Pete Vonachen, known affectionately as “Peoria’s Mr. Baseball,” died this morning. He was 87.
Vonachen didn’t bring minor-league baseball back to Peoria, but he is largely credited with making it stick there after buying the Peoria Suns in September 1983 and renaming them the Peoria Chiefs. I won’t rehash a lot about his legacy here because you can read that in this press release from the Chiefs and in this obituary and related stories from the Journal Star. I will, however, share the experience that I and thousands of other Peoria Chiefs fans had with Vonachen over the years — because although I honestly consider myself a fan of the entire Midwest League now, it is the Peoria Chiefs that I always identified as my “home team,” even though until recently, I lived 90 minutes away from them and was within two hours of several other teams.
So although I’m not a Peorian, I nonetheless was well aware of Vonachen’s legacy long before I started researching my book about the Midwest League. I remember when old Meinen Field was renamed Pete Vonachen Stadium. I remember him getting rousing rounds of applause before addressing the crowd on memorable days such as when the team retired the jersey numbers of former Chiefs players Mark Grace and Greg Maddux.
And I remember thinking it was pretty cool that Vonachen was honored with a statue at what is now called Dozer Park.
Yet what stands out the most in my memory is how often Vonachen was seen at the ballpark. Even in his later years when his health fluctuated, he many times was still seen greeting fans at the gate as they exited after a Chiefs game.
A few years ago I decided I wanted to get Vonachen’s autograph, as a personal memento because of his impact on Midwest League baseball. I didn’t ask him to sign anything fancy, just a printout of the Peoria Chiefs schedule that I happened to have on me at the time. Pete was pleasant, as always, and was happy to sign my piece of paper, topped with a “Hi Craig” to personalize it. It is my understanding that he often signed autographs with that personal touch, which I’m sure he did as another little way he could connect with fans.
I wish I could share a photo of that paper here, but unfortunately it is still packed in a box somewhere in my new house after my recent move there. When I get my new office space organized and put out some of my mementos for inspiration, I plan to put that autographed piece of paper on display for awhile, as my personal tribute to the man.
As for the Chiefs, I’ll be keeping them in mind tonight as they play what surely will be an emotional home game against the Quad Cities River Bandits. Go get ’em, boys — and win one for Pete.