EXPRESSED in a single sound, the essence of summertime America is the crack of wood on horsehide. Southsiders in 44,702 infield-oriented seats will hear that noise for the first time in the new Comiskey Park stadium during today's inaugural contest between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers - if Chicago's fickle spring weather permits.
And the sound of an organ, which enlivened many a slow inning at the ballpark's 1910-vintage predecessor and namesake, will also float above the fans.
Today's matchup kicks off Nancy Faust's 22nd season of accompanying White Sox home games, a length of employment that easily makes her the club's senior "player." From her post at the top of the lower deck behind home plate, she will read the action on the field and respond with music to fit the mood.
"I feel like I'm an integral part of the game," Ms. Faust says.
Yet having observed some 1,800 games from start to finish, she still claims to have no head for sports. "I can't come home at night and tell my husband, 'Oh, so-and-so got so-and-so off at third and threw to first,' " Faust laughs. "I can't help you. I usually just know the score."
Her upbringing was a factor. "My parents weren't at all sport-oriented," she says. A Chicago native, Faust remembers going to just one White Sox game as a teenager. The occasion was her cousin's birthday.
"I remember my cousin loved this guy named Rocky Calovito. He played that game. He was on the Indians, if I remember correctly. That's why she wanted to go. His birthday was the same day as her birthday, and we sat in the stands yelling, 'Hey, Rocky! Happy birthday!' "
Two memories of the game stand out to Faust: a delicious strawberry ice-cream cone and Shay Torrent, the organist hired by White Sox owner Bill Veeck in 1960.
"Shay was playing. I remember running over to look for him. I don't think we found him, but we were looking for him just so I could say hello," Faust says.
By that time, Faust was already an accomplished organist herself. Her mother had a career playing piano and accordion for trade shows, country club banquets, and other local events. When her mother added an organ to the home, it captured the imagination of Faust, who was four.
Instructed only by her mother, Faust learned to play so well that Hammond Organ was hiring her at age 10 to give demonstrations. "Organs were a real hot item then. Everybody was buying them for their home. So Hammond Organ would put on shows, exhibits, like at different auditoriums. And they would hire me to play, to show that children can play."
But "the real master" who also performed at those Hammond events was Mr. Torrent. "I never had aspirations of taking his job, but I just was real in awe of him," Faust says. "He was my biggest influence when I was growing up because he played so well."
During her years at Roosevelt High School, Faust would perform engagements that her mother couldn't make. But she didn't foresee a full-time career in music. Faust obtained a psychology degree from Chicago's North Park College, expecting to teach.
Meanwhile, encouraged by college friends, she wrote letters to all of Chicago's professional sports teams offering to play the organ for them. In 1970, shortly after she graduated, the White Sox gave her a call. By then, Shay Torrent had moved to California and was playing at Angel games.
So Faust took the job. At that time the organ was located in the centerfield bleachers. "It was real desolate out there" in the bleachers, Faust recalls. "So two years later my boss said, 'Let's bring you in closer to where the people are.' "
Over the years she has performed at Chicago Bulls basketball games and Black Hawks hockey games, but the White Sox have become a full-time commitment. "They treat me just like part of the family," she says.
THE organist "fills in a lot of dead spots," she says. "And if you can be creative, you can fill it in with things that really reflect what's happening in the game."
This could be anything from playing a "cat song" if a cat runs onto the field, to playing the theme from "Chariots of Fire" if someone is stealing a base.
"Part of my job is to condense what I want to play to get the idea across in 10 seconds, because so often I don't end songs. I can't do anything with an elaborate introduction."
Sometimes Faust razzes the other team, playing "Pressure" or "Born to Lose" if their batter is in trouble. "There's so many different kinds of 'loser' songs," Faust says.
Though she professes to be "a little bit in awe" of the White Sox ballplayers, Faust has gained a measure of fame over the years. She has appeared on Good Morning, America and the Today show, and she was a guest on What's My Line?
In different years the White Sox have also printed batches of 15,000 baseball cards for her to give out and autograph.
Although she says the new park is beautiful, Faust will always treasure two memories from the old Comiskey Park. One was on a hot Friday night in 1977, when the White Sox and the Kansas City Royals were vying for first place. When the Royals replaced their struggling pitcher, Faust played "Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey, goodbye."
"I mean, everybody started singing. It was so awesome," she says.
The other memory came from the White Sox employee picnic held every year in the outfield. "It was really a thrill to go down to the field and see it from the perspective of a ballplayer. My son, Eric, was a year and two months old. And we took him to the picnic. And he took his first steps down there in centerfield, right on the grass."
"I don't think there's many people who could say, 'I took my first steps at Comiskey Park.' "
The regular Thursday feature on food will appear tomorrow.