On June 10, 2013, Harold Albert “Pete” Vonachen, Jr., the legendary entrepreneur and face of baseball in the Peoria area, passed away at the age of 87. Born in Peoria, a graduate of Spalding Institute and Bradley University, Pete was a Peorian through and through. He was also a remarkable businessman who, time and again throughout his career, took many brave leaps into the unknown.
After several decades in the restaurant and hotel business and as president and owner of Peoria Blacktop, he purchased the Peoria Chiefs franchise in 1983 and built it into one of the strongest minor league organizations in the country. Upon selling the team in 1988, he spent five years away from baseball before being summoned back to revive the franchise, which had struggled under non-local ownership. He was instrumental in the campaign to build the Chiefs’ downtown ballpark, recently renamed Dozer Field, before handing the reins of the ballclub over to his son, Harold “Rocky” Vonachen III, who has quite ably continued his family’s tradition of community service and leadership.
On April 3, 2013, iBi was fortunate to be able to spend some time with this beloved Peorian. What follows are excerpts from our conversation that day.
Tell us about your early career, before you bought the Chiefs franchise.
I graduated from Bradley in 1949, and they needed someone to run the food concessions at the [Robertson] Fieldhouse… I had no experience, I just had to learn as I [went]. That was my first job out of school. Then I went to work for the Murphys down on Farmington Road… the original Murphy’s Restaurant, in 1953… I was host and manager and ran the bar… I was making 50 bucks a week, and there wasn’t any prospect for getting a raise, so I decided to open my own place. We leased a corner in the old triangle where Junction [City] is at, and built Vonachen’s Junction, starting in 1955.
We built the motel around the back side of Junction City—they tore it down a few years ago… and then also built the Days Inn out behind Westlake. And I eventually sold those, and then sold the restaurant in 1969… That’s when I had a chance to go to work in the blacktop business.
I had no experience whatsoever—the only thing I had ever done in my life was be in the restaurant business. But Duane Cullinan wanted somebody to run Peoria Blacktop. He had bought the company from Ray Becker… and talked me into running it. I had to learn from the ground up; I didn’t know anything about road construction… And I worked for Duane for two years, and eventually bought the company from him. Then I sold that and retired in 1992… 21 years I was at Peoria Blacktop.
How did you end up purchasing the Chiefs franchise?
Well, I’ve always been involved in baseball. I was involved with the Peoria Pacers in college, a summer college league that was here… I helped put that together. This group from Jacksonville, Florida, had brought the Chiefs to town from Danville, and they really messed things up the first year. It was obvious they weren’t even going to be able to operate a second year.
I was retired, and Paul King, who was sports editor of the Journal Star, and [sportswriter] Phil Theobald, we’d go out after a game and they’d say, ‘You gotta buy the team!’ I said, ‘I don’t want to buy a team... I’m not interested in getting involved.’ And they’d give me a few more shots of VO… (chuckles)… and so I finally agreed to buy the team.
At that time, in ’83, the unemployment rate here was about 13, 14 percent. Interest rates were through the roof, the town was really in the dumps and Caterpillar was laying off. I thought if we could get [the team] at a reasonable price, and get people to bring their families out to the ballpark instead of worrying about whether they’re going to have a job tomorrow—that would be healthy for the community…So that’s how I got into it… I wasn’t necessarily looking for something to do—they talked me into it. They threw another shot of VO in me, and kept talking and talking until I finally said, ‘Well, let me go talk to the guy and see what I can do.’ That’s how it all started.
And the team was still affiliated with the California Angels?
I had one year to go with the Angels. And I told the Angels when they came in, I said, ‘I’m not going to renew your contract, because this is Cubs-Cardinals country. Unless I can get one of those teams, it’s just too hard—there’s no interest.’ With all due respect to the California Angels, there aren’t many Angels fans running around [here]. They wanted to stay because they liked it here, but they understood where I was coming from. So, through my good friend Harry Caray, we kept working on Dallas Green, who was president and general manager of the Cubs at the time... Their player development contract was up in Davenport, and ours was up with the Angels, so we maneuvered a change.
Speaking of Harry Caray, how did the two of you meet?
That was back in 1949. I was running the concessions [at Bradley]… Back in those days, Harry would do Cardinal baseball, then he’d do University of Missouri football, then he’d do St. Louis U basketball—he’d go right on through. Back then… in 1950, Bradley was rated number one in the country, and St. Louis was in the top five in the Missouri Valley. They were going to the airport to pick Harry up, and Dave Meister, who was the SID [sports information director] at Bradley at the time, said, ‘You want to ride along?’
So, driving back from the airport—this was on a Friday night and the game was on Saturday—[Harry] says, ‘What is there to do in this town?’ I said, ‘Well, Harry, you’re talking to the right two people.’ So we picked him up about 6:30 at the Pere Marquette, went out on the town, and got back at 4:30 in the morning. The next night is the game, and I had worked all day… I was really tired, and I thought, ‘I better go say goodbye to Harry.’ I waited until he got off the air, and went up and said, ‘Harry, it was good meeting you. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.’ And he said, ‘Wait a minute, where are you going?’
Well, I wanted to go home—man, I was tired. I’d been working all day and worked the game… and he just slept all day! So he says, ‘I got an 8:00 flight in the morning. Why don’t just you and I go out, have a short night, and have a quiet drink together?’ So I picked him up… and that ‘short’ night was 4:30 in the morning again! And I had to get him to the airport by seven… so I just grabbed a pillow and a blanket and slept on the floor at the end of his bed. I knew if I went home I would never get up, so I just stayed there all night in his room. And that’s how we met.
