The Professor Passes

Longtime Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren, known as “The Professor”, has died at the age of 69 after a battle with lymphoma.  Van Wieren called Braves games on TBS and the Braves Radio Network for 33 seasons, from 1976-2008.

Pete was, from the perspective of droves of fans across the country during the Braves run on TBS, the face and voice of the team, along with his broadcast partners Ernie Johnson and Skip Caray.  This included the Braves of the 1970’s and 80’s, which included so many miserable seasons, as well as the Braves of the 1990’s and 2000’s, which included a perennial winner and an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles.

He was known as “The Professor” for his meticulous preparation before games, his knack for finding research nuggets, and his wealth of knowledge of the game he loved.  The consummate professional, he was the straight man to compliment Ernie’s warmness and Skip’s wittiness.  In addition to his baseball broadcasting, for which he is most known, he spent stints Big Ten football for TBS and NBA games for TBS and TNT.

During Fox Sports South’s broadcast of tonight’s Braves game in San Diego, the network displayed a graphic which shared the following stats about what Pete saw during his career (which is appropriate, because Pete loved the numbers): 15 division titles, 128 playoff games, four MVP’s, six Cy Young Awards, three Rookies of the Year, and six Hall of Famers.  And the number in Cooperstown will increase over the coming years.

He was an 11-time Georgia Sportscaster of the Year, and was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2004 alongside Skip; Ernie was also inducted, but in 2001.

Even since his retirement after the 2008 season, shortly after Skip Caray’s death and the worst Braves season since 1990, he has remained one of the faces of the organization, emceeing events such as jersey retirements and Braves Hall of Fame inductions for several of those aforementioned enshrinees in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the recognition this April of the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th career home run.  At that event in April, Pete said he was in as good of health as he had been since his cancer diagnosis in 2009, but afterward his health declined, and today he succumbed to the illness.

Also after his retirement, he wrote a memoir, Of Mikes and Men, with Jack Wilkinson.  Hearing his firsthand account of his career, and his perspective of the Braves run in the 1990’s and early 2000’s from the broadcast booth, gives me a renewed appreciation for those teams and those people who have made the Braves organization great whenever I read it, or even an excerpt of it.  I would fully recommend the book to any baseball fan, even if they are not a Braves fan.

As a young broadcaster, having experienced a “cup of coffee” recently with the Florence RedWolves of the Coastal Plain League, Pete is certainly an on-air role model for success.  I always do my best to be as well prepared as I can for any broadcast, and a lot of that comes from watching Pete growing up and seeing the end result of that preparedness every time he put on the headset.

You may have noticed I’ve called Pete, Skip, and Ernie by their first names throughout this post, going against the generic journalistic standard.  This was done purposefully, as a tribute to the men they all were, and how much each Braves fan has felt like a friend to each of them.  While the same can be said about today’s broadcasters (including Chip Caray, Don Sutton, and Joe Simpson, all of whom worked with the trio), those three were the link to the Braves past, dating back to 1976 for Pete and Skip, and 1966, the team’s first season in Atlanta, for Ernie.  Actually, Ernie’s link to the franchise’s history goes back to his playing days, both in Boston and Milwaukee, dating back to 1950.

The week has had a juxtaposition of emotions in the broadcasting industry.  Tuesday night, the 86-year old Vin Scully announced he will return for his 66th season as a Dodgers broadcaster, an announcement which received an instantaneous standing ovation at Dodger Stadium.  Then today, although Pete had been battling cancer for five years, the news came as a shock to everyone that he had died.

Unfortunately, a broadcaster wasn’t the only thing the Braves lost on Saturday.  Despite rallying cries from the fan base of “win one for Pete”, the Braves blew an early lead and eventually lost 3-2 in a twelve inning thriller in a late game out west in San Diego, extending their losing streak to five games, and falling two and a half games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East.  Other than the outcome, it was exactly the type of game Pete would have loved to call.

Skip Caray died on August 3, 2008, and Ernie Johnson died on August 11, 2011.  Today, in August of 2014, Pete Van Wieren joined his old pals and partners to begin calling games in the sky.

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