New Cubs organist John Benedeck played to an empty Wrigley Field in mid-May, filling the Wrigleyville and Lakeview neighborhoods with familiar sounds that have been missing since the end of the 2019 season.
The 2012 McHenry East graduate called the drive to the iconic stadium on the corner of Clark and Addison "one of the scariest hour-long commutes I’ve ever had." But once Benedeck sat down, he felt right at home.
Benedeck, who still lives in McHenry, auditioned after Cubs organist Gary Pressy retired after 33 seasons behind Wrigley Field's storied and soothing musical instrument that Benedeck describes as a "large complex piano" and "deep machine."
Benedeck did not start playing the organ until about 2018, when he visited Lake in the Hills resident Stewart McVicar’s Cubs-themed basement, nicknamed Club 400. A friend took a video of Benedeck playing an old Wrigley Field organ stored in McVicar's basement, and the video eventually made its way to the Cubs.
The rest is history.
After playing during the Cubs' exhibition game against the White Sox on Sunday, Benedeck is making his regular-season debut this weekend as one of the Cubs' regular rotating organists for the 2020 season.
Benedeck, a radio producer who studied broadcast production at Western Illinois, recently spoke with Shaw Media about his new gig, his favorite songs, performing with no fans and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did your interest in music first start?
Benedeck: My main background is piano. My mom felt compelled to throw me into lessons, and I can tell you, don’t force a 6-year-old to do anything he doesn’t want to do. I think both of my parents saw something in me. I didn’t take onto it as fast as they anticipated, but I didn’t practice well. I was the kid who wanted to learn how to play guitar, but they kept me in piano. For the first six months, from what I remember, it wasn't fun.
So when did you become a fan of the piano?
Benedeck: When I heard another student play "Canon in D," I listened to it, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I love that song.' My piano teacher was like, ‘You’re not quite there yet. She said, ‘Here’s the deal. You practice every day for 30 minutes on the song, I’ll give it to you, and we’ll see if you can play it at the next recital.’ And three months later, I was able to play it.
After high school, I stopped lessons and continued playing live events, parties, leading worship at church. That contributed to my improvisational skills, but I still carried the understanding of music theory and roots, and that has help me until today.
Did you participate in band or any other extracurricular activities in high school?
Benedeck: I didn’t do band. I was in chamber choir all four years. My choir teacher, Derek Galvicius, is still there and a pretty close friend and mentor as far as music goes. He really encouraged me to play by ear. I was a hyper kid. I wasn’t so confident in my musical ability until he honed it in.
What else do you do for a job?
Benedeck: I’m a radio producer. I considered pursuing music, but I think if I relied solely on music for my means for living, I would lose the enjoyment and passion for it.
How did you get an audition for Cubs organist?
Benedeck: That was kind of out of the blue. I didn’t even pursue it, per se. One person who's always [at Club 400], he’s a favorite there and pretty active on social media. His name is Paul Dzien. At an event in January, he captured me playing and posted it to his Twitter page, and it got some attention.
A month later, early February, I wake up on a Friday morning to an email thread with Cubs execs and marketing people, and Paul is on the thread. I scroll all the way to the bottom, and Paul, without even telling me, just threw my hat in the ring.
After a few weeks and emails, it went from, ‘This is far-fetched, I have nothing to lose,' to, 'Oh my gosh, this actually might happen.’ Then COVID-19 hit, and we all kind of went into hibernation for a few months.
Everything actually woke up on my birthday. I got a call from the Cubs in May saying, “Hey, we need you in two days at Wrigley. We’re going to announce you and you’re going to play for the neighborhood.'"
With the start of the MLB season unknown, you played for fans in May to help bring back a sense of normalcy in the middle of a pandemic. What did that experience mean to you?
Benedeck: I’m telling you, that was probably one of the scariest, hour-long commutes I’ve ever had. It was an amazing opportunity. I had to think about it for a couple of days. What am I going to play? What’s it going to be like?
