When I was a kid growing up near Atlanta I had a little, battery-powered radio. It had the poorest of sound quality and no features beyond a tuner and a volume knob. It was just a little, cheap portable radio, but it held a special place of honor on many October evenings back then. It sat on the living room coffee table and was tuned to AM 750 where Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, Don Sutton, and Joe Simpson brought the calls of the games. Its volume was turned nearly all the way up and the TV’s inevitably inferior broadcast team was on mute for every Braves playoff game. My whole family watched most of the postseason games with that same set up. My dad and I watched all of them. Sometimes the radio was 6 or 7 seconds ahead of the TV broadcast, but that didn’t bother us. We would rather hear what happened from Skip, Pete, and co. first. They were our announcers.
Listening to Caray’s ’95 call on that little radio is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood. It was brought back to my mind in full force this weekend with the news of Pete Van Wieren’s passing. He did not make that specific call, but he is forever linked to the man who did. Caray and Van Wieren had a legendary partnership which was most notable for the balance forged by their differing styles. Skip was brash and witty; equal parts likable and obnoxious. He was a nasal-voiced baseball entertainment machine. Pete always came across as the smartest kid in the class. He seemed to enjoy the numbers and trivia of the game. Skip could always be counted on for a sudden burst of hilarious commentary. Pete was a master of taking a play and breaking it down in eloquent real time for the listening audience. For more than thirty years their contrasting dynamic made just about every Braves game a must-hear event. Their voices still loom large in the memories of many fans. For me, many of those memories involve my dad.
My dad and I made it a point to watch or listen to every Braves game every summer. We would commandeer the family television or switch off the music in the car in favor of WSB’s broadcast. If we were cooking out or waiting for the Stone Mountain Laser Show to start, we had the portable radio on hand. We watched and listened to a lot of baseball together; almost all of it with Pete and Skip.
We were very different people, my dad and I. I can count on three fingers the number of real conversations my dad and I had outside of sports. Two of those were primarily about his admission that he did not know how to talk to me. We didn’t dislike each other, by any means. We were just frustratingly different. Chris Blackburn was a blunt, talkative social creature. He was often quick to say something inappropriate or just downright dumb. People truly loved to have him around, though. I guess he was a little bit like Skip that way; probably why he talked about “What Skip said last night” so often. I was and still am a detail-oriented and careful person in just about everything I do. I analyze, break down, and research at the expense of many a quality moment. Pete’s facts and stats approach appealed to me. There was not a lot of common ground for Dad and I to discuss, and even if there was, we spoke different languages. When the Braves game was on, that didn’t seem to matter, though.
I don’t want to rob from the appropriate focus on Pete Van Wieren’s and Skip Caray’s legacy by going on about the relatively mild childhood problems I faced. But a big part of their combined legacy in my mind is how they helped to bring me and my father together over baseball. Their opposite styles meshed in the presence of the game, and so did mine and dad’s. We watched hundreds of games together and talked about them nearly every day of the summer. We loved each other. That was never in doubt. Watching the Braves together or even listening to them on that portable radio was one of the most readily available ways that love manifested itself between us.
In 2001 they found cancer in my dad’s brain. He stopped watching baseball and two years later, he died. I was 15 then and I’m only now realizing that was also about the same time I stopped actively following the Braves for a good while.
In his excellent write-up about Pete and Skip, Dan Simpson remarked that every Braves fan seems to have a personal connection to the work of Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren. Mine is my dad. All weekend I have been remembering humid summer nights in Georgia spent with my dad, listening to Pete and Skip’s playful banter. Their obvious love for the game and for working with one another made everybody who listened to them feel like a part of a family. They played a key, if unlikely role in the connection between a father and son. That connection is effectively gone now. The memories will be sorely missed, as all of the best ones should be.
I’m forming new connections with other fans of Braves baseball, though. New relationships and new memories are being pieced together around this stupid game we love so much. They will never take the place of those earlier ones; they can only build on their foundation. I owe a lot of thanks to Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray for that foundation. I wish I could thank them for caring about their craft and sharing their love of the game with all of us night in and night out. The honest way they went about their business had a real impact on my life.
On the final Braves TBS broadcast, with Pete nearby, Skip simply said to their loyal following, “We appreciate you more than you will ever know. … Thank you folks and God bless you.” It was a beautiful sendoff. One that sums up how I still feel about both of them today.