It’s late afternoon on a gray and drizzly Wednesday in mid-September. Josh Kantor, 45, takes the M2 shuttle to Kenmore from his part-time job at Harvard University’s Loeb Music Library. He walks to Gate D of Fenway Park and takes the elevator up, arriving on the fourth floor. There he heads to his usual game-day seat.
This is a routine he knows well. Since 2003, Kantor has not missed a single Red Sox home game.
It’s true that there have been times when he’s felt under the weather, he says, but it’s never stopped him: “I got my rest and my vitamins and my cold medicine, and I went in to watch baseball and play songs,” he says with a small shrug.
That’s a typically Kantorial self-effacing response. For roughly a third of his life, Kantor has worked as the Fenway Park organist, playing live for crowds of over 37,000. If you’ve seen the Sox play at home in the past 16 years, you’ve probably sung along to his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
But it’s not just peanuts and Cracker Jack. During home games, Kantor opens his Twitter feed — @jtkantor — to off-the-wall song requests. With that, he creates something special: a way for fans to be a part of the game, no matter where they are.
The ballpark’s Yamaha AR-100 Electone organ sits in a secluded corner of the State Street Pavilion Club, on a raised stage only a few feet square and partially hidden behind a pillar. Kantor’s MacBook Air sits next to him on the small bench, from which he has a birds-eye view of home plate. There’s not much wiggle room.
When Kantor takes his place, he dons the headset through which he communicates with the control room staff. This connects him with Red Sox DJ TJ Connelly, with whom he works closely to generate Fenway’s distinctive, eclectic soundtrack each night. Both Connelly and Kantor’s repertoires eschew jock-jam cliches; the Fenway sound is closer to that of an eclectic college radio station than a typical sporting event.
As the park opens and diners file into the club, Kantor warms up for the night with 39 minutes of music, the time allotted him by the pre-game schedule that sits nearby. In a nod to the dreary weather, he plays “Let the Sun Shine In.” He plays Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and the manic theme song from “The Lego Movie,” “Everything Is Awesome!!!”
After that, he turns to his laptop and opens up Twitter to find the night’s first request, for “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” by Stevie Wonder. He slides his headset back, plugs in an earbud, and pulls up YouTube to listen. It’s got some interesting syncopations to deal with, and the chord changes aren’t the most predictable, but on just a few minutes’ notice, he’s arranged it, puzzled together the melody and bass line, and readied it for prime time.
Kantor tweets back at the requester. “Out of respect for your desperate attempt to prolong summer, I will play this momentarily,” he writes.
And he does, and someone’s night gets made.
Kantor grew up in love with baseball. He followed the major leagues, collected cards, and played (not well, he says) in Little League. When he was a young teen, his family moved from Georgia to Evanston, Ill., where he could easily hop on a train and go to a baseball game in Chicago.
Ball games at Comiskey Park featured the stylings of now-retired White Sox organist Nancy Faust, who is revered for her cheeky musical commentary on the game’s happenings — for example, taunting the visiting team with “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” when an opposing pitcher left the game. She also took requests for songs that riffed on the players’ names and numbers, on-field happenings, the weather, or anything else she could comment on, she explained recently by phone. After a fan told her that the Kansas City Royals’ George Brett had undergone hemorrhoid surgery, she started playing “You Can’t Sit Down” when he stepped up to the plate.
Kantor doesn’t remember ever requesting anything from Faust, but her influence on him was immeasurable. “She was pretty well into her tenure when I first discovered her, and I became enchanted with her style of playing,” he says. “That seemed like maybe the coolest job in the world. Something I might like to be able to try to do someday.”
At the time, he wasn’t thinking seriously about being a ballpark organist, but he was getting better at piano and discovering that music could be a way of staying connected with the game he loved.
He moved to the Boston area in 1990 to attend Brandeis University, and became a Red Sox fan within his first week. After graduation, he stayed in the area both for work and to stay close to his then-girlfriend, now wife. In 2003, he auditioned for the organist position. Shortly after learning he’d gotten the job, he reached out to Faust for advice.
Her “recipe for success,” she says, had two parts: Keep your repertoire current, and have lots of songs. “I didn’t have to tell him to be friendly. . . . He’s well-liked. He’s humble. I think he’s a real magnet for the fans,” she says.
The two have kept in contact, and in 2015, when Faust auctioned off her practice organ for charity, Kantor brought it home.