I never thought I’d get to know him the way I did. For 48 years, we palled around together. We didn’t go on a vacation if we didn’t go together. You don’t envision those things at the time. I’m just a punk kid graduated from Bradley, and he’s an up-and-coming sportscaster that everybody knows and everybody’s getting to know. He was a celebrity—every place we went, they had to come up to Harry, all the Cardinals fans. You just don’t think of those sorts of things at that time. But we got to be closer and closer, and it evolved into a terrific friendship.
What did you change when you first took over the Chiefs?
First of all, we had to spruce up the ballpark. [The previous owners] hadn’t done anything, and in just one season, they let it run down. We had to put a staff together, because they took off with their people, who I wouldn’t have hired anyway. And I had no idea how to run a team, just like when I went into the blacktop business—I’d never owned a baseball team before. But you learn. I said, ‘Well, I got this team. I better learn what makes it tick.’ You have to meet those challenges head on, and get the job done.
What made you decide to sell the team in 1988?
I was sick… I had diabetes real bad, and I just thought I better get out. I’d been working hard all my life, and they were getting worried about my condition. Back then, they didn’t have a lot of the more modern techniques to take care of diabetes that they do now. They just… said, ‘You better slow down.’ That’s when I decided to sell.
So how did you become involved in the team again?
Well, [the new owners]… they messed it up. The previous owners were going to leave—they couldn’t operate anymore. So a group of Peoria businessmen came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to keep this team in Peoria.’ I said, (chuckles) ‘Okay, but I’m not interested in buying a baseball team again.’ I didn’t want to get involved again as the owner—I did agree to run it, but I wasn’t going to get involved financially. That’s when we got a group of investors together, and they put the money in and I just did the work for the organization. By the year 2000, I’d put the new stadium together—that was a big chore—but then I was really starting to run out of gas. Once we got the stadium built, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m happy. We have a beautiful ballpark—great for the community, great for the people. Somebody else has got to take it from here.’
Why do you think the team wasn’t successful with the other owners?
Local ownership. Both of those groups were from out of town. They didn’t do a good job of connecting with the community, and people didn’t connect with them. To me, that was a problem. The people of Peoria had nobody to relate to when it came to baseball.
Were you surprised when the Cubs didn’t renew their affiliation last year?
It was a surprise. We saw no reason for them not to renew their contract, but they wanted to get closer to Chicago, and Kane County was open… That’s a business move, and if that’s what they want, why, there’s nothing we could do. But it was a surprise. We never dreamed they would pull out because they always seemed to be happy here, we always took good care of their players, took care of their staff when they were here. So it came as a big surprise. But we’re lucky that the Cardinals were in the right place at the right time. They wanted to move, and our contract was up… It worked out pretty good.
Looking back, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
I think the thing I‘m happiest with and most proud of is that we could build that stadium. I mean, if you were familiar with that two-block area where we are, that was full of nothing but prostitutes… buildings run down—nobody occupying them, [nothing] going back to the city for taxes. So to be able to improve that area and build that beautiful ballpark, that’s probably the greatest accomplishment anybody could ever have wanted.
Have you thought much about the concept of legacy?
It’s amazing how many people come up to me and say, ‘You gave me my first job.’ Like Eric Turner, the city councilman—he started working for me as a busboy when he was in high school. There’s a lot of guys like that around town. One young gentleman who worked for me, he’s a federal judge in Louisiana now. When somebody comes up and says, ‘I worked for you and I appreciated the experience, and you taught me a lot’… that’s something that’s kind of precious in your mind because you feel you helped somebody.
Another legacy is the ballpark. You can go to a city three times the size of Peoria, and they don’t have a ballpark like that. That is a major-league park. And when you know it’s going to be there for people to enjoy for years and years to come, then you know you’ve really done something for your community; your life has been successful.
And then, of course, when you have a very good family… and they’re well-respected in the community, that’s a legacy anybody would want to leave… I think your family is one of the most important things that you leave behind. When they’re good kids, and they’ve got good jobs, and you’ve got good grandkids, that’s a terrific legacy.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I sit back and think sometimes: I got into the blacktop business, and had no experience whatsoever—none—I was a restaurant guy. And to be there 21 years and make it a success… Then I had no background, no experience in baseball teams. I had to learn those businesses from the ground up. And you sit back and say, ‘You know, that’s quite an accomplishment, that you’re willing to dig in and learn the business so you can provide for your family. And I liked both businesses, so I enjoyed doing it.
I built two motels—I had no idea how to run a motel. None! Somebody just said one day, ‘You gotta have a motel at Junction City.’ So we built it and it was a success. Then this property became available out behind Westlake, and the Days Inn franchise came up, and we said, ‘What the heck! Let’s get into that.’ So we built another motel. I had no background in motels at all, but I said, ‘Well, it sounds like a good idea. Let’s do it.’ I’ve lived here all my life. My dad was born here before me, my grandfather was born here. I’ve got deep roots in the community, and I’m just really, really happy I could go to a place like St. Bernard’s, I could go to Spalding, and graduate from Bradley. And I spent almost three years in the navy during World War II. There’s a lot of things you do in life that you think back after… all those things add up to legacies, if that’s what you want to call it… experiences in your life, they all have a meaningful impact on your life and on the people around you. iBi