As soon as you sit down, you kind of just felt at home. I never experienced something like that.
Obviously, I’ve never been to Wrigley without any fans or a game going on. It was just this void that I felt compelled to fill, and I needed to fill. It was my job at that point to do that, and I really enjoyed it. That was a blessing.
Did you grow up a baseball or Cubs fan?
Benedeck: Massive Cubs fan, especially my dad’s side of the family. Some of them are season-ticket holders. My dad knew a guy who had season tickets a few rows behind the Bartman seats, and that was my favorite place to sit. The bullpen was right there, and I’d either heckle the guys I didn’t know or talk to my favorite pitchers.
Who are some of your favorite Cubs players?
Benedeck: You can’t not love Javy Baez. Starting with this new era of players in 2015, you saw this new resurgence of life at Wrigley that I’ve never experienced. They did it with this childlike wonder of the game that was really contagious. It brought life back into the fan base and team itself.
What is your favorite Wrigley Field moment?
Benedeck: My favorite memory was last year. Me and my mom went. I don’t think the game was particularly great, the Cubs lost, 8-0 or something. A friend of mine was the engineer for WSCR AM-670 the Score and invited me and my mom up to the press box to meet [broadcasters] Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer.
We were only up there for a half inning, but it was still neat to get that perspective. She thought she’d never be able to meet Pat. She’s a huge Pat Hughes fan, I’m a huge Pat Hughes fan, so that was special.
Gary Pressy retired after 33 seasons as Cubs organist, including a streak of more than 2,600 consecutive games played at Wrigley. How does it feel to replace a Cubs legend?
Benedeck: Those are some big shoes to fill. I think of him as the Cal Ripken of organists. You can’t compete with that streak, that diligence and that consistency. It was to the point where you didn’t even think about the organ because it was understood that it was going to be there in that exact same way every time.
Baseball fans love consistency and nostalgia, something they can hold onto when they go there. The ivy is it, the scoreboard is it, the marquee is it, and the organ is it. I have to find a balance of that consistency but also bring something new.
How do you choose which songs or sounds to play?
Benedeck: Well, I try to make it pretty thematic. I look at the roster sheets and see if there are any puns I can throw in there for last names or the team name itself. If we're playing the Marlins, I'll play something like a beach theme or "Margaritaville." For the crosstown classic on Sunday, I played a lot of Chicago songs. I played Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."
My goal is not to make people completely notice me, but kind of turn their head and say, ‘Oh, nice,' and then go about their day.
What are some of your favorite songs to play?
Benedeck: I love "Centerfield" by John Fogerty, that was one of my "Big 3" when I first started. "Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel," "Sweet Caroline." I’m a classic fan; some pop is good but I love Billy Joel, Elton John and the Beatles.
Where were you when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series?
Benedeck: That was my first semester at Western Illinois. I was in a house full of Cardinals fans. I'm wearing my Kyle Schwarber jersey. Most of the game, I was pretty smug. They're up 6-1, 6-3, 6-4. And then Rajai Davis ties it up, and I'm face-first on the ground with a slew of Cardinals fans roaring around me. I did not get up until Ben Zobrist hit that single. I did not want to show my face to the Cardinals fans in the room.
But as soon as Zobrist hit it, I'm sprinting around like a little kid. Even in that town, you go outside and you hear echoes of Cubs fans celebrating. That was a lot of fun. Even though I had class the next day, I celebrated for sure.
What are you looking forward to most for Friday's home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers?
Benedeck: Obviously with safety in mind, I’m looking forward to seeing more people out and about. There's not going to be anybody in the park, but my understanding is some rooftops will be open and people will be there to experience the home opener as they would any other year.
I’m hoping there's a little bit more buzz in the neighborhood. It’s a divisional game and game that counts, so there’s that adrenaline and energy involved. I just hope to contribute to it as much as I possibly can.