Organist Jarvis provided Shea's soundtrack

Organist Jarvis provided Shea's soundtrack

On Thursday, Hofstra University will open a three-day conference devoted to the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets. The Hempstead, N.Y., campus is a natural location for such a celebration because it resides not far from the Mets' home base in Flushing, Queens. And in 1995, the school organized a memorable gathering to commemorate the 100th birthday of Babe Ruth.

There will be many panels of scholars, writers and bloggers sharing their research and spinning their yarns. John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, will deliver the keynote address on Thursday afternoon, and throughout the event there will be sprinkled reminiscences of Mets heroes Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool and Art Shamsky. The Friday night banquet speaker will be Rusty Staub, dubbed "Le Grande Orange" by Montreal Expos fans, who, after his trade to New York, quickly became a fan favorite, a key contributor to the Mets' 1973 pennant winners and a noted restaurant owner.

The conference is being dedicated to the memory of Hofstra English professor Dana Brand, a renowned scholar of modern American literature, who, before his untimely death last year at the age of 57, published two books about his love of the Mets.

"It saddens me that Dana cannot be here," Hofstra engineering department chairman Richard J. Puerzer said in a phone interview. "When I had the idea for the conference four years ago, he was the first man I consulted, and he just exploded with ideas."

The result is a diverse conference inspired by the collaboration of Brand, the liberal arts professor who studied at Yale under the late Italian literature professor Bart Giamatti before Giamatti became National League president and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and Puerzer, the scientist who credits reading a 1984 edition of "Bill James's Baseball Abstract" for stoking his interest in the human, as well as the statistical, side of his chosen field of industrial engineering.

I fall emphatically on the liberal arts side of the spectrum. At an opening 9 a.m. ET session on Friday, April 27, I will be delivering a talk on Jane Jarvis, who played the organ for the Mets at Shea Stadium from 1964-79. When Mets then-general manager George Weiss hired her, he said prophetically, "We want to give the fans good music if we can't give them good baseball."

Jarvis surely fulfilled her end of the bargain. Broadcaster Ralph Kiner, who started with the Mets in their first year of 1962 and will be in the TV booth for 25 games in 2012, stressed how important her role was in bringing musical class and goodwill to the team as they struggled on the field.

"In those years, she was the Mets," Kiner said.

His younger colleagues, lead television voice Gary Cohen and top radio man Howie Rose, are both Queens natives who grew up listening to the lilting optimistic sounds from her Thomas organ.

"She made you feel that anything was possible," Cohen observed not long ago.

Jane's workload was prodigious. Not only did she play during the break between innings, but also for an hour before the game, and even longer after the game in the Charcoal Room of the Diamond Club reserved for Mets season-ticket holders. In the early years of the team's futility, she made many fans by playing "Just One of Those Things" after strikeouts and "Smile, Smile, Smile" as an outro tune promising a better day tomorrow.

Blogger Joe Dubin, who will speak two times at the Hofstra conference, remembered that her music during the tumultuous years of the 1960s and early '70s provided "the semblance and comfort of things staying the same as life otherwise all around us changed too quickly."

During the euphoric season of the 1969 Miracle Mets, she frequently serenaded Mets ace Tom Seaver with "Mr. Wonderful" and regularly greeted reliever Tug McGraw with "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." During the Mets-Reds '73 NL Championship Series, her soothing melodies defused a potentially dangerous situation after Pete Rose's rough slide into shortstop Bud Harrelson inflamed the Shea Stadium crowd. At one point, she played excerpts from her composition "A Prayer for Peace," written during the height of Vietnam War protests.

On the night of New York's city-wide blackout in July 1977, she was widely credited for allaying the fears of more than 21,000 fans by playing non-stop -- for over 90 minutes -- relaxing tunes from her seemingly bottomless storehouse of American songs.

What is not widely known to Mets followers about Jane Jarvis is her remarkable life story before she came to New York. Born on Halloween in 1915 in the small town of Vincennes, Ind., she was a child prodigy on both piano and organ. At the age of 11, she won a competition to become the house pianist for a radio station in Gary, Ind. Though she couldn't keep the job for long once the musicians union and child labor law officials found about it, she was on her way to becoming a legend in both radio and musical circles of the Midwest.

A week after the stock market crash in 1929, Jane endured a terrible blow when her parents were killed in an automobile accident. An only child without a nurturing extended family, she soldiered on by making a living playing music in a wide variety of venues in the Midwest. After World War II, Jane settled in Milwaukee with her chiropractor husband Kenneth Taylor Jarvis, and she quickly became known as the most accessible and talented pianist-organist in town.

Early in the 1954 season, the Milwaukee Braves, transplanted from Boston a year earlier and enjoying huge success at the box office, were growing dissatisfied with their ballpark organist, who was too intrusive and did not know how to respect baseball's silences. So they interviewed Jane, who was interested in the job but had to admit one deficiency -- she had never been to a ballgame.

Braves president John Quinn patiently explained the rules and implored her to never play while the game was in progress. A quick learner, Jane soon became an avid lover of baseball and noticed the connection between the sport and her favorite music, jazz.

"You need teamwork in both, but there is always a chance for individual achievement in every at-bat or solo," she noted sagely.

During the 1957 and '58 seasons, Jane was blessed to play for Milwaukee's two consecutive NL pennant winners. She greeted Hank Aaron's blasts with a rendition of "Dance With Me, Henry" and Santa Barbara-native Eddie Mathews' home runs with "California, Here I Come." She also was at the keyboard when Warren Spahn won his 200th and 300th games.

After the 1962 season, Jane moved to New York to try to crack the difficult jazz music scene in the Big Apple. She found a day job with Muzak, the elevator music company with a vast clientele, and quickly rose to the highest echelons as a vice president for programming. She declined the Braves' offer to join them when they moved to Atlanta, but new Braves president John McHale wrote her a glowing recommendation before Shea opened, and the Mets quickly hired her.

In the late 1970s, Jarvis retired from both Muzak and the Mets to pursue a jazz career that brought her many honors in her last decades. The state of Indiana and the city of New York both celebrated a Jane Jarvis Day in 1987. On her birthday on Halloween, New York Mayor Edward Koch proclaimed that Jane, jazz and Jarvis went together like triplets.

In the 1990s, Jane became the only female member of the Statesmen of Jazz, a band of veteran musicians that received a citation from President Bill Clinton before they went on a tour of Japan in 1998.

Jarvis died on Jan. 25, 2010, but her spirit lives on. Rose summed up her contribution eloquently at her memorial: "Shea Stadium's Queen of Melody, Jane Jarvis, enhanced the ballpark experience for 16 years with a sound so unique, upbeat and joyful that, more than 30 years after she last played there, her impact is still felt."

Lee Lowenfish is the author of the award-winning biography "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman." He is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.