In 2014, longtime Atlanta Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Pete was diagnosed shortly after his retirement in 2008, which wrapped up a 33-year stint with “America’s Team.”
The Braves earned that title because Pete, Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson Sr. were behind the microphones during the Superstation era. Ted Turner beamed his Atlanta station WTBS to cable and satellite viewers nationwide (eventually becoming the TBS network), bringing the Braves to millions outside the southern viewing area.
When you consider how bad the Braves were during most of the Ernie-Pete-Skip years, particularly 1976-1990, credit goes to the trio for building a vast audience despite the team’s dismal record. Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro and should-be Hall-of-Fame outfielder Dale Murphy were bright spots, but they had very little help.
Although the Braves national broadcasts ceased in 2007, their influence continues today. We still see fans wearing Braves gear in every city. In some of the more sparsely attended parks, Braves fans sometime seem more vocal than those of the home team. It isn’t unusual to find fans in Washington, San Diego and Miami doing the tomahawk chop, and much of that can be traced back to the Superstation team in the broadcast booth.
Ernie Johnson Sr., who died in 2011, is widely regarded as the founder of the Braves Radio Network. The former Milwaukee Braves pitcher followed the team to Atlanta in 1966, and began recruiting radio stations to carry the 162-game schedule on radio, as well as a 20-game TV package that aired in various Southern cities.
Skip Caray, who died in 2008, was the opposite of Ernie in his on-air style. Ernie was the cheerful, optimistic straight man, while Skip was acerbic, brutally honest and prone to slightly off-color jokes and comments. Skip loved making Ernie laugh, and their repartee, especially during blowout games, was priceless.
Pete Van Wieren lacked Ernie’s folksiness and Skip’s roguish humor, but “the Professor” brought his own brand of wit and wisdom to the booth. He said he was not trying to impress owners, managers, or players.
Instead, he always put the fan first. His smooth voice delivered an ego-free, no-frills broadcast filled with a stunning array of stats long before Google put them at our fingertips.
During a 2014 tribute to Pete at Turner Field, his son Steve eloquently thanked the fans, and said he hoped to one day “see my Dad in Cooperstown.”
I hope he can. The Ford Frick Award, named after a former MLB commissioner, was established in 1978 to honor baseball’s great announcers. Each year, one broadcaster, past or present, receives the award. The recipient, if alive, attends the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony and makes a speech, just like the players do.
The rules change from time to time, as do the election procedures, but this is the bottom line. The current policy is seriously flawed. “Team-specific announcers” like Ernie, Skip and Pete can only be considered every three years. (In the other years, “pioneers” and “national announcers” are the only ones in the running.) Even then, only one of them would be eligible to win. This has effectively kept our Braves guys on the outside looking in. The 2020 award, to be decided upon and announced later this year, is the last chance for our guys until 2023.
Only one Braves announcer from any era (Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta) has won the award. That is Milo Hamilton, who was hired and fired by several teams, including the Braves, during his long career. The Yankees and Dodgers are represented by four announcers each, while the White Sox and Cubs each have three. Surprised?
Vin Scully, certainly quite deserving, won the award in 1982, after 32 years with the Dodgers. Each of the Braves’ big three served at least that long: Ernie 39, Pete 33, and Skip 32. They all worked only for the Braves, unlike some honorees who bounced from team to team.
When you consider the fact that this trio brought Braves baseball to a massive audience for more than thirty years, and did it very well, it is hard to believe they have been shunned by Cooperstown. Sadly, if and when they make it, none will be around to savor the moment. This is an oversight the Ford Frick Award committee needs to correct. All three should be honored with the award, at the same time. Ernie, Pete and Skip were, are, and will always be Hall of Fame-caliber, and their fans across the nation should make some noise on their behalf.
The Frick Award Committee members will cast their ballots in November, and the results will be announced during the Baseball Winter Meetings in December. Braves fans, let your voices be heard!