For the love of the game

Fred Costello, longtime organist for the Red Wings, is living his dream

Kate Melton

Fred Costello’s musical journey began when he picked up an accordion as a seven-year-old living on the north side of Syracuse. As a child, Costello was a fan of baseball, too—as he is to this day. What better way to make a living than combining those two passions as the official organist for the Rochester Red Wings minor league baseball team?

That’s what Costello has done for more than four decades, and when the Red Wings kick off the 2018 season with a 6:05 p.m. game against the Buffalo Bisons on Friday, April 6, Costello will assume his spot at Frontier Field, entertaining thousands of fans with his mix of upbeat songs combined with top-40 and jazz hits.

While the Red Wings players go through spring training to prepare themselves for the grind of the upcoming season, Costello has his preseason preparations, too, including figuring out ten to fifteen new songs he can add to his repertoire.

When he started playing the accordion, Costello had no idea the places his musical career would take him. Costello, entering his forty-second season as the Red Wings’ organist, has played the organ for 4,559 sporting events, including 3,033 Red Wings games, 1,481 games with the Rochester Amerks minor league hockey team, and forty-five games with the Rochester Zeniths, a professional basketball team that operated from 1978 to 1983.

Music is his life.

“I have my own music studio (Costello Music), I play the Rochester Jazz Festival each summer, I play nightclubs during the winters, and I have the Red Wings ballgames in the summer,” says Costello, whose wife, Cathie, is the Red Wings game day receptionist, and whose two sons, Chris and Terry, grew up to run Frontier Field’s clubhouses. Jackie, their daughter, also once worked for the Red Wings. “It’s wonderful when you can make a living doing something you absolutely love, and I was fortunate enough to make my living playing music my whole life. I love what I’m doing.”

Before his days with the Red Wings, Costello traveled the country with his band, Fred Costello and Co., performing in clubs and venues across forty-three states, including Frank Sinatra’s club, the Calneva Resort, in Lake Tahoe, and the famous Playboy Club in Los Angeles.

Costello has had plenty of opportunities to take his talents to the major leagues. He says he has turned down organist positions with the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Buffalo Sabres, because he loves Rochester. That passion started innocently enough, with a phone call from Don Labruzzo, who was hired as the Wings’ general manager after the 1976-77 season. Labruzzo and Costello knew each other from Syracuse, and when Costello pitched his idea for an organist to enhance the fan experience at Silver Stadium, Labruzzo gave him a one year contract. Costello started off performing in the grandstands surrounded by fans, who would often request songs. Before long, Costello convinced ownership to move him indoors, and for the past forty-two years, he has entertained with his mix of songs ranging from “Charge” to Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift numbers.

He was inducted into the Rochester Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and received an award from the Rochester Press- Radio Club in 2009 and the Spirit of the International League Award in 2011. The Red Wings honored Costello with a personalized “No. 4” Red Wings Jersey to commemorate his fortieth year with the club in August of 2016, and he had his own bobblehead night, too.

“I have the best of both worlds, being able to perform at clubs and at Frontier Field. The Red Wings treat me great, and never once did I feel like an employee. We’re all family here,” says Costello. “A lot of organists are dated and only play ballpark music, but I have free rein to play whatever I feel like. I stay fresh and current and fortunately I come from a nightclub background, so I know thousands of songs. The hardest part is picking a modern tune that everyone knows.”

What are his favorite memories? His first opening day in 1977, being inducted into the Walk of Fame in 1999, writing his autobiography, A Lifetime of Nightclubs and Ballparks, and playing in an old-timers game at Silver Stadium with longtime friend and former Major League pitcher Johnny Antonelli, a Rochester native who won the 1954 World Series with the New York Giants.

John Boccacino, a Seneca Falls resident, works as the communications coordinator for the office of alumni engagement at Syracuse University. A 2003 SU graduate, Boccacino has spent the last fourteen years telling stories across multiple platforms. He is an avid fan of the Chicago Cubs, Buffalo Bills, and craft beer

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