For most of Faust’s time with the White Sox, fans could approach her easily. But at Fenway, Kantor hasn’t always been easy for fans to access; at one point, his keyboard was in the restricted A/V room. So for his first years with the Red Sox, Kantor spent each game mostly on his own, playing his own mix of songs from different genres and eras.
Beyoncé’s “Halo” was the song that started the era of requests. A fan reached out to him on Twitter wondering how the song would sound on the ballpark organ, and Kantor accepted the challenge. After that, the news that he would play requests spread slowly by word of mouth. Now, requested songs often vastly outnumber the songs that he picks himself during any given ballgame.
His Twitter feed attracts a cozy conglomerate of baseball and music geeks, the kind of people for whom the possibility of hearing Pile’s “Baby Boy” or the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” on the organ would be another reason to go to the ballpark.
“Twitter, for the most part, is such a God-awful miserable place, so I’m really trying to carve out my own teeny-tiny corner of it that’s not mean and bitter and hateful,” says Kantor, who’s not too active on the site when the Red Sox aren’t playing.
As soon as the game starts, requests start to trickle in online. Someone wants to hear a song by Guster. Another wants “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and another wants Erasure’s “A Little Respect.” (That one proves to be a useful riff later in the game, after the park shakes with boos when umpires rule against Xander Bogaerts.) At one point, a man lumbers toward Kantor’s station and almost knocks over the small lamp next to the bench while he asks the organist to play “Happy Birthday” for a friend. Kantor replies that he doesn’t play “Happy Birthday,” but if that friend has another song request, he’ll play that.
“[Kantor] is one of Fenway’s greatest assets in terms of the fan experience,” says Henry Taves, 64, a longtime Red Sox devotee who grew up with the sound of Fenway’s original organist, John Kiley. “He runs two keyboards, the organ and the computer, and he’s a whiz at both of them.”
Kantor certainly looks comfortable in his routine. He’ll get a request, he’ll give it a listen, and he’ll start picking it out on the organ. He’s often up for songs he doesn’t know. His ability to learn on the fly comes from years of practice at the ballpark, in improv theater, and in various rock bands; the most well-known of these is the Baseball Project, which includes members of R.E.M.
He’ll figure out where a tune might fit in the course of the ballgame and communicate with Connelly when something needs a soundtrack. “It’s sort of like when the fly ball is hit between the two outfielders, and they have to decide which one is going to come in and catch it and make sure they don’t bump into each other and make sure no one drops the ball,” he explains of their back-and-forth.
Then, when he’s about to play a song, he’ll usually retweet the request and add a comment, usually with some good-natured humor.
Kantor is open-minded, but there are certain things he won’t play. He won’t play classical music; as he put it to one tweeter, “I’m a punk rocker; I don’t have those kinds of chops.” He says he won’t play anything racist or sexist, and he tries to be careful around larger world events. At one point, someone tweets at both Kantor and Connelly with a request for “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” but Hurricane Florence is looming off the mid-Atlantic coast, and that one gets nixed.
Kantor also tries to avoid playing the same song too many games in a row. It might not make a difference to the people who come only once a year, he says, but it’s a point of pride for him to have such a deep musical well to draw from.
However, exceptions can be made.
“My folks are at the game tonight. Any way you could play ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)’ for them?” someone tweets.
He’s already played the song during this home stand. But if people have a touching or funny story, or they share a personal reason for their request, it can move up in the queue. “Any request that affirms some aspect of goodness in humanity, I’m more drawn to those,” he sums it up.
For the folks, he plays it.
The sole run on the scoreboard appears thanks to a wild pitch (Connelly blasts “Wild Thing” through the park when it happens), bringing Rafael Devers home in the fifth inning and putting the Red Sox in the lead.
Choosing songs is easier when the home team is winning, says Kantor, because fans are already in the mood. When they’re losing, picking songs becomes a balancing act, trying to keep it light and whimsical but not so much that fans will feel insulted. “The Red Sox fanbase is a pretty loyal, savvy fanbase. They know if you’re being disingenuous . . . and they’ll tell you,” he says.
Soon the Red Sox collect their 100th win of the season, and the sound of Fenway singing along to “Dirty Water” penetrates the thick glass of the pavilion club’s windows. As the crowd files out, Kantor celebrates with a deep cut: Haircut One Hundred’s “Nobody’s Fool.”
And with the park deserted, he’s out into the rain, to return the next day and the next to what he calls “the coolest job in the world.”