Can’t comPETE with this chief | Braves on the airwaves | Major league fun in the minors
Take an end-of-summer look at four Bradley alumni who are no ordinary baseball fans. Bradley Hilltopics visits with a lifelong Peorian whose name is synonymous with local baseball, two California major league broadcasters, and an East Coast dad who taught his family to love minor league ballparks.
Can’t comPETE with this chief
Shortly before Bradley opened the Danny Dahlquist Annex at Shea Stadium in April, PETE VONACHEN ’49 toured the 1,100-square-foot addition to the locker rooms with Bradley associate athletics director Craig Dahlquist.
Memories of the old clubhouse at Pete Vonachen Stadium, which was transformed into Shea Stadium in 2003, quickly flooded Vonachen’s thoughts.
“Our clubhouse was very spartan to say the least,” Vonachen recalls. “What they’ve done with that, it’s unbelievable. I got a kick out of going with Craig because I walked through and said, ‘That was my office.’ It’s Jim DeRose’s office now. They’re using the same locker room we used. So I said to Craig, ‘See this locker right here? That’s where Mark Grace’s locker was. Down here in the corner is where Rafael Palmeiro was.’ There were a lot of memories there for me.”
Up on the roof
One lingering memory is the rooftop of the old clubhouse.
In the summer of 1988, the Peoria Chiefs were in a nine-game losing streak. During one August game, eight players and manager Jim Tracy were ejected. “I started heading for the clubhouse and a pop foul went down the line,” the 84-year-old Vonachen remembers. “It was foul and the ump called it fair. I said, ‘That’s enough for me.’ I went out there and got on him. He told me to leave because I had the crowd going crazy. I said, ‘I’ll leave when you throw me out. I’m not leaving.’ ”
Vonachen was ejected. “Rick Kranitz, who is the pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles, was our pitching coach. He grabbed me by the shirt and said, ‘Get out of here; they’re going to throw you out of baseball.’ As I was leaving the field, I looked in the dugout and saw the bats and helmets and catching equipment,” Vonachen says. “I threw every bat, every ball, every batting helmet, everything I could find on the field. Of course, the crowd loved it. I was suspended 12 games and fined $5,000.”
Vonachen learned early in his ownership days that minor league baseball is as much about entertainment as it is the on-field product. Despite the suspension, Vonachen had an idea. Since he couldn’t be on the field, he watched the game from the rooftop of the clubhouse, which is now locker room and office space for Bradley’s soccer team.
“The first game I was up there with a folding chair,” he recalls. “They brought me a wireless microphone, and I led the crowd in Take Me Out to the Ballgame with ROX BUCKLIN ’58 at the organ. The league president said I couldn’t do that.”
While the Chiefs were on a road trip, Vonachen built a platform on the roof and had a contest to see who would sit on the rooftop with him. “That little old ballpark only seated 5,000 people. We had 7,000 the first two nights,” he says. “We had to rope off the track and let people stand there. From then on, we had great crowds just to see me sit on that roof.”
From baseball to soccer
Vonachen, honored by the city on August 10 with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his community work, is generally regarded as the father of Peoria minor league baseball. For starters, he saved a team that was on the verge of leaving the city after its inaugural season in 1983.
Even earlier, PAUL KING ’50, GLEN McCULLOUGH ’50 MA ’56, and Vonachen spearheaded an effort in the late 1960s to put lights on the site that is now Shea Stadium. To keep the Peoria Pacers in the area, the trio wanted a lighted field. At that time, it was a baseball field — not a stadium — without lights. “Peoria, a town of this size, still didn’t have a lighted baseball field, and Bradley was playing on campus where Olin Hall and the quad is now,” Vonachen recalls.
Caterpillar offered the lights from Tom Connor Field in East Peoria. Before the three men could figure out how to move the lights, the Peoria Park District agreed to purchase lights for the site.
“Then the pro team came in 1983,” Vonachen says of the Peoria Suns, Class A affiliate of the California Angels. “Those guys messed it up, and they weren’t going to start a second season. That’s when I jumped in and bought the club in the fall of 1983. When I took over, a lot of the bleachers came from the old Bradley athletics field. They were 50 years old by then. We put in new box seats, starting with folding chairs. In 1992, the Park District and the state came up with some money and rebuilt the field with new bleachers and new stands and called it Pete Vonachen Stadium.”
Vonachen sold the team in 1988. Five years later, he and a group of local investors purchased it, and Vonachen continued as general manager. In 2002, the Peoria Chiefs moved downtown to O’Brien Field, a state-of-the-art ballpark, where Bradley also plays. “It was inevitable that we had to build a new stadium,” says Vonachen, whose team is a Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. “If we were going to attract the Cubs or Cardinals, the good major league affiliates, we could not stay at Pete Vonachen Stadium. We had to move.”
The move opened the door for Bradley’s soccer program. The University traded the land on which Pete Vonachen Stadium sat for land in north Peoria County. “Now, along comes TIM SHEA ’70,” Vonachen says. “Boy, if it weren’t for Tim Shea, I guarantee that stadium wouldn’t be there. This guy stepped up. The team has a beautiful facility — one of the best in college soccer.”
A business major, Vonachen was looking for an opportunity in the restaurant business after graduation in 1949. He landed at the new Robertson Memorial Field House, where he later met his best friend.
“The Booster Club gave me a contract to run concessions for $75 a week during the season,” Vonachen says. “When the season was over, I was out of a job.”
During his first year, Saint Louis University, another nationally ranked team, came to Peoria to play. The late DAVE MEISTER ’48, BU sports information director, asked Vonachen to come with him to pick up SLU’s broadcaster, Harry Caray.
“Coming back, Harry asks about places to go in Peoria,” Vonachen recalls. “I said, ‘Harry, you picked the right two guys. We’ll pick you up at 6:30.’ We started out at about 6:30 and finally returned at 4:30 in the morning. I had to work the next day. He was going to sleep in. The next night we had the game. After the game, I went up to say goodbye to Harry. He said, ‘Wait a minute. Where are you going?’ I wanted to go home, I was beat. He said, ‘Why don’t you and I go out to drink together? We’ll have a short night.’ I didn’t know what his idea of a short night was. I dropped him off at 4:30 in the morning and had to get him to the plane by 7 a.m. We were friends ever since.”
Vonachen shares this story about Caray, who went on to be the longtime announcer for the Cubs: “We always went on a vacation together, except when we were celebrating our 25th anniversary,” he explains about his wife DONNA HURST VONACHEN ’59, who died in 2007. “I asked my wife if she wanted to take a trip and where she wanted to go. She said, ‘Let’s go to Hawaii.’ She paused a minute, never cracked a smile and said, ‘But do we have to take Harry?’ That’s the only time we went alone.”