Legendary Yankee Stadium organist Eddie Layton died Sunday at his home in Forest Hills after a brief illness. His death was announced by the team he worked for since 1967.
“Eddie Layton was a treasured member of the Yankee family and, as a gifted musician, he made Yankee Stadium a happier place to be,” said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “Eddie was a dear friend and will be missed by all who come to Yankee Stadium.”
Layton never married and—even to the Yankees—did not reveal his age, but he was believed to be in his late 70s.
He played at the stadium for the final time at the end of the 2003 season. During the seventh-inning stretch of that game, players and coaches applauded Layton as the crowd of more than 42,000 sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in tribute.
“After 38 years of playing the organ at Yankee Stadium, there just comes a time to retire,” Layton told reporters last September. “They were wonderful years. I treasure my five World Series rings, though I can only wear one at a time and still play the organ. I think I’m the only organist in the world with five world championship rings.”
Layton was brought to the Yankees by Mike Burke, who was running the team in the 1960s. At that time CBS owned the ball club and Layton was the organist for three of the network’s soap operas: “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,” “Secret Storm” and “Love of Life.”
When he was offered the job, Layton didn’t know anything about baseball. “I thought that a sacrifice fly had something to do with killing an insect,” he said in a National Public Radio interview last year.
Besides having no interest in baseball, Layton lived in Forest Hills without a car. He thought the trip to the South Bronx would be too much of a hassle so he turned down the job at Yankee Stadium. But the ball club came back with an offer he couldn’t refuse, a limo would pick Layton up in front of his apartment before each game and take him home when the game ended. He accepted.
For the next three decades he became as important to the team as Robert Merrill singing the National Anthem and Bob Sheppard, Layton’s close friend, who has been announcing games for more than 50 years.
“For 37 years, we have worked together closely,” Sheppard told reporters when Layton retired. “It has been obvious during the years that Eddie is a gifted musician. Millions of people can attest to that. But he is more than a brilliant organist. Eddie Layton is warm, bright, humble and concerned about the welfare of others. Millions of fans will miss his music.”
During his first week on the job, Layton played the ‘Charge’ call, which he said he created. He was only supposed to play during breaks in the action but at times he got lost in the moment. Once when Reggie Jackson was at bat he kept playing and playing until the umpires looked up at the booth and Jackson started dancing at home plate.
He was also known for musical jokes, playing “Alley Cat” when a homeless kitten ran across the field and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” when former Yankee Joel Skinner went to bat. When Albert Castillo got his first hit in May 2002 after 14 unsuccessful tries at bat, Layton played “Hallelujah.”
Layton wore oversized glasses and a captain’s hat as he played the Hammond organ throughout the decades. His unique repertoire included “The Mexican Hat Dance” and “Hava Nagila.”
In addition to his work at the stadium, Layton released 26 of his own albums and played on 234 albums for Mercury and Epic Records. “Ya Gotta Have Heart,” released in 1997, sold more than three million copies. He also performed numerous concerts and represented the Hammond company on tour.
The Philadelphia native and son of a supermarket owner first started playing the organ at age 12. He graduated from West Chester State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, with a major in meteorology and a minor in music. After college he served in the Navy before pursuing his musical career.
In the early 1950s, Layton released his first album while making a name for himself in Asbury Park, New Jersey. After meeting with the owner of the Copacabana in New York City, he was offered a regular gig at the legendary club.
Soon after, he began to work on national radio programs, sharing the billing with well-known musicians like Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk. He also performed regularly at the Park Sheridan Hotel and Radio City Music Hall.
After his first season with the Yankees, Layton also played at Madison Square Garden for the Rangers and Knicks. He played the organ at MSG from 1967 to 1985 and at Islanders games in Nassau Colliseum for a few years in the 1990s.
Until he died, Layton lived in a 25th floor apartment in Birchwood Towers. In spring and summer months he spent time sailing a custom-made yacht that resembled a tugboat in the Hudson River.
As baseball season followed baseball season, recorded music was used more often, squeezing Layton out of the game. More of his playing time was spent accompanying rock music than soloing. Instead of playing for an hour before the game and an hour afterward, he was playing for 15 minutes before the game and leaving the stadium as soon as the game ended.
After retiring, he said that his years with the Yankees were the most important of his life. “I’ve seen amazing feats on the field of Yankee Stadium, but maybe more importantly, I have met people who I will consider a part of my family for all of my life,” Layton told reporters last fall. “The sights and sounds of Yankee Stadium will remain with me always, tucked away in a part of my heart filled with so much joy and happiness.”