Grave Story: Pete Van Wieren (1944-2014)

Here lies Pete Van Wieren, aka “The Professor,” who was one-third of one of the most influential broadcast booths in baseball history. He, along with Ernie Johnson Sr. and Skip Caray, were the voices of the Atlanta Braves during their time on TBS. Between his work on television and radio, Van Wieren called Braves games from 1976 to 2008.

Peter Dirk Van Wieren was born in Rochester, N.Y., on October 7, 1944. He was told that his father, Howard, was killed in World War II, but he later learned that Howard had abandoned his family before his son was born. The two never met, and Van Wieren later learned that Howard died in Manhattan in 1971, almost homeless. Van Wieren and his mother, Ruth, lived with her parents in Greece, N.Y. According to the 1950 U.S. Census, grandfather Wilbur was a mechanic, and Ruth Van Wieren worked as a secretary in a lawyer’s office.

Pete Van Wieren’s niche at a mausoleum in Green Lawn Cemetery in Roswell, Ga. A few rows down is Ernie Johnson Sr.

Van Wieren graduated from Charlotte High School in Rochester in 1961 and went on to Cornell University. His start in broadcasting came about as a result of an accident – literally. Van Wieren was a reporter for the school newspaper and was covering a baseball game when the play-by-play broadcaster was involved in a car accident. An engineer from the school’s radio station came into the press box looking for help. Van Wieren was there with Harry Dorish, a former pitcher who was working as a scout for the Boston Red Sox. “Go ahead,” Dorish said to Van Wieren. “It’s easier than writing.” The young reporter stepped in, and a new career field opened up for him. According to his obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Van Wieren left Cornell after his junior year to begin his broadcasting career. He continued his day job at the Washington Post and studied broadcasting at night school. In 1964, he married his wife Elaine, and they were together until his death. The couple had two sons, Jon and Steve.

Van Wieren’s first job was broadcasting high school football games for the Fauquier Falcons. “I learned to enunciate very quickly,” he later said of the team’s name. By 1967, Van Wieren began getting airtime on WINR Radio in Binghamton, N.Y., as a mid-afternoon DJ and the voice of the WINR Ski Scene. By the following year, he was calling games for the Binghamton Triplets and working as a sportscaster for WINR-TV News. As he gained experience, he got a taste of calling baseball, football and basketball games, as well as bowling events; he even emceed a ski fashion show. His reputation grew to the point that he became a finalist for the high-profile job of New York Yankees broadcaster, after the team declined to renew Bob Gamere’s contract after the 1970 season. He and Don Criqui both were rumored for the position, which ultimately went to the recently retired All-Star Bill White.

Van Wieren was a drummer for a high school band called The Hustlers. Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 24, 2000.

“I ordered myself to relax, have a couple of beers and then sat down to watch a late movie,” Van Wieren said of that agonizing time when he was waiting for the Yankees to call. “The film’s name was ‘The Kid from Cleveland.’ I never heard of it before. The opening line went something like this: ‘Hi, I’m Mike Norris, the baseball announcer for the 1947 Cleveland Indians.’

“I tried to enjoy it,” he said.

After career stops in Virginia and Ohio, Van Wieren became the voice of the Tidewater Mets minor-league baseball team and the Tidewater Sharks hockey team. He got the job when Marty Brenneman left to work for the Cincinnati Reds. Then in late 1975, it was announced that the Atlanta Braves would form a new broadcasting team. Ernie Johnson, a former Braves reliever turned executive, had handled the broadcasting duties since the team moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. He added Skip Caray, son of Harry Caray, who had been broadcasting for the Atlanta Crackers minor-league club and the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. Van Wieren also joined the Braves as a brand-new voice in the Atlanta market.

“My dad was director of broadcasting at the time, listening to tapes he was getting from people all over the country,” said Ernie Johnson Jr., a great broadcaster in his own right, in 2014. “I remember him saying, ‘There’s this kid in Tidewater who’s pretty good. I think he’s the one.’ How about those keen instincts by my dad?”

An advertisement from the Press and Sun Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y., advertising Van Wieren’s broadcasting for the Triplets.

