Vince Lascheid died Thursday in Pittsburgh at the age of 85, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Outside of the recent news coverage of his death, Mr. Lascheid’s name existed in relative obscurity unless you were someone with more than just a passing awareness or interest in Pittsburgh’s sports or cultural scene. Two of my fellow expatriates from the Burgh did not recognize his name when I told them that he had died.
If you attended a baseball or hockey game in Pittsburgh sometime within the last 35 years or so, the chances are pretty good that your experience was enhanced by Mr. Lascheid’s efforts.
Vince Lascheid was the organist for numerous Pittsburgh sports teams, starting in 1970. He is the answer to the trivia question, “Who is the only person to play for the Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins?”. He’s also likely the only organist to be enshrined in a team’s hall of fame, in this case the Pens.
Mr. Lascheid began a career as a keyboard player in the military during World War II, followed by a short touring stint with Glenn Miller’s band, and then various jobs around the Pittsburgh area, including playing the organ at The Colony, a restaurant in the South Hills of Pittsburgh that specialized in service and the ambiance of the 60’s, along with having the best steaks in town.
Mr. Lascheid recorded a live album at The Colony that still sits somewhere in my vinyl collection.
He enjoyed a modest local following until Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970, and the Pirates asked him to play the new organ there during games. The Penguins followed suit at the Civic (now Mellon) Arena, and soon Mr. Lascheid established a fan base that endured long after he stopped playing for the Pens in 2003, and cut back his playing to just day games for the Bucs.
Mr. Lascheid earned his accolades in part for being very inventive, whimsical, and downright mischievous at times when selecting music to play for a particular situation, or when a certain player scored a goal or came to bat.
My favorite one of these was when Gary Rissling, a Pens enforcer in the 80’s, would get into a fight, which he often did. Gary had been branded with the nickname “Studio”, in part because of his penchant for pugilism but mainly because of the local TV show Studio Wrestling, which was popular in the late 60’s. The show’s opening theme music was the march “El Capitan” by John Philip Sousa, and that’s what Vince often played whenever Gary decided to drop the gloves.
My personal feeling is that Vince Lascheid, along with many public address announcers, broadcasters, and others involved in the marketing of pro and collegiate athletics, represent a nearly extinct breed of individual who enhances the experience of a sporting event through their own personality and enthusiasm for the game, and for the team they are paid to promote.
Of those who earned fame and a following in Pittsburgh doing this, such as the late “Rosey” Rowswell, Bob Prince, and Myron Cope, only Mike Lange remains as an iconic figure, associated mentally with his respective team as much as, if not more, than the participants themselves. These personalities anchored the events, the team, and the glory of championships in the collective mind of the fans.
Sporting events nowadays are too often peppered with fast-paced, testosterone-laden recorded music, and are too formulaic in their presentation, as if they are all trying to follow the same marketing plan. Those sports organizations trying to carve a niche for a chance at what may be a scarce entertainment dollar are the ones who truly innovate. Examples are many minor league baseball and hockey teams in smaller markets.
While the loss of Vince Lascheid may increase the number of those innovators that are no longer with us, someone at the Pirates had a good idea to start recording him a couple of years ago. They’ll play those recordings during games for a long time to come, which will not only enhance the experience of going to a ball game, but may also help younger fans to a history lesson about personalities, individualism, and the power of your own dreams.
Thanks for making my experience special, Vince. We’ll miss you.