The crowd might be missing, but new Wrigley Field organist is in full swing
You might have heard John Benedeck playing one of his favorite hymns for an event at Christian Fellowship Church in Crystal Lake, where he is an active leader. Or you might have seen him playing part of a piano/organ duet at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and School in Hawthorn Woods. Maybe you caught him on the keyboard at one of his gigs for a packed house at local coffee houses or bars.
But this weekend, Benedeck's been playing his heart out in front of a smaller crowd -- a nearly empty Wrigley Field.
"I'd love to do it forever. This is my Everest," says Benedeck, who lived briefly in Mundelein, grew up in McHenry and was hired by the Chicago Cubs in May as one of three organists to replace retired legend Gary Pressy. By playing for each of the opening three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Benedeck is only 2,684 games behind the consecutive-games streak Pressy compiled during 33 seasons. Only 26 years old, Benedeck used the hashtag #rookieorganist in his first tweet after playing at Wrigley.
"Piano came first and that is still my main instrument," says Benedeck, who played his last regular gig at Hidden Pearl Coffee in McHenry on Valentine's Day, before the pandemic restrictions shut down music venues. He also books performances and gives lessons through Piano Trends Music in Crystal Lake. He played the piano in November for CHILL, a food and wine event at Chicago's Merchandise Mart.
Benedeck's musical career began when he was 6 years old. "My mom threw me into lessons," remembers Benedeck, who wasn't a fan of practicing basic scales. "It was just tedious and boring."
He heard an older student playing Pachelbel's Canon, and told his teacher he wanted to play that much more complicated piece.
"What do you mean I'm not there yet? I've been playing for three months," Benedeck remembers thinking. "That started my hunger at an early age."
In addition to reading music, "I learned I could play by ear," says Benedeck, who instinctively started playing songs he heard on the radio or TV.
"Every recital, I'd play something written, and something from my roots," he remembers.
He also developed a love of baseball, the Chicago Cubs and the team's then-slugger, Sammy Sosa.
"What got me into baseball was Sosa," Benedeck says. But his first Cubs jersey was the number 30 of lefty pitcher Ted Lilly. Benedeck also liked Matt Clement, and that pitcher's unique goatee.
As a kid, Benedeck played Little League baseball.
"I caught a little bit and thought that was fun," Benedeck says, noting he also could make strong throws as an outfielder. "I had a bit of a cannon."
By the time he reached McHenry East High School, Benedeck had developed strong musical skills, thanks to his piano teacher, Sally Manktelow. He remembers writing a paper in first grade for teacher Mary Ellen Karp, saying that he wanted to grow up to be a pilot or a musician at a ballpark.
"I had a lot of energy," says Benedeck, who credits Derek Galvicius, director of the McHenry High School Chamber Choir, with teaching him how to focus his talents and his enthusiasm.
As a student at Western Illinois University, Benedeck served as the public-address announcer for sporting events, and performed on-air on TV and radio and did a lot of production work. Graduating in 2018 with a degree in broadcast production, Benedeck found work immediately as a producer for the AM 560 radio station based in Elk Grove Village, producing and co-hosting on Huntley Community Radio, and producing "The Common Good" radio show for the Salem Media Group.
But his link to the Cubs came through his job producing podcasts and recording interviews for Club 400, the Cubs-themed club occupying the basement of McHenry County resident Stewart McVicar. The 2,300-square-foot venue has hosted countless fundraisers and Cubs legends, and also has a Lowrey organ like the one at Wrigley.
Benedeck's fun times on that organ came to the attention of Cubs' management, and that led to an audition Benedeck nailed.
"It just showed up out of the blue, and I did my best to run with it. It's been wild, but it's been awesome," Benedeck says, noting that his other employers work around his Wrigley schedule. "I'm so fortunate to work for Cubs fans."
There's so much more to playing for baseball games than good technique. He's already learned, "If you don't agree with the umpire's call, never play 'Three Blind Mice,'" and to pay attention to his fluid intake.
Benedeck played for the first "summer league" game on a hot July 19 at Wrigley against the White Sox.
"I had two water bottles before the game. That was a mistake," Benedeck says, noting he couldn't make a bathroom run until the ninth inning.
For Friday night's first regular-season game, Benedeck tweeted, "Never had an office with a window before. Wish these seats were full, but on the lighter note, it's #OpeningDay!!."
His Facebook page describes him as a "Christ follower" first and then "Organist for @Cubs."
"I am grateful for the gift God has given me to play music effortlessly," Benedeck says. He dreams of the day when he can play before a Wrigley Field packed with screaming fans.
"It's strange. It's such a weird time for everybody. You can't be in the ballpark, but you can still feel that buzz," Benedeck says. "With social media and television, we're able to still engage with the fans. They're hungry for it, and I am, too. I'm a Cubs fan."