Lambert Bartak was Omaha's sunshine for more than 50 years.
Though it would have made the humble organist cringe to hear it said, he made College World Series and minor league baseball fans happy; he made us happy when skies were gray, or bright, with the music he played at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
Bartak died Sunday in San Diego, where he had gone to live with his son, Jim.
His passing at age 94 came three years after Bartak played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for CWS fans for the last time, in the event's final year at Rosenblatt.
“He provided the theme music for the College World Series,” said Kathryn Morrissey, the CWS Inc. president whose job included wooing Bartak back to the keyboard each year as he aged.
“All those things we think about there — family, friends, baseball, being part of the big event — all flew out of his fingertips.”
Bartak is most remembered for the songs he played on a 1940s-era electric organ between innings at Rosenblatt. His jaunty renditions of such tunes as “You Are My Sunshine,” “In the Good Old Summertime” and “Chicken Dance” helped create the atmosphere that made fans fall in love with the College World Series.
Bartak was usually heard and not seen. In later years, ballpark officials persuaded him to appear on video during the seventh-inning stretch song and give fans a little wave.
It mystified Bartak that people made a big deal over him.
“He was a very simple guy,” said son Jim. “He didn't go in for that adoration stuff.”
It made Morrissey laugh, and the organist scratch his head, that when she gave groups behind-the-scenes tours at Rosenblatt, the people who most wanted to see Bartak at the keys were teenage girls.
Bartak had a whole career before he became a Rosenblatt Stadium icon.
A son of Czech immigrants, he grew up on a farm outside of Norfolk, Neb. He was 12 when his parents bought him his first accordion, for $19.50, from the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
He taught himself to play, did gigs around town, and then played in an Army band while serving in Europe in World War II.
After the war, he played at WOW radio and early TV in Omaha with a rising star, Johnny Carson, and did side gigs with Carson.
“It was after vaudeville, but they had kind of that type of show. Johnny would do magic tricks and dad would play background music,” Jim Bartak said.
Though primarily an accordion player, Bartak mastered many instruments and led a number of big bands, including the Lambert Bartak Orchestra.
They played primarily in Omaha but toured the region.
“He did gigs at the old Music Box (in downtown Omaha) for years,” Jim Bartak said. “I could sit in class at Central High School and look out and see his name on the Music Box sign.”
The band leader had many side jobs: teaching music lessons, strolling with his accordion among diners at Omaha's old Mr. C's restaurant, and playing at Rosenblatt for Omaha Cardinals, Omaha Royals and Omaha Golden Spikes games in addition to CWS games.
“Dad always had a tune playing in his head,” Jim Bartak said. “He was very lucky because he got to do full time what he loved: play music. He was a good worker, a good family man, he always took care of me and my sisters.”
One of Bartak's most famous moments happened in 1988. An umpire ejected Bartak from an Omaha Royals game for playing the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song during an on-field argument.
Funny thing was, Bartak wasn't trying to insult the umpire, and didn't even know the phrase “Mickey Mouse call,” Jim Bartak said.
“Dad wasn't a sports fan,” he said. “He just liked to see the kids stomp around in the stands, and to get the crowd going.”
Bartak was preceded in death by his wife of more than 60 years, Geraldine.
Besides Jim, Bartak is survived by daughters Laura Kleinkauf of Dallas and Linda Fontenot of Omaha, and sisters-in-law Betty Blessie of Omaha and Dorothy Butterfield of Council Bluffs.
There will be a service Saturday at Church of Joy in Chula Vista, Calif.
CWS organizers have begun talking about how to commemorate Bartak at the new ballpark, where a new organist continues the tradition Bartak created, on the same old organ.
“He leaves us with a lot of great memories. He wasn't one to desire the limelight, but it kind of found him,” Morrissey said. “Such a sweet man.”
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Photo gallery: Bartak through the years
Video: Bartak's final Rosenblatt performance