Saturday Jul 10 2010
The River Cats’ vital organist
By: Joshua Ansley Special to the Journal
Auburn’s Pearson a key player for Sacramento squad after long run with the Giants
He played for the San Francisco Giants from 1959 to 1963, but you won’t find his batting average in any of baseball’s historic stat sheets. As a resident of Auburn for 31 years, Gus Pearson is a world-renowned organist who has been playing for the Sacramento River Cats since 2005. He boasts four best selling recordings, is featured in the Museum of Music Making, and was awarded the Lifetime Service Award in 2006. The Lifetime Service Award is the highest honor in the keyboard business, and has only been given out 10 times in the last 100 years. Pearson also played at the White House in 1976 to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. His career began just like any other musician, by first forming a band and playing for bars, weddings, and dances. It wasn’t until he began designing, making, and selling the Wurlitzer organ, however, that his career really took off. “By the 50’s, every organ company wanted their brand featured in the ballparks,” Pearson said. “But the trouble was that they had no one to play.” So Pearson began playing for the Giants the year after their move from New York in 1958. Performing alongside prominent names such as Tennessee Ernie, Bob Hope, and Mel Torme, his career as a concert organist spans more than half a century, and over 3 million miles. He’s played on every continent except Antarctica. Having been around the game of baseball and organs all his life, Pearson knew Porter Heaps, the first organist ever to play at a Major League Baseball game back in 1941, for the Chicago Cubs. “He has been around baseball longer than most of us have been alive,” said Steven Lewandowski, the River Cats’ producer of in-game entertainment. “He had to play back in the days before digital recordings, so he would literally play all of the sound effects during the game.” Contrary to the fan’s perspective, the organist is more than just a motivator and entertainer for the crowd. Pearson is very involved in the game itself. One of the most difficult parts of the job is judging a foul ball. He has to play a sound to warn the fans of a foul ball, but is not allowed to play a sound if it is in play. “The umpire is my boss,” Pearson said. “On one occasion I bent down to pick something up, and accidentally hit a key while the batter was in the box. He stopped the game and gave me a warning. I cannot talk to anyone during play. We have a lot fun, but we take it very serious.” Although his favorite memory was watching the 62’ Giants win the National League pennant, when asked which is better, playing for River Cats or Giants, Pearson said it’s an easy choice. “The River Cats, absolutely,” he said. One of the most enjoyable aspects of his job is seeing the younger talent move up and grow into Major League players year after year. When Pearson isn’t playing the organ for the game, he is usually teaching the organ on cruise ships. “I love to teach,” Pearson said. His most recent teaching venture was on a cruise to Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Romania, and Turkey. He added that he is not one to shy away from spontaneity when it comes to traveling. “When I have some time off, I may look up and see a cruise that is leaving the next day, and I go,” Pearson said. In 1985, Pearson took a year off as he and his wife of 54 years Diane, backpacked from the Arctic Circle down to the tip of Africa. Diane is no stranger to music herself. Before moving to California they led a nightly variety show in Minnesota with Diane as a soloist. “They are an inseparable pair,” Lewandowski said. Together, the Pearsons have two daughters, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. No matter the size of his family, the millions of miles of travel, or the four marathons he has run, Pearson remains active. After finishing his last marathon at the age of 71, he got up the next day, felt great, and ran five miles. “The scariest thing in the world is to just sit down and do nothing,” he said. Pearson will be off for the month of July, but will return to Raley Field in Sacramento in August to play for the River Cats.