“Hey Dieter, do you know ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?”
The question was directed to Los Angeles Dodgers organist Dieter Ruehle by a member of the media seated near his perch in the press box. Ruehle smiled and thought for a moment, turned up the speaker on his organ, and proceeded to knock the song out of Dodger Stadium, drawing a round of applause from reporters who were awaiting the start of that night’s game.
He would later say he was rusty, having not played the complex six-minute Queen song in a few months. But it was flawless to the untrained ear, and the next night he was playing it live for thousands of Dodger fans during a pitching change.
What seemed remarkable to casual observers was just another day for Ruehle, a musician who has parlayed a passion for sports, music, and pop culture into a most unique career as a sporting event organist. It’s a journey that started modestly at the age of 12 but has taken him to the top of his specialized field, to Los Angeles’ landmark sports venues: The Forum, Staples Center, and Dodger Stadium. Beyond that, it has taken him around the world to places like Athens, Torino, and Sochi.
Ruehle has never been in a band, nor has that been a goal. Instead, he feeds his love for playing music every day by heading to an arena or stadium, watching his beloved Kings or Dodgers play, and entertaining thousands of fans. Ask him where this dream job will take him next, and Ruehle has a simple answer:
“The dream takes me a day at a time. Hopefully I’ll wake up feeling healthy and be back here for game two of the homestand, game three of the homestand, game four of the homestand, and just keep going.” He adds, “This is the dream.”
Ruehle has loved sports and music as long as he can remember. As a kid, he’d listen to his mom’s Glen Campbell records and strum his toy ukulele. In the summer he’d play baseball with his friends, and in the winter—such as it is in LA’s San Fernando Valley—it was street hockey.
Like a lot of young boys, Ruehle watched his sports heroes on TV. Unlike most, he wasn’t just watching but also listening, trying to hear what was playing on the organ in the background. Many of his heroes owned the keyboard as others did the field, and one player in particular caught his admiration early on.
“When I was a kid, listening to Nancy Faust. She was the Chicago White Sox organist, and she was playing contemporary songs—I thought it was the neatest thing,” Ruehle recalls. “’Oh there’s a Billy Joel song.’ It’s 1981 and I wouldn’t hear that anywhere else. She was kind of the first to start that.”
Others stood out to him as well. He learned their names and probably would have collected their trading cards had such a thing existed.
There was the Philadelphia 76ers organist Alan Paller, whom he remembers playing pop music like J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” back in the ‘80s. There was Helen Dell of the Dodgers, Vince Lascheid of Pittsburgh’s Pirates and Penguins, Ernie Hayes of the St. Louis Cardinals and Blues, and Eddie Layton of the Yankees.
“I loved watching sports and watching games,” Ruehle says. “But then hearing the organ in the background that really caught my ear, caught my attention.”
Ruehle, now 47, remembers when it came together 35 years ago in 1980, right around his 12th birthday. He noticed that LA’s ABC affiliate had a segment during their nightly newscast called “Sports Fantasy,” in which he saw a fan playing football with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I wrote them a letter saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to play hockey with the Kings at a practice, but if that’s not possible, could I play the organ at a game?’ They went with that second idea.”
Ruehle was hooked, and eagerly sent an annual letter to The Forum asking for work. By the age of 15, his letters paid off, and he was hired as the organist for the LA Lazers, an indoor soccer team run by Lakers owner Jerry Buss. That led to his big break at the age of 20, when the Kings finally came calling and asked him to audition.
“The building was dimly lit. It was a dark day. No event was happening,” Ruehle says. “I turned on the equipment and I remember it was really exciting to be in The Forum and I get to play the organ. I don’t recall exactly what I played but I remember it being exciting.”
Whatever he cranked out on the keys, he did it well, and eight years after he played a game as a “Sports Fantasy” winner, the fantasy had become reality. The amazing journey didn’t end there but only grew, with all sorts of interesting doors opening along the way. He’s played at several Olympics and roomed with Ray Castoldi, the Music Director at Madison Square Garden at the 2006 Games in Torino. When the Lakers moved to Staples Center in 2001, they brought back the organ and hired Ruehle. This was the year he became the full-time Dodgers organist.
Recently, Ruehle has pared things back; an 81-game Dodger schedule will do that to you. He turned down an invitation to play at the Rio Olympics and is focused strictly on his jobs as Dodgers and Kings organist as well as being Music Director at Staples Center.
In addition to playing live sporting events, Ruehle diversified and brought his specific skill set to the world of video games. When EA Sports began cranking out great sports games for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in the ‘90s, Ruehle played the organ for several of them, including MLBPA ’93 as well as NHL ’94, ’95 and ’96.
He says it was a lot of fun to play video games that included his own music. Ruehle has even incorporated video game music into his work on a regular basis. He got a nice response on social media when he played the theme to The Legend of Zelda at a Dodger game, and the rise in popularity of Pokémon Go prompted him to learn the theme from the Pokémon TV show.
“I realized it was getting so huge,” he says. “So I looked it up on YouTube and played the video over and over until I got it. It’s all by ear. ‘That’s G, F, C, yeah,’” he says with a laugh.
— Dieter Ruehle (@DieterRuehle) August 6, 2016
Keeping tabs on pop culture is crucial to Ruehle’s style and plays a big role in feeding his popularity. Much like how the music of Faust and Paller spoke to him when he was a kid, Ruehle tries to connect with fans of all ages and tastes. That’s why his own tastes are broad, and why his iPad is stocked with hundreds of songs, and his brain with many more.
“I try to appeal to as many people as possible,” he says. “I think it’s a positive thing to play a little of this and a little of that. There are so many different types of fans and if they don’t recognize this piece, maybe they will recognize the next one.”
It’s not just Pokémon or Zelda or even the theme to Game of Thrones. He’ll also tailor his show to fit the night or the opponent. When the Pittsburgh Pirates were in LA, he played “Drunken Sailor” when the starting lineups were announced. During Star Wars Night at Dodger Stadium, he played not only the theme song but sprinkled in five or six other songs from the saga throughout the night. Ruehle also gets real-time feedback from fans during games. He’s active on Twitter and checks it during the games, often interacting with fans.
“I try to keep up because I think it would be neat if I was sitting in the crowd and I heard something that I recognize,” Ruehle says.
So the next time you’re at a Dodgers or Kings game, or even watching on TV, perk your ears and give a little extra attention to the organ music. Odds are, you’ll hear Ruehle knock something out of the park.
Buy me some peanuts and Pokémon! What’s your favorite ballpark music? Let us know below with a comment.
Featured Image: Bob Harkins