Van Wieren was just 31 years old when he begam his tenure with the Braves. One of his first duties with the team was competing in an ostrich race with Turner and the other broadcasters, all of whom were dressed in horse jockey silks. It was not the most auspicious start to any career, but the new broadcast team persisted. At the time, the Braves broadcasting network consisted of 60 radio stations throughout the Southeast, and 25 television stations caried about 50 games a year. That was one of the largest networks among all major-league teams. It was about to get much larger, thanks to Braves owner Ted Turner.

Turner had big plans on the way to becoming one of the country’s largest media moguls, but he also had some struggles running the Braves. Van Wieren, for example, was assigned the role of traveling secretary in 1976 when Donald Davidson either quit or was fired, depending on who you asked. Davidson, who said he was fired, had been with the Braves going all the way back to the team’s time in Boston. Turner, who said that Davidson quit, felt Van Wieren could handle the job, though he had absolutely no experience in it. “We’ve got two announcers, and they aren’t on the air long, so they have time for details,” Turner said.

Van Wieren adjusted to his new city, and the three broadcasters adjusted to each other. Johnson gave him the nickname of “The Professor,” because he looked like pitcher Jim “Professor” Brosnan. But Van Wieren also earned the moniker with his exhaustive studying and preparation for games. It wasn’t just for the Braves games, either. Van Wieren called games for Atlanta’s other sports teams, as well as special events like college football bowl games. He told sportswriter Larry Gierer that he tried to be the sort of announcer that he liked hearing. “I don’t like people screaming at me. I don’t want to be the star of the show either,” he said. “The same should always be the central point. As far as goals, I’d just like for people to look up to me in this business someday, the way I look up to a Vin Scully. I’d like for people to use me as an example of how broadcasting should be done.”

The broadcast team of Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren (seated) and Ernie Johnson Sr. Source: The Tampa Times, September 20, 1977.

The Braves during this time had plenty of highlights and lowlights – heaver on the lowlights in the 1970s. Van Wieren was there for the development of young stars Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, but he also saw a string of last-place finishes and Turner’s one-game career as a major-league manager in 1977. Van Wieren, as the traveling secretary, helped Braves manager Dave Bristol sneak out of town so that Turner could take over temporarily. In 1978, Pete Rose had his 44-game hitting streak broken against the Braves, and Van Wieren had to do a little damage control when Rose’s post-game interview, broadcast live, contained a few choice words that weren’t allowed on television. “I don’t think what he said was all that bad, and the 10 minutes in between were some of the best television ever done,” Van Wieren said later.

Van Wieren resigned his traveling secretary duties after the 1980 season, because his on-air duties were starting to expand. As Turner built up his media empire, the broadcaster gained opportunities on the WTBS and CNN networks, as well as his regular work with the Braves and NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. That year, Van Wieren was named Georgia Sportscaster of the Year by the National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscasters for the first time. He would win the award 11 times, including every year from 1988 to 1995.

WTBS expanded to a “superstation” in 1982, and a total of 120 Braves games were broadcast nationwide, putting Johnson, Caray, Van Wieren and analyst Darrel Chaney in front of tens of millions of fans. It so happened that the Braves, for the first time in Van Wieren’s tenure, were good and finished first in the NL West. The Braves flirtation with success faded after a few seasons, but the broadcasts remained popular. Outside of the Chicago Cubs on WGN and the teams like the Yankees with a massive regional audience, the Braves had one of the largest audiences in baseball.

Other broadcasters came and went in the Braves booth, including Chaney, John Sterling, Don Sutton, Joe Simpson and Billy Sample. The three core broadcasters, though, entertained generations of Braves fans. Johnson was the beloved Braves veteran, and Caray was the sarcastic one with the famous pedigree. Van Wieren, who maintained an incredible knowledge of baseball statistics and history in the pre-Internet era, was not the most colorful character, thanks in part to his insistence that the game take priority. But his smooth delivery was the foundation of the broadcast. Chip Caray, Skip’s son and a Braves broadcaster as well, put it this way in 2014: “Pete with that quiet baritone didn’t wear out your ears over a long summer of baseball. It was comfortable to listen to him every night.”

The Braves’ famed broadcasting team of Joe Simpson, Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray. Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 30, 2003.

