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Pete Vonachen has died

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Pete Vonachen, arguably the biggest name ever to don a Peoria Chiefs cap, died Monday morning. He was 87.

Vonachen, who had been ill for several years with complications from diabetes that left him wheelchair bound, was known here as "Peoria's Mr. Baseball" for bringing the professional game back into prominence in the city and being most instrumental in ensuring it stayed.

His death came only a day after the Chiefs' vice president and general manager, Ralph Converse, died at age 71.

Vonachen was synonymous with baseball and Peoria but he was also an entrepreneur who owned Vonachen's Old Place restaurant at Junction City and also was the owner of Peoria Blacktop. He served the city on several boards and commissions, including serving as chairman of the city's Liquor Commission in the late 1980s under then-Mayor Jim Maloof, one of his oldest friends.

He also gave generously of his time to charitable organizations, serving on or chairing the boards of organizations such as Children's Hospital of Illinois, the Salvation Army and the OSF Advisory Board.

But he will best be known for his ownership of the Chiefs and the goodwill that brought to the city.

He bought the Peoria Suns in 1983 and named the team the Chiefs the following year, bringing back the name a previous professional minor league had years earlier before it folded.

Vonachen then set out to make sure the Chiefs were affiliated with area major league clubs the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals to keep fan interest high. Combining that with a penchant for promotions and marketing Vonachen led the Chiefs to Midwest League dominance in attendance and earned himself Minor League Executive of the Year awards.

In 1989 Vonachen sold the team after it had set minor league attendance records, but five years later, with rumors that it was possibly going to move from Peoria, he led a group of local investors in buying back the team.

And while the stadium the team used then was renamed Pete Vonachen Stadium at Meinen Field, he helped get the financing needed to build the new downtown stadium, recently renamed Dozer Park, where the Chiefs play now.

Vonachen's last appearance at the ballpark was last Friday night, when officials from the Chiefs and from Caterpillar Inc., which bought the naming rights earlier this year, officially christened the stadium Dozer Park with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

But Vonachen's likeness will forever adorn the stadium in the form of a statue just inside the main entrance that depicts Vonachen handing a baseball to a child. That was one of his favorite things to do. The inscription on the statue is a quote from Vonachen: "There is nothing more rewarding than the look of joy when you give a kid a baseball."

He also became known from his long-time friendship with baseball broadcasting legend Harry Caray and for the stories they would tell about each other. Peoria Journal Star reporter Dave Reynolds recalled on Facebook how Vonachen made a crowd gathered for a Cubs Caravan one year forget their heroes were late because of a snowstorm by telling stories about Caray.

But it was Vonachen's eulogy to Caray in February 1998 that brought the most attention, including when he said, "Baseball needed Harry Caray, and it's hard to imagine the game, the city, the world without him." That eulogy remains popular on YouTube.

Vonachen likely will be eulogized in similar fashion, including from the many ball players he befriended through the years as they passed through the city in a Chiefs uniform. Cubs greats such as Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Joe Girardi and Rafael Palmeiro played here; Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg managed the Chiefs one season.

Pete turned over the presidency of the team to his son Rocky in 1998 but he still attended every home game that he could, as much of a fixture as his statue until illness made it more difficult.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

In his honor, the Chiefs opened the stadium this afternoon to anyone who wanted to leave flowers or messages at the statue.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).