Behind the Music

Posted on30 June 2010

Fred Costello celebrating 33rd season with the Red Wings

By Mike Costanza, 55 Plus

The next time you’re jumping to the organ music at a Red Wings game, think of a man fingering three keyboards with a smile on his face. Fred Costello is in his 33rd season of cheering on the Red Wings and their fans with his eclectic mix of jazz, rock and pop organ tunes.

“I enjoy going to the ballpark today as much as I did in 1977,” says Costello, who puts his age at “60-ish.”

Though some may think of Costello’s music only when they hear the crack of a bat, the musician’s many fans were in for a rare treat when baseball season opened at Rochester’s Frontier Field April 17. “A Lifetime of Nightclubs and Ballparks,” an autobiographical book of about 170 pages, came out that month.

“It’s about me growing up in Syracuse, and wanting to be a musician and wanting to be a ballplayer,” Costello explains.

You might say that baseball and music are in Costello’s genes.

George Zingaro, his uncle, played minor-league ball for a team called the House of David. All on the team were members of a Michigan religious commune of the same name that was known its strict religious practices and unusual grooming.

“They all had beards,” Costello said. Pictures show them with hair down to their shoulder blades, as well.

Costello played neighborhood games, often manning third base and center field. As he grew older, he found a way to make money while getting closer to the game he loved—as a groundskeeper for the Syracuse Chiefs, the local AAA ball club. As a teenager, he used to bring the ballplayers home.

“They’d play cards with my mom and dad,” he says.

Music also figures in his lineage—many on his father’s side of the family were musicians. Costello still remembers spending summers at his grandfather’s farm in Kingston, where his relatives split their time between working the land and jamming.

“We picked tomatoes in the daytime and pitched hay, and then at night we played music,” he says. “They were all into jazz.” His choice of an instrument seemed to come naturally from growing up on the north side of Syracuse.

“Part of being Italian on the north side is you had to play the accordion,” he says.

Costello started playing gigs with other young musicians at the age of 14, appearing at birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, Italian weddings, and any other event they could, generally playing traditional fare. The pay wasn’t great in those days, but that didn’t seem to matter.

“Five dollars, and all the pizza we could eat,” he said, laughing. “We felt like we were kings.” As time went on, he added blues and jazz to his repertoire, took up the organ, and played in more types of settings—even local strip clubs.

“For a kid growing up, it was great, because it enabled me to just play music for the rest of my life,” he said. “No matter what situation that came up, as I got older, I could play it.”

Costello went on to spend a total of 11 years on the road, playing in Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge in Nevada, the Playboy Club in Hollywood, and a host of other US, Canadian and Mexican clubs.

Wherever he went, he carried a baseball glove and bat. Grabbing a band-mate, he’d head to the local ballpark to hit a few when time allowed. During the early 1960s, he also played first base and outfield for the semi-pro Syracuse Mohawks when he wasn’t on the road.

While on a gig in the Bahamas, he and his wife, Cathie, found that she was pregnant. They decided to have their first child in Rochester, where her family lived. “Fred Costello & Co.,” played at Val’s Lounge (now the Otter Lodge) on Rochester’s Monroe Avenue for six nights a week for the next three-and-a-half years.

“That’s unheard for by today’s standards,” Costello says. “We were the hottest group in town.”

Monday nights were set aside just for jazz, and the band played with such greats as trumpeter Chuck Mangione, trombonist Slide Hampton and keyboardist Doug Duke.

In 1968, Costello played for the Red Wings for the first time, when Red Wing Stadium was renamed Silver Stadium. The name was changed to honor Morrie Silver, the founder of Rochester Community Baseball.

When the band’s gig at Val’s ended, it played for another three-year stretch at a local club. For the next several years, Costello played in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Philadelphia, did some recordings, and opened a music studio. In 1977, he learned Don Labruzzo, whom he’d come to know when Labruzzo was the Chiefs’ general manager, had been hired as the Red Wings’ coach. Costello called the new coach to see whether the team wanted an organ player.

“He said, ‘That’s a great idea,’” Costello says. “One phone call just changed our lives.”

From the beginning, he set out to keep his music fresh for the ballpark’s crowds.

“A lot of the teams around the country have gotten rid of organists because so many of them sound very dated, or like roller skating rinks,” he says. Instead, he gives Wings fans the same kinds of rock, blues, jazz and contemporary music he plays in clubs. “As a result, I think I’ve stayed fresh.” When the team went to its new digs at Frontier Field in 1997, Costello went with them.

Costello isn’t the only one in his family to love baseball—or work for the Wings.

“The Wings is just like family,” he says. Cathie, whom he calls “My one and only,” has worked as a night game secretary for the ball club for 30 years, and the couple’s two sons and daughter all worked for it at one time or another. Terry, their youngest son, still runs the Wings’ visiting team clubhouse.
Nowadays, Costello can look back on a life filled with memories of baseball and music. Signed pictures of legendary ballplayers and musicians line the walls of the office of his Brighton home, along with awards and accolades from local organizations. Here hangs a picture of him with singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, there Joe DiMaggio stands poised to hit one out of the park, and on another wall comedians Tom and Dick Smothers seem ready to clown around. Interwoven with the artifacts are his memories of the Wings, like that of the season in the early 1980s when future Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. played with the team and Costello’s son, Chris, was a batboy.

“I can remember sitting in my organ booth and looking down and watching Cal Ripken hit ground balls to him,” he says.  Then, there was the old timers game he played in 1983 with baseball legend Johnny Antonelli and other Red Wings alumni. Eight thousand fans were in the stands, Costello was playing third, and Antonelli was on the mound getting ready for the first pitch.

“He looks over and says to me, ‘Are you ready, Fred?’” Costello says. “I said, ‘I’ve been ready for 30 years!’” The memory still brings a laugh.
Costello has also played the organ for the Rochester Amerks and the Buffalo Sabres hockey teams in the off-season, but these days plays only for the Wings. For many local baseball fans, his music conjures up a warm afternoon, the smell of hot dogs, and the crack of a bat.

“The organ is a big part of that,” says Naomi Silver, chief operating officer and board chair of Rochester Community Baseball. “Everyone knows that’s not canned music. That’s Fred Costello.”

Costello also has seven recordings under his belt, runs his own music studio, and operates a band instrument rental company with his youngest son, Terry. Though he doesn’t do as many gigs as he used to, his band, Fred Costello & Co., is a regular on the jazz circuit, and will appear at the upcoming Rochester International Jazz Festival. He’s turned down job offers from several professional teams, including the Yankees and the Mets, but was behind the keyboards for the Red Wings’ season opener.

“I played, ‘This could be the start of something big.’”