In early December, the home practice organ owned by beloved former White Sox organist Nancy Faust was auctioned off to benefit Chicago White Sox Charities. The Hammond Elegante Model 340100—complete with original bench and owner’s manual—sold for $1,400 to one of the biggest champions of both Faust and baseball organ music: Josh Kantor, who’s been the Boston Red Sox organist since 2003.
Kantor lives in Boston, of course, and the organ was at U.S. Cellular Field. To make matters more complicated, it had to be picked up in person by February 1. But thanks to the power of social media and musical friendships, three Chicago scene fixtures who happened to be available—singer Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Max Crawford, and drummer-about-town Gerald Dowd—ended up getting together to make the two-day drive across the rust belt with the organ late last week, delivering it to Kantor’s house.
The Great American Organ Transplant, as it’s been nicknamed, came about almost by accident. Crawford, who’s part of the crew that runs the LED scoreboards at Wrigley Field and has played with Wilco and Poi Dog Pondering (among other groups), spotted Kantor’s post on Facebook about winning the auction.
“Jokingly, on the thread, [I] put, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll schlep it out there for you,'” Crawford says. He describes himself as “like a cat lady for instruments—an orphaned instrument, it just makes me so sad. I have to grab it.” Dowd, whose long list of collaborators includes Justin Roberts and Robbie Fulks, saw the comment and sent Crawford a private message volunteering to help. “From a joke, it became, ‘Let’s do this,'” says Crawford.
Hogan knew Dowd and Crawford already, and she’d met Kantor last year while she was on tour with the Decemberists. She saw the same Facebook post, and she commented on how heartwarming the story of the organ’s purchase was. Kantor was quick to let her know about the emerging plan. “[Josh was] like, ‘Do you want to help your friend Gerald Dowd bring it from Chicago to Boston?'” she says. “And I was like, ‘Yes!'”
As a bonus, the trip coincided with this year’s Boston installment of Hot Stove Cool Music, an annual charity concert series founded in 2000 by sportswriter Peter Gammons that benefits the Foundation to Be Named Later, run by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and his twin brother, Paul. Crawford and Dowd both performed at the January 9 show, along with Kantor and a roster of sports and music stars that included Cheap Trick drummer Daxx Nielsen, Tanya Donnelly of Belly and Throwing Muses, Freda Love Smith of the Blake Babies, and Jon Wurster of Superchunk.
Kantor says he was “overwhelmed” by the generosity that Crawford, Dowd, and Hogan showed him. “My only criteria was like, ‘I just hope they have fun.’ I want them to look back on this and be like, ‘That was fun. That was worth doing. I don’t regret doing that.'”
The trio chronicled every step of the journey on Twitter using the hashtag #GreatAmericanOrganTransplant. Along the way, they stopped at a Cracker Barrel—”We had to get some grits,” Hogan says—and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where they were welcomed with an official mayoral proclamation.
“In your mind, you worry and imagine everything that could possibly potentially go wrong,” Kantor says. “And really, as far as I know, nothing really went wrong.”
The trip almost got off on the wrong foot, though: despite preliminary measurements, says Hogan, the organ “came very close to not fitting” in the rental van. The crew managed to Tetris it inside, and though it was a tight squeeze, that didn’t bother Hogan: “All three of us have so many miles in band vans between us, it’s pretty normal to be resting my arm on an organ as we’re traveling.”
Kantor was overwhelmed by the number of people touched by the trip: “There were literally scores of people who called and e-mailed and texted and said, ‘What can we do to help you? Let us know.'” A friend sawed a metal railing off the entrance of Kantor’s house so the organ could be moved inside, and another donated a Nancy Faust bobblehead, which became a focal point of videos documenting the trek. (Story continues below.)
Faust’s legacy looms large in Chicago, of course, but why did people outside the city care about the organ’s journey? Kantor has a few theories. “It feels nice to people that traditions are being preserved, especially with regard to baseball and music, which are things that people are sort of passionate about in a pure kind of way,” he says. “For a lot of people, it’s something that starts as a childhood joy but remains an adulthood joy. I think maybe just the notion of friendship and support and community that’s an important part of this story is resonating with people. I know it’s resonating with me.”
