Springfield, Mo., he got jobs through the musicians’ union and played at parties and dances. He transferred to Southwest Missouri State and married Loreta Heriford in 1954.
He worked as a disc jockey and news announcer and supported his growing family on 95 cents an hour. He enlisted in the Navy, where he played piano at the Officers Club and served on a minesweeper off Libya.
He retired from the Navy in 1960 and spent three years at Southwest Missouri State and the University of Missouri at Rolla, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He worked at what was then McDonnell Aircraft and Western Electric Co.
Until 1977, he worked days as an engineering supervisor at the old Bell System, while also playing at Cardinals games.
“I was never home,” he said.
He became a full-time musician and teacher. He played for seven teams: the football Cardinals, the Blues, the Steamers and Stars soccer teams, the Spirits of St. Louis basketball team and St. Louis University.
At Busch Stadium, he asked players what songs they wanted during their introductions. For Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, he played tunes from “The Wizard of Oz.”
He was known for his trove of jokes, many of which couldn’t be published in a newspaper. He once played the theme from an adult movie during a ball game.
“The Cardinals,” he said, “never knew.”
He explained that his job was to “play rah-rah stuff for the good guys, raspberries for the bad guys and pass no judgment on the officials.”
His family said he continued to teach up until this week.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Loreta Hays; a daughter, Pamela Hays-Hagstrom of Maryland Heights; two sons, Roger Michael Hays of Wentzville and Bob Hays of Florissant; and five grandchildren.