The Dodgers would have been on the road this weekend, so you wouldn’t have heard Dieter Ruehle playing the organ during the broadcast. But you haven’t heard him at Dodger Stadium for the 19 games postponed so far, either, as his soundtrack of baseball silenced along with the rest of the sport.
“I have a paper calendar hanging on the wall, and I highlight all the Dodger games in blue,” Ruehle told me recently. “When I look at that, it’s really kind of weird.”
Ruehle misses baseball like the rest of us, and has passed the time by — what else? — playing the organ, only at home. He’s shared a few favorites on social media, like playing the national anthem and Take Me Out To The Ballgame for what would have been opening day. But he’ll also mix in a popular song, like Blinding Lights by The Weeknd.
Ruehle started taking piano lessons around age 10. His parents wanted him to take some kind of music lessons, and the instrument was chosen thanks to a neighborhood yard sign advertising piano lessons. He began to develop an ear not only for classical music, but for popular songs as well.
“I was really inspired by Nancy Faust, who was the organist of the White Sox from 1970-2010. She revolutionized it. I remember hearing her and thinking ‘that sounds so cool on the organ, hearing a pop song,’” Ruehle recalled.
Ruehle grew up in North Hollywood, lived in Burbank, and has been in and around Los Angeles his whole life, but after his parents split up he’d visit his father in Milwaukee for the summer. That meant more opportunities to hear Faust on White Sox television and radio broadcasts, which he also caught back home when the Angels played in Chicago.
“It was basically hearing her through the background of TV broadcasts,” Ruehle said. “They’d be on the radio, and when they went to Chicago, I had to hear those games.”
It wasn’t just Faust that caught Ruehle’s ear. Back in Los Angeles, from an early age he was drawn to Helen Dell, the organist at Dodger Stadium from 1972-87.
“I wanted to be closer to the speaker stack, where I could hear her so loud and clear,” Ruehle said. “I didn’t know what she was playing, and I’d ask my dad, ‘What’s that, what song is that?’ ‘Oh that’s Hava Nagila.’
“Those things catch my ear. I think some people tune that stuff out, which is fine. Maybe it’s because I’m so easily distracted and think, ‘What’s that in the background?’”
Ruehle would listen for the organ music in any sports he watched, whether it was the Dodgers or Kings. Those were the first few years under Tommy Lasorda, with three World Series trips in five years, and shortstop Bill Russell was Ruehle’s favorite. With the Kings, it was goalie Mario Lessard that he rooted for the most.
His first inclination of combining his love of sports and playing music came at age 12, thanks to a segment on KABC channel 7 called Sports Fantasy.
“I was watching the news in October 1980, and someone was on the practice field with the Rams. That was his sports fantasy, practicing with the Rams,” Ruehle recalled. “I wrote them a letter saying I would love to play hockey with the Kings, and if that’s not possible how about playing the organ? At the time I was taking piano lessons, I was getting into all the organ music in sports. They went with that second idea.”
Ruehle got his chance on Nov. 19, 1980 at the Fabulous Forum, playing organ as the Kings beat the Winnipeg Jets, 7-2. Lessard saved 22 of 24 shots for the win. Dave Taylor didn’t play, but the two healthy members of the Triple Crown Line — Marcel Dione and Charlie Simmer — each scored a goal, and combined for five assists.
That Ruehle got to play the Kings game was a function of the calendar.
“I was a huge Kings fan, I was a huge Dodgers fan. It just happened to be during hockey season,” he said. “If it was summer I’m sure I would have asked if I could play at Dodger Stadium.”
Ruehle got to play the organ at Kings games professionally about a decade later, though his big break came when he added Lakers games at Staples Center to his duties, allowing him to commit full time to his true passion.
“I didn’t really have a clear path in my mind. All I knew is I wanted to play at sporting events, and if I could make a living off it it would be wonderful. That didn’t really happen until I got enough games, enough teams to do that,” he said. “In order to do it well, you have to put the time in at home, in practicing and preparing. I don’t think I would be as prepared if I had a traditional 9-5 job and did this on the side. For me, it’s the kind of thing where I put everything I have into it.”
The preparation shows on a nightly basis to this day, whether at Kings games or Dodgers games. Ruehle maps out songs he might like to play during any given game, but that could change depending on the action. His ability to adjust on the fly is a strength.
Whether it’s during an earthquake at Dodger Stadium:
Or an opportunity to make a pun based on the score of the game:
During Dodgers games, Ruehle is clued in with the stadium production team, listening through a headset to a team of people behind the scenes. He can also hear the television broadcast, which on most nights is Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser.
Every once in a while, Ruehle will react to the banter between Davis and Hershiser by playing a related song.
Watch this until the end because it's all so good: @OrelHershiser does his own rendition of Alicia Keys' "Girl On Fire" so @DieterRuehle starts playing it, @Joe_Davis lauds Dieter's musical genius, and then the camera cuts to Dieter and @djsevere as Dieter plays "God's Plan"! pic.twitter.com/fF6JPk2gfv— Organist Alert (@organistalert) June 13, 2018
“I don’t know when exactly it started, but they must have said something and I thought ‘I could just play to that.’ They must have noticed and said something, and I thought ‘This is fun,’” Ruehle said. “People really seemed to enjoy that. It made people smile that were watching on TV. I didn’t want to force it, if anything ever came to mind.
“People in the stadium have no idea, so I don’t want it to be too random. Sometimes it may have been … I have to try not to overdo it, but it’s been fun.”
The call and response between Ruehle and the broadcast booth is also is a showcase for Ruehle’s encyclopedic musical knowledge. These aren’t planned songs for the game, but rather a reference he picks up on the fly, all while managing his night.
“Dieter’s library knows no limits, and so he’s able to serve as the perfect bridge between our generations. It plays right into what makes our relationship fun, I think,” Davis said. “Never ceases to amaze me how he can play songs on command. Like, ‘Of course Dieter knows this.’ If it’s a song, chances are he knows it and can play it.”
Ruehle and Davis share a bond that comes with joining the Dodgers, specifically in certain roles. The franchise has had incredible stability in a few key areas. Walt Alston and Tommy Lasorda each managed 20+ seasons, and did so back-to-back. The Dodgers have two Hall of Fame announcers — Vin Scully and Jaime Jarrín — who each called games for over 60 years. Davis had the pressure of following a legend in Scully, but found his own voice by knowing he’d never truly replace Scully.
It’s the same for Ruehle, who was hired as Dodgers organist in 2016 after Nancy Bea Hefley held the role for 28 years.
“My first season I did think about [the pressure]. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but something clicked, and I thought just be yourself. From that point on, I was myself,” Ruehle said. “At first I knew I had really big shoes to fill, and I was so concerned with not wanting to upset people. People might think, ‘He’s not her.’ Of course I’m not, but I should still be me. Once I overcame that fear of not wanting to upset people, I was able to just focus on doing what I do.”