Fenway Player Swings for the Bleachers
The late-arriving crowd of fans on this gloomy early-spring evening are patiently navigating the narrow concourses and cramped confines of 100-year-old Fenway Park, finally settling into their seats at the first Red Sox home game following an extended road trip.
While the grounds crew readies the field for play and the monstrous center-field video screen flashes the lineups, Fenway organist Josh Kantor ’94 provides his own musical welcome for fans visiting what the team boastfully calls “America’s most beloved ballpark.”
Recognizing that baseball-crazed Bostonians have been without their Red Sox for nine days, Kantor opens his pregame set with the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” shifts to “The Boys Are Back in Town” and continues the mix with the Beatles’ classic “All My Lovin’” (“While I’m away, I’ll write home every day”).
In what may be the world’s best part-time musical gig, Kantor and his 10-year-old Yamaha Electone AR-100 play 81 dates a year before more than 3 million people. A natural-born musician, he started playing the piano when he was 5, later adding guitar, banjo, harmonica, upright bass and accordion to his repertoire.
The improvisation skills he learned at Brandeis with the campus comedy troupe False Advertising helped him elevate his game from instrumentalist to Fenway’s maestro. Making the job even more enviable, Kantor walks the two miles to Fenway Park from the Cambridge home he shares with his wife, Mary Jane Eaton ’96.
“I don’t take this for granted at all,” Kantor says with a wide smile. “I appreciate it every day.”
By day, Kantor works as a library assistant at Harvard University. During half the nights and weekends from early April to late September (longer if the Sox reach the playoffs), he can be found entertaining the Fenway faithful from his perch three stories above the field.
Though the organ has gone the way of two-hour games and 50-cent hot dogs at many ballparks, it has been a fixture at Fenway since 1953 and still gets plenty of performance time during Sox games, especially during this tradition-embracing centennial season. Kantor draws on about 1,000 songs he’s memorized — everything from Motown and disco to Sinatra — and makes his own musical choices for the half-hour pregame medley, 10-second in-game interludes, between-innings offerings and 15-minute postgame serenade. Of course, Kantor’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” fills the air during the seventh-inning stretch.
During games, a producer shouts in Kantor’s headset to direct him to start playing. “We try to play songs that people know,” Kantor explains. “It’s OK to be a little whimsical, but we can’t be mean-spirited.” When the catcher strolls out to the mound to chat with his pitcher, for example, Kantor might play “Come See About Me.”
He has not missed a game since joining the Red Sox in 2003 (former Sox employee Danny Kischel ’96 suggested that his onetime musical partner audition). “You get to exhale after a real busy stretch,” Kantor says, “but after a couple of days I’m reenergized and excited to do games again.”
And why wouldn’t he be — the job’s a home run.
— David E. Nathan