Baseball loves a throwback, and you can't get any more retro than Lambert Bartak, the official organist of the College World Series.
Bartak's bona fides as a genuine artifact only start with his age. He's 90. He has performed at CWS ballgames for more than a half century. That's almost as long as the series has been played at Omaha's Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
Bartak's tenure pretty much spans the rise and fall of live organ music as ambience at American ballparks. But tradition lives at Rosenblatt. Bartak's gently jaunty tunes, played during breaks on an electric organ that has survived decades of rain drips, bird drops and humidity, help to create the atmosphere that makes Rosenblatt baseball heaven for hundreds of thousands of fans every year.
The best part is, this bit of Americana doesn't come in a can. It's real. It's live. It's even homegrown.
A long rain delay the other day gave us time to pull some stories from the lanky, soft-spoken organist in his glass-walled booth inside the Rosenblatt Stadium press box. He talked about backing up Johnny Carson's magic shows at an Omaha Elks Club, about performing on a London rooftop while German bombs were falling on the city, about being married for 63 years (and counting) to “a great gal,” about being ejected from an Omaha Royals game by an umpire and about how a substitute gig at the stadium led to more than 50 years of work.
“The other people died, and I ended up with it,” Bartak said of the stadium job. “It's a job. Like anything, it's a job. Every year, I threaten to quit. But every year, I say I'll do it again.”
He played the 2009 CWS like he has for years, his long fingers dancing across the keys as his black-stockinged feet worked the pedals below.
Bartak, descended from Czech immigrants, grew up on a farm outside Norfolk, Neb. He had wanted to play the accordion for as long as he can remember. He talked his parents into spending $19.50 to order a squeezebox from the Sears and Roebuck catalog when he was 12.
The boy taught himself to play the accordion. He began getting gigs as a teenager.
“I started playing for parties, birthday parties, that kind of thing, at people's houses or in the church basement,” Bartak said. “I just never got away from it.”
Bartak was a professional musician in his early 20s when Uncle Sam came calling. He was drafted into the Army for World War II. During basic training, it became clear to Bartak that he wouldn't make much of a soldier. He was nervous about where he would end up.
“When they were shipping us out they called everybody's name but mine,” Bartak said. “I checked with the sergeant, told him my name's Bartak. He looked me up and said, ‘You're going to be our bugler.' … I didn't know how to play the bugle, but I learned to play it that day, I'll tell you.”
Bartak later was stationed in England during the war. He played accordion in an Army band. They performed for GIs and sometimes the public in London and around Europe. Once, late in the war, air raid sirens sounded as Bartak's band played a Red Cross function on a London roof. They could hear bombs exploding in the distance. The musicians looked at one another, wordlessly wondering about dashing to a shelter. They kept playing. The bombs stayed away.
Bartak's not big on dates or years. But he remembers exactly how long he served in the Army.
“Four years and 12 days,” he said. “I counted.”
A job awaited Bartak in Omaha. Radio station WOW hired him as a staff musician. He played on music and variety shows on the radio, and then in the early days of TV.
At WOW, Bartak met his wife, Geraldine, with whom he would have three children, Jim, Laura and Linda. Bartak also worked at WOW with an up-and-coming star from Norfolk named Johnny Carson. Bartak worked some side jobs with Carson, providing music for Carson's magic shows at such venues as a Masonic lodge and an Elks Club.
“I played the accordion while he did card tricks,” Bartak said.
Was it fun?
“Oh, sure, he was always a good comedian,” Bartak said. “But it was a job. When you're in the business, you do everything.”
Through the years, Bartak played in and led a number of bands, including the Lambert Bartak Orchestra. Trios, big bands, dance bands, whatever it took. They'd travel 100 miles or so to perform, but most of their work was in Omaha. Bartak also backed up Henny Youngman and many other touring comedians when they played Omaha.
People who frequented Omaha's classic Mister C's restaurant, may it rest in peace, might remember a musician strolling from table to table playing “That's Amore” on the accordion. That was Lambert Bartak.
He first played at Rosenblatt in the 1950s as a substitute. At the time, the organ perched in an open-air booth beneath a leaky roof. Birds added insults to the injuries that rain and humidity inflicted on the instrument. During games, fans shouted requests for songs.
Bartak eventually became the full-time organist for the CWS. He also played at Omaha Royals games from the early 1970s until the Royals switched to recorded music a few years ago. In 1988, umpire Tony Maners (who worked this year's CWS) threw Bartak out of a Royals game for playing the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song during an on-field argument.
The city moved the same old organ into a new press box in 1996. Bartak said he thinks the organ dates to 1935. But the Omaha guy who repairs it, Steve Strong, said it's a Hammond CV, a model manufactured from 1945 to 1949.
The organ's paint — was it yellow, or white? — is chipped. Atop the console are stacks of tattered cards of hand-written music for Bartak's standbys through the years — including the “Chicken Dance,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Tiny Bubbles,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Yesterday,” and fight songs for Texas, LSU and all the other CWS regulars. He doesn't use the music, though. He plays from memory.
“If I forget, I just make it up,” Bartak said.
A handwritten list of songs also rests on the console. It's not so much a playlist as a reminder, in case Bartak ever can't think of something to play.
Nowadays, he doesn't play during all the breaks in the action. He alternates innings with recorded music and other effects. He plays three chords after each third out. He plays “God Bless America” as the colors are presented at a game's start. And of course, he plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. The stadium's video board shows him playing — usually, the one time Bartak is seen and not just heard.
He said he has retired “Mickey Mouse.” But he had a funny up his cardigan sweater sleeve Tuesday, when the heat index was 111.
“I think I'll open up with ‘Winter Wonderland' or ‘White Christmas,' ” Bartak said. “That'll really knock ‘em on their … .”
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