In the pre-ESPN era, there were nationally broadcast games with high-pedigree broadcasters like Scully, Joe Garagiola and Dick Enberg. The Braves crew were just off-center enough to stand out from their polished competition. “We’ve come to the decision – and it’s been one we’ve thought about deep and hard – that we’re not going to direct Skip or Ernie or Pete or John [Sterling] to the point where they sound, look or even act like network broadcasters,” said Terry Hanson, WTBS sports director.

The Braves of the 1980s went downhill after their brief playoff appearance in 1982 and stayed down for several years. But all the losses and misery were quickly forgotten once the Braves started winning – and didn’t slow down for more than a decade. From 1991 to 2005, Atlanta finished first in their division every year (except for the strike-shortened season of 1994 that had no postseason). During that streak, they reached the World Series five times and beat Cleveland in 1995 to become world champions. Ernie Johnson Sr., who was considerably older than Van Wieren and Caray, retired in 1989, after the Braves had flailed through a 97-loss season. He did mount a comeback or two during the Braves championship seasons, working a lighter schedule, so the Braves core trio were able to experience some Braves highlights together. For most of the games, though, Caray and Van Wieren integrated newcomers like Sutton and Simpson into the broadcast team.

Van Wieren was an experienced broadcaster by the 1990s, but even he wasn’t accustomed to competitive late-season baseball and a stadium full of screaming fans. Then there was the birth of the “Tomahawk Chop,” which Braves fans still love and pretty much everybody else in baseball loathes. But the chop started when a few fans did it as a tribute to former Florida State Seminole Deion Sanders, and it grew from there. “We [the broadcast crew] had a meeting at a restaurant, and when we walked into the parking lot, people 15 rows away started doing that tomahawk thing instead of waving or saying hello,” he said.

With Atlanta playing meaningful baseball in September, odd things happened. In one game, the Braves were beating San Francisco at the same time the Cincinnati Reds were beating division competitor Los Angeles. Both games went into the ninth inning at the same time, so mid-broadcast, Caray said, “Why don’t I do play-by-play on this game, and you do play-by-play on the Dodgers game.” The WTBS production crew put the Dodgers game onto Van Wieren’s monitor, so for perhaps the only time in baseball history, one broadcast team simultaneously called two games at once. “Ball one,” said Caray. “It’s ball one in Cincinnati on Juan Samuel,” Van Wieren immediately added.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 22, 2008.

Van Wieren was made a featured broadcaster for The Baseball Network, a joint venture between MLB, ABC and NBC. The network was heavily criticized, most notably for regionalizing playoff games that ran simultaneously. On the bright side, Van Wieren was able to broadcast the first three games of the Braves-Rockies NL Division Series in 1995, along with analyst Larry Dierker. It was the first chance Van Wieren had to do a television broadcast of a Braves postseason game; he had done radio work for the Braves playoff games in previous seasons. The Braves won that series 3 games to 1, and the team swept the Reds in the NL Championship Series and Cleveland in the World Series to win the only championship of their remarkable 1990s run.  

Van Wieren celebrated his silver anniversary with the Braves in 2000 and was forced to weigh in on an ugly subject – Braves contentious reliever John Rocker. Rocker courted controversy throughout his career with hateful statements and actions, but when he got into a confrontation with a photographer during a West Coast road trip, Van Wieren ripped him during a Braves broadcast. It was an out-of-character moment for the broadcaster, but a necessary one.

“It was a very upsetting time on the club, and everybody was tiptoeing around it,” Van Wieren said. “Maybe as a manager or a player you couldn’t say anything, but I felt I could. I was disturbed we had the biggest story of the baseball season so far [a 15-game winning streak], and you had to go to page three in the paper to find out about it. The focus needed to get back to where it belonged: the performance on the field.”

Tom Glavine, Braves pitcher, seemed to appreciate it, at least. “He doesn’t get into criticizing players a lot, if at all. It’s not his style. But when he does, it means something,” he said.