Kantor hopes the tale doesn’t focus too much on him, though. “I very much like the idea of the story being shared for the purpose of having Nancy Faust receive her due,” he says. “Anything I can do to have her be more fully and widely appreciated, I consider it an honor to do, because I am that moved and inspired by her story and her contributions.”
Kantor first encountered Faust as a teenager. He spent his high school years in the late 80s living in Evanston, and he went to both Cubs and White Sox games—though he leaned a bit toward the Sox. An older cousin was a die-hard fan, and for Kantor rooting for the Sox was “a bit of teen rebellion,” since his parents were Cubs fans. He recalls visiting Faust during games and asking her questions.
His fascination with her process helps explain why he was so interested in purchasing this particular organ. “To me, the organ that was in her home for 35 years, that was her practice instrument, was as interesting—if not more interesting—because that was the lab instrument, basically. That was where she did all her homework,” he says, laughing. “That was where she concocted all her genius.”
Kantor didn’t expect to bid on the organ, much less win it, since he figured the the price would end up rising well past what he could afford. But after he failed to convince some musician pals to buy it—and saw that the auction wasn’t as competitive as he thought—he had second thoughts.
At that point he turned to his wife, asking her to discourage him—he was afraid of buyer’s remorse if he won and disappointment if he didn’t. “I was looking for an out,” Kantor says. “She said, ‘Well, I could talk you out of it, if you really want me to, but I would rather talk you into it, and here’s why.’ And she gave me a whole long list of reasons for why it was important to me, and to her, and to us.”
Kantor placed a bid with 20 minutes left in the auction. After receiving word of his win, he shared the good news on social media. “I’m glad I put it out there, because it made it possible to accept help from people to bring it here,” he says. “As important or more important, it brought a lot of attention to Nancy’s legacy and contributions. I was really excited about that, and I know that she was touched by that.”
To Kantor, Faust is a mentor. Soon after he got the gig as Red Sox organist in 2003, he called her for advice and guidance—and ended up flying to Chicago and spending a day with her, soaking up her expertise and worldview. (“That was one of my favorite days ever,” he says.) He notes that her generosity extended to how “available and accessible” she was to fans at White Sox games, an approach that influences his own. Kantor takes song requests via Twitter (@jtkantor) during Red Sox games, and he’s mindful of being open and generous with fans, whether at the ballpark or onstage with rock supergroup the Baseball Project (which features Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Steve Wynn, and Scott McCaughey).
Kantor is one of the most vocal proponents of organ music and its role in baseball history, and he’s enthusiastic and incisive when talking about Faust’s legacy. He explains that she was the first person to play walk-up music—a short song snippet accompanying a player as he steps up to bat—and that she revolutionized ballpark organ by introducing contemporary songs into her rotation. “On that day I went to her home in 2003, that was one of the many great bits of advice she gave me,” he says. “She said, ‘You’ve got to keep updating your repertoire. If you want to do this for a long time and not turn into a dinosaur like a lot of other organists have, keep learning new songs.'”
Faust’s old practice organ is currently in Kantor’s living room, but it won’t be gathering dust: he plans “to play it a lot, and to get good at it.” He’s also weighing several long-term plans for how the organ might be best “used, seen, noticed, and appreciated.” He’s considered whether a recording studio or even the Baseball Hall of Fame might be interested in hosting it. “I still feel like it’s Nancy’s instrument, and I’m just taking care of it,” he says. “Maybe 30 years from now, God willing, it will be Nancy’s and mine—and then maybe somebody else will want it.”
No matter what happens, he’ll have a great teacher to guide him: Faust herself, who “has been incredibly supportive,” Kantor says. “She’s like, ‘If you have any questions, any problems, you let me know—I’ll talk you through it. I’ll give you advice and tips.’ I plan to lean on her for that.”
Kantor gets choked up when he tries to talk about what it means for him to own Faust’s organ. “I’m pretty sure every time I look at it, I’m going to very fondly remember something—something about my connection to Nancy and my relationship to her,” he says. “Maybe something very concrete; maybe something a bit more abstract about friendship or music or baseball, generally.
“I’m sure there will be lots of memories associated with it that are tied to the events of the past week, and this past month, and the bonds and friendships that have been strengthened for me through this insane occurrence,” he continues. “I’m sure there will be memories of how ridiculous and surreal it is that there were films made and widely disseminated stories about this adventure and this chapter. [But the organ] will bring a lot of joy into our home.”