Whether at a Phillies game or a prayer service, organist George Akerley plays with heart and soul.

"It's not that different being at the ballpark or in church. Both places have congregations," he said last week during his final "Throwback Thursday" appearance of the season at Citizens Bank Park.

"Both congregations have their hymns," he said. "Although I don't think the Lutherans want to hear 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' on Sunday. And Phillies fans don't want to hear 'A Mighty Fortress,' either."

But in both places, Akerley said, his performance is about, "Let's go, let's have some fun!"

I watched over Akerley's shoulder in a no-frills corner of the park's concourse as he played a boogie-woogie version of "The Birthday Song." And during the seventh-inning stretch, his rollicking "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" had fans singing and swaying more or less in unison — even though their Phillies were losing badly to the Mets.

"George is so sweet," said Brooke Morgan, 26, a lifelong fan from Conshohocken. "He makes the game be about the fans."

An ebullient fellow who really does seem to love what he does, Akerley lives with his wife and son in Oaklyn, where he's the longtime organist at St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

He's written all sorts of music (rock, jazz, experimental) and performed in all sorts of venues (clubs, sports arenas, sacred spaces) since the 1970s.

"I did hotel [lounge] stuff," Akerley recalled. "I played in a funk-soul band and a wedding band. I played for dance classes. I was a harpsichordist for an 18th-century music group.

"The only place I haven't played is a circus. Or an ice show."

Live organ music at professional baseball games dates from  1941 at Wrigley Field. In the following decades, the sound of the instrument was a defining element of the baseball experience — the aural equivalent of peanuts and Cracker Jacks — nationally and in Philly.

By the time Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, however, recorded pop tunes were beginning to dominate. And the death of longtime Phillies organist Paul Richardson two years later marked the end of an era.

But the success of the nostalgia-themed "Throwback Thursday" promotion sparked a front-office discussion last year about reviving live music, said Teresa Leyden, manager of entertainment for the Phillies.

"We floated around the notion of having someone play the organ again, and Mark DiNardo [director of broadcast and video services] spoke highly of George," she said.

The two men had worked together for the Flyers. Starting in the 1990s, Akerley was the house organist at Flyers home games for 11 years. "Five hundred and fifty games," he recalled. "It's a lot calmer playing for the Phillies. Calmer, and not as cold."

With the Flyers, he became accustomed to working with the crew that presents the show that surrounds the game — a scripted and technically complex undertaking, akin to a live broadcast in front of a live audience.

"It was a trial [run]. They were exploring this idea of having an organist, so I said, 'I'll bring in one of my keyboards from the studio, and let's see how that goes.' "

The digital keyboard "is not an organ, but I play it like an organ to give it that fuller sound," Akerley said.

"With George, we didn't have to worry about breaking someone in," said Leyden. "It's not easy to play in a baseball park full of fans, and not just fans, but Phillies fans. George could play anything we ask at the drop of a hat, which is really valuable."

So far, so good. "People love George, and they love interacting with him," said Leyden. "He's been a cornerstone of making this happen, and we hope this is something we can build on — maybe make it more of a spectacle."

George Akerley prepares his music for a regular Sunday service at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Oaklyn. He began playing in churches at age 15.
KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff
George Akerley prepares his music for a regular Sunday service at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Oaklyn. He began playing in churches at age 15.

At St. Mark's, an active Lutheran parish on the White Horse Pike, Akerley's repertoire was more subdued last Sunday morning. But his playing was just as intense.

Sitting at the console in the front of the sanctuary playing "Blest Be the Tie That Binds,"  the man and his music had a vivid presence.

"George brings a vibrancy to the congregation," said the Rev. Jay Berry, lead pastor.

"Many organists play in a very contemplative style, which is fine. George is very uplifting. And he has a passion for the arts programs of this church."

Culturally as well as musically, Akerley is an omnivore. He took a photography workshop with Ansel Adams in the early 1970s, speaks with fluent ease about writers and painters, and likes nothing better than to compose and play in his home studio.

And he's jazzed to regularly perform in front of an audience of thousands.

"What they want from me is what comes naturally. An expression of joy," he said. "It's hard not to hear the joy of the sound."