Van Wieren’s last years with the Braves were a little tumultuous, as ownership changed. Turner, for all his faults, had a good notion of what Braves fans wanted, and he worked to provide it. AOL Time Warner became the parent company of TBS, and officials there decided to make Braves broadcasts more of a “national” event, like the games on ESPN or Fox. So Van Wieren and Caray were shunted to radio and the regional Turner South network in 2003 for 36 televised games, drastically reducing their audience. Sutton and Simpson were left as the primary voices for the TBS broadcasts. Caray expressed his frustrations, calling the move a demotion. Van Wieren was a little more diplomatic, stating that TBS, Turner South and the Braves radio network were all part of the same entity. “The people who run the station have the right to make whatever decision they want to make. And we move on,” he said.

The thing was, for all of Time Warner’s insistence of making the games feel like a national broadcast, the games were exclusively Braves games, and the fans nationwide who were so accustomed to hearing Caray and Van Wieren lead the broadcasts weren’t happy about it in the slightest. The outcry was so loud that network executives relented after less than a year and restored the beloved duo to TBS airwaves that same summer. The experiment was a disaster in the ratings and demonstrated how a national corporation can be completely tone-deaf when it comes to identifying the likes and dislikes of a regional audience. The error was corrected quickly, but Van Weiren didn’t forget. When he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2005, Van Wieren said, “I have worked for 11 different executive producers over the years. I would like to thank 10 of them.”

Caray was inducted into the Hall at the same time. It was only appropriate that they would receive the same honor after being hired at the same time 29 years prior.

There is a memorial bench for Pete Van Wieren by his mausoleum niche at Green Lawn Cemetery.

Change came quickly. The Braves postseason streak ended with an NLDS loss in 2005, and the ’06 squad faltered with a 79-83 record. Chip Caray joined the Braves’ booth to broadcast games with his father Skip. Don Sutton was let go from the broadcast team in October 2006, after 18 years on the job. The Braves’ franchise was sold to Liberty Media, breaking up the ties between the team and TBS. The 2007 televised games were split between TBS and a couple of regional networks, with Chip Caray, Simpson and Jon Sciambi as the featured broadcasters. Van Wieren was moved exclusively to radio, and Caray was predominantly his radio partner, with just a few games on TV with his son. This time, there was no mid-season change of heart. The new-look TBS games broke up the celebrated core group for good.

Skip Caray died on August 3, 2008, after a year of poor health. Just a few months later, Van Wieren announced his retirement from the booth. He said the move was not related to his broadcaster partner’s death. “Losing Skip was certainly a tough thing, but that didn’t affect my decision,” said Van Wieren. “If anything, it reinforced my decision. I didn’t want to keep working until I couldn’t do it anymore.

“It’s something [wife] Elaine and I have been planning for the last 45 years, getting to that day when we were both in good health and able to do some of the things we wanted to do but were unable to do because of the restrictions of the baseball schedule,” he said during his retirement announcement. He called more than 5,500 Braves games in his career over 33 seasons, plus enough postseason games to qualify for a 34th season.

The Braves named the Turner Field radio booth after Van Wieren, and a familiar face was there to inaugurate it under its new name in 2009. Don Sutton was brought back to work the radio broadcast alongside Jim Powell. Van Wieren wrote an autobiography, Of Mikes and Men, in 2010, detailing his life and career.

Pete Van Wieren was diagnosed with lymphoma just a few years into his retirement. He died on August 2, 2014, at the age of 69. He was the last surviving member of the Braves’ legendary booth, after Caray’s death in 2008 and Johnson’s in 2011. Van Wieren is interred in a mausoleum at Green Lawn Cemetery in Roswell – just a few feet away from his broadcast partner Ernie Johnson, in fact.

One surprising aspect of the Braves’ legendary broadcast team is that not a single one of them has ever been recognized with the Ford C. Frick Award, presented annually by the Baseball Hall of Fame to a broadcaster. Van Wieren was nominated for the 2014 award but lost to Eric Nadal of the Texas Rangers. Only one award is handed out each year, so there is a sizable backlog of worthy names that have not been recognized, but it’s strange that one of the most influential and listened-to broadcast teams in baseball history doesn’t have a single member represented in Cooperstown. That may change soon, because Johnson has been nominated for the 2023 Frick Award. Caray and Van Wieren await their opportunities as well.

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One thought on “Grave Story: Pete Van Wieren (1944-2014)

  1. A truly comprehensive and interesting summary of Pete’s life. I believe one of the announcers who was a finalist to succeed Bob Gamere was Don Criqui not Bob Criqui.
    Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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