Pete Vonachen, the man who brought baseball to Peoria in 1983 and remained the face of the Midwest League franchise in the 30 years since, died Monday at the age of 87.
Known as Peoria's Mr. Baseball, Vonachen purchased the Peoria Suns in 1983 and renamed the team the Chiefs the following year, kick-starting a golden era for the franchise. Vonachen used his longtime friendship with Harry Caray—he eulogized the legendary Cubs broadcaster at his funeral—to bring the Cubs affiliation to town in 1985, and the team set Midwest League attendance records in 1985, '88 and '89, as prospects like Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Joe Girardi and Rafael Palmeiro passed through the team's former home of Meinen Field. Chiefs attendance grew each season from 1985-89, when Vonachen sold the team.
But Vonachen couldn't stay away, and in 1994 he led an investment group that bought the Chiefs. Vonachen took over as general manager, and helped secure the site and financing for Peoria's current downtown ballpark before passing on GM duties in 1998 to his son Rocky, who remains with the team. The Chiefs moved into Dozer Park in 2002.
"He was really an icon," Midwest League president George Spelius said. "He was so well-liked by so many people. He loved his family, his church, he loved his baseball team, and really he loved people. He is that kind of guy. He is going to be missed, not only by the Midwest League but by many other people who had the chance to meet him.
"I can't give you enough good words about Pete. He was just a swell guy."
Vonachen was also one of the most colorful characters in a sport filled with them. A man of the people, he greeted fans at the gate and would spend much of the game with them.
Spelius recalled with a laugh how Vonachen managed to turn a 12-game suspension into a publicity stunt in 1988. He grew so frustrated with an umpire who ejected Peoria manager Jim Tracy from a game that he rushed onto the field between innings and dropped to his knees, begging the umpire for a call to go the Chiefs' way.
Vonachen was tossed from the game, and Spelius said he had no choice but to serve his friend with a $1,000 fine and 12-game ban. Vonachen persuaded Spelius to let him watch games from the roof of the clubhouse, which sat outside the ballpark fence. Vonachen, a true promoter who brought picnic decks and celebratory home run fireworks to the Midwest League, saw this as another opportunity to bond with fans.
In Vonachen's own words, as related in the book "I Remember Harry Caray":
“The first night, I got a lawn chair, stretched over the gable there with an umbrella and the crowd was loving it. Loving it. I'll never forget I had a cell phone there and I called Greg Maddux to tell him what I was doing.
After that first night, we went on a two-day road trip, and radio station WMBD got into it and started a contest. Any person with the best limerick, a poem or a song that had WMBD, Pete Vonachen and the Peoria Chiefs in it got to sit up there with me. Meantime, I had a carpenter go up and I had this big platform built up there.
We had two people every night sitting up there. I had a charcoal grill. I cooked hot dogs and hamburgers and I had beer for them. The first night back with all this clamor, we had 7,000 people, the biggest crowd that's ever been in the ballpark. We had to rope off the warning tracks. The next night we broke the record again.
The first night, I had a wireless microphone and our announcer says, 'From the owner's sky box'—which was this folding chair sitting on a roof—'Pete Vonachen will now lead us in 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' "
Vonachen got another chance to lead a crowd in the song, this time at Wrigley Field in 2011, when the Cubs honored him with Pete Vonachen Day. His name adorned Peoria's old ballpark, when Meinen Field was renamed Pete Vonachen Stadium in 1992. The Chiefs unveiled a statue in his honor at their ballpark in 2005.
"Pete was such a great guy," Dutchie Caray, the widow of Harry Caray, told the Peoria-Journal Star. "He was so much fun to be around. I can't say enough about him.”