A Key Player

Checking in with Minnesota Twins organist and former Minnesota State Mankato piano student Sue Nelson

Twins Organist Sue Nelson, whose keyboard origins took place at Minnesota State Mankato.

On a blazingly bright Sunday afternoon, the walkways of Target Center are alive with the color and hustle of a multi-level street bazaar.

Restaurants, taverns, microbrew stands, popcorn kiosks, souvenir shops and infinite foot traffic all easily distract from the fact that there’s actually a ball game going on. Until, of course, that sound.

It’s the iconic and timeless carnival chime of the ballpark organ, the official instrument of peanuts and Cracker Jack. In this case it’s a Yamaha spinet organ, the exact one played decades ago at Metropolitan Stadium, the Twins’ first home in Minnesota. The hands on those keys, the hands reminding everybody that they are indeed at a sunshine-afternoon bona fide Midwestern America Baseball game, those hands belong to Sue Nelson.

And everybody wants to shake them.

Sue Nelson will, in a minute’s time, pose for a photo with a baby, hand out baseball cards to a couple of pre-teens, peer down at the batter’s box to make sure no one’s in it, then chime a few notes that resonate across this stadium where upwards of 20,000 fans are on fire over yet another win over the Chicago White Sox and the Twins having a great season. among the hottest teams thus far in the season.

 “It’s music,” Nelson says of her organ playing. “But it’s not that much music.”

Which is exactly how she likes it as someone who enjoys people and sports far more than music. Thanks to her early piano training in Mankato, she gets to enjoy all three.

Now in her 70s, Nelson has been playing organs, pianos or anything with keys on it since shortly after high school in Mankato. The Nicollet native in 1963 took work in a downtown Mankato music store, Steward Organ Studios.

She promptly enrolled in piano studies at Minnesota State Mankato, working two years with piano teacher Ed Epple, who today she praises as a wonderful instructor. While learning piano at the University, she worked at Steward Organ. There, the need to interact with customers while demonstrating the pianos led to a skill set that would serve her future well.

 “That’s why I can do the Twins,” she said, “because I can play and talk.”

In Mankato in the early 1960s, Nelson took piano or organ gigs where she could get them. She recalls stints playing at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Mankato, promo spots on the local CBS affiliate for Steward Organ Studios, and even a circus calliope in St. Peter.

But her chops at being able to play and talk to people were honed at piano bars.

“I always say the Tropicana in New Ulm closed because I was so bad,” she laughs of her first such job.

The pivotal moment that led to her work at sports stadiums happened when a man entered a music store where Nelson worked in Minneapolis. He explained he was going through some anxiety issues and needed someone to replace him at his job playing organ for the Minnesota North Stars.

Nelson applied but didn’t get the job, losing out to a more serious musician. That, however, didn’t last long.

“He hated it because he was a good musician,” she said. “Most musicians are not sports people. A real musician wants to play songs and have people to hear those songs. I didn’t care at all. I wanted to be at the game. I just loved hockey.”

The North Stars called her back on March 18, 1981, offering her the job, which she held for years. She moved to the Twins in 1999, after the Metrodome’s organist Ronnie Newman approached Nelson and asked her to take over for him.

“His fingers didn’t work anymore and he asked if I could take over,” she said. She was stationed in the football press box, which later became a hospitality room of sorts, where more and more people would watch the game and mingle and talk to Nelson.

“There were always people in my room. I was asked once in a while “How can you concentrate with all those people? I would say: They help keep me in the game.”

When it was time for the Twins to move into the new downtown Minneapolis stadium, Nelson assumed the worst.

“I thought  that this would be the end of playing,” she said. “I’ll never forget when they called and said ‘Do you know where you’re going to be in the new stadium?  You’re going to be in the piano bar right above home plate.”

This is where she has held court for 10 years and going, doing what she loves – watching ball games and talking with people around her. She’s easy to find on the second level, where Twins fans line up for beer, hot dogs or a chance to get a picture with Sue Nelson.

shows organist holding a baby and posing for a photo.
Mingling with fans young and old is a favorite part of Sue Nelson’s job.

She obliges all who ask, occasionally checking the field below her to see if it’s safe to burst out a few chords to celebrate a double or a strike-out.  If timing is a factor in her music, it’s not in the tempo, it’s on the field. There are times to play and times to definitely not-play.

“It doesn’t matter what I play at those times, but it’s got to be at the right time.”

For an organist to be so accessible to the general admission crowd is rare. Only two stadiums in the MLB are arranged for that – The Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix and the Twins in Minneapolis.

“There is always a line of people waiting to say hello to Sue,” said Carol Repp Daley, a Twins season holder from Owatonna who often makes it a point to drop in on Nelson at games. “I bring my out-of-town guests to meet her and she is so gracious. She is one of the highlights of many of my friends’ game experience.”

Nelson is particularly excited to be on the job Aug. 6 when the ballpark becomes the site for Minnesota State Mankato Night at Target Center, an evening for Mavericks to cheer on the Twins while connecting with alumni en masse. For Nelson, that evening will bring her full circle with the city and the school that literally gave her the keys to a dream job.

“Everybody says ‘When are you going to retire?’ Why would I even think of retiring?” she says. “And I don’t want it to end with me, I just so want job to go on, because there are so many people it’s very important to.”

Sue Nelson’s work station — a 1977 Yamaha from the Met Stadium era of Twins history.