Pete Van Wieren, last of the iconic Braves broadcasters, dies

Ernie Johnson Sr. was the courtly one, as gracious as a kiss on the hand.

Skip Caray was the rascal, the irreverent voice from the pulpit.

They went first, three years apart — Caray in 2008 and Johnson in 2011 — their deaths each stripping away another layer of Atlanta baseball tradition.

Three more years passed. And now the last of the trio of classic Braves broadcasters – those missionaries who spread the word of baseball in the South on Ted Turner’s SuperStation, those guides through the worst and best of times – is gone.

Pete Van Wieren was the diligent one. He was the Cornell dropout who found his genius in illuminating every corner of a baseball game with a knowledge he tirelessly stoked. Van Wieren died at the age of 69 Saturday following a prolonged battle with lymphoma.

“I hope the three of them are together now talking about last night’s game,” said Caray’s son, Chip, a current Braves broadcaster.

Before his retirement in 2008, Van Wieren put in 33 years broadcasting the Braves on television and radio. His reputation for thoroughness and professionalism congealed quickly. It was Johnson Sr. who nicknamed him “The Professor” shortly after hiring Van Wieren away from the Triple-A Tidewater Tides in 1976.

“My dad was director of broadcasting at the time, listening to tapes he was getting from people all over the country. 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?” said Ernie Johnson Jr., the TNT broadcaster.

Van Wieren had the looks of a scholar — the spectacles, the bald head, the slight build, the pallor of an indoor man. More importantly, he had the habits of one. Before there was Google, there was Van Wieren pouring through newspapers and statistics to arrive at some grain of valuable information he’d use to season his broadcast.

“If there is one thing all aspiring broadcasters should do, it’s look at the work ethic of Pete Van Wieren and just how prepared he was,” Johnson Jr. said.

Joe Simpson, who joined the Braves’ broadcast rotation in 1992, testified to his friend’s serious approach to doing a game with a simple observation. “I don’t remember a day I got to the ballpark before Pete,” he said.

Having just come off a visit to Los Angeles, Simpson was of a mind to include his friend among the best of their craft.

“To me, he was our Vin Scully.”

Do not get the notion, however, that Van Wieren was some one-dimensional stats monger. Before he spoke into his first radio microphone, he was a drummer for “The Hustlers,” his college-era garage band.

As good as his baseball stories were on the air, they may have been even better afterward, following his first Heineken of the night.

In his busy retirement, grandpa Van Wieren also was a pretty mean poker player, his desire to visit the tournament circuit eventually curtailed by health issues.

Then there was the very human nature of how he did baseball. Those who played the game were not merely the vessels of statistics. They had other stories, too, not driven by numbers. Van Wieren told those, as well, and the enjoyment he found in the company of baseball people echoed on the air. They returned the respect in bulk.

“I consider him one of my best friends,” former manager Bobby Cox said. “I can’t think of a better broadcaster or a nicer man.”

“He never guessed about anything. Some people (in the booth) guess today. Pete didn’t have to. He knew it,” pitcher and aspiring broadcaster John Smoltz said.

Still in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he took part in the recent Braves-centric Hall of Fame inductions, knuckleballer Phil Niekro spoke to Van Wieren’s place in team tradition when he said, “It was a great weekend for the Braves last weekend and a sad, sad weekend for them this weekend.”

Van Wieren grew up near Rochester, N.Y., in a household that listened religiously to the radio broadcasts of the local Triple-A team. “When I got into this business, what I really wanted to do was become the broadcaster for the Rochester Red Wings,” he said in the book, “Game of My Life, Memorable Stories of Braves Baseball.”

“And I never got it.”

That was a rare disappointment in a broadcasting career that began accidentally one day when the Cornell baseball play-by-play man wrecked his car on the way to the park. On site for the school newspaper, young Van Wieren filled in.

Impatient to begin his work life, Van Wieren left Cornell his junior year. He paid his dues, doing high school football in Virginia in the mid-1960s, Double-A games in Binghamton, N.Y., sports and weather in Toledo, Ohio. He thought he hit the big time when we went to Tidewater in 1974, taking an $8,000 pay cut for the opportunity.

Within two years, he was being introduced along with Skip Caray as part of the new Braves broadcast team. Shortly after, Ted Turner bought the Braves and took used them to fill programming on his national cable network.

Van Wieren suffered the foolishness of those early years more than most. Briefly, Turner even made him the team’s traveling secretary even though he knew nothing about organizing a road trip. It was Van Wieren who acted as a lookout in Pittsburgh when manager Dave Bristol was sneaking out of town in advance of Turner taking over in the dugout for a game.

And it was Van Wieren who enjoyed the ride to respectability as much as any Braves fan alive. Calling games during the worst-to-first 1991 season remained his dearest memory with the team.

“On the plane to Minnesota, Pete kept looking at me saying, ‘We’re going to the World Series. We’re going to the World Series.’ He must have said it 30 times. The most giddy guy I ever saw was Pete that day,” said Glenn Diamond, former TBS producer.

He went full circle, retiring after a 90-loss 2008 season, the team’s first since the dark ages. But not before being sent off with these words from the late AJC columnist Furman Bisher:

“I’ve said this several times before – never admitted it to Pete – that he has the perfect voice for baseball. He makes me feel that I’m right there beside him and he’s talking right in my ear. It’s a gentle voice. No whooping and yowling. It comes oozing through the speaker like honey out of a horn – and if that has the sound of patronization, I apologize. But it’s true. There’s nobody smoother than Pete delivering the game from his seat to yours.”

Added Chip Caray, the son of his former broadcast partner: “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.”

Van Wieren is survived by his wife Elaine, sons Jon and Steve, and three granddaughters.