[Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from “Of Mikes and Men,” the autobiography of long-time Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren, co-written with prize-winning sportswriter Jack Wilkinson. The excerpt comes from a chapter titled “Worst to First.”]
It was the best of times, the worst-to-first of times. Baseball culture in Atlanta changed forever in 1991. It was the greatest season imaginable, the greatest in franchise history and the city’s history. So many things happened that year. It is still considered the greatest season and probably always will be.
It was the year of the Tomahawk Chop, the Chant, the greatest turnaround in baseball history and the greatest World Series ever.
We knew the Braves would be much improved from 1990 after all the changes the team had made. Bobby Cox had moved down to the dugout for good to manage many of the young players the organization had signed and developed in the minor leagues while he was the general manager.
The new GM, John Schuerholz, came from a successful reign in Kansas City and made significant moves in the off-season to shore up weak areas on the team. He acquired three veterans, third baseman Terry Pendleton from St. Louis, and first baseman Sid Bream and shortstop Rafael Belliard from Pittsburgh – to improve what was the National League’s worst defense (158 errors in 1990) and to provide veteran leadership.
To improve the club’s speed, Schuerholz added Deion Sanders to the roster and traded a couple of minor leaguers to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Otis Nixon. To shore up the bullpen, Juan Berenguer – “Senor Smoke” – was signed.
The starting pitching was already there: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Charlie Leibrandt, Steve Avery and Kent Mercker. All but Leibrandt had been brought up through the Braves’ system.
When spring training began, Pendleton and Bream immediately went to work creating a more positive attitude in the clubhouse. On the field, the evolution of the worst-to-first season began with some fans having some innocent fun.
When Deion Sanders, the lightning-quick two-sport star from Florida State, came to the plate during spring training, Seminole fans in the crowd – there are always a few in Florida – began doing the FSU football chop and war chant always seen and heard in Tallahassee on fall football Saturdays. If Deion got a base hit, they would sometimes continue with the next hitter.
It wasn’t a big deal, just something cute that was going on during spring training. When Deion made the ballclub, the Florida State connection brought the chop and chant to Atlanta. But it was still mostly reserved for Deion and limited to a few fans.
But as the season progressed, more and more fans were getting in on the act and were chopping and chanting whenever the Braves began to rally. John Schuerholz noticed this phenomenon and urged stadium organist Carolyn King to prompt the crowd with the chant music whenever appropriate.
But it was still an ongoing experiment…
Immediately after the All-Star break, Atlanta went 9-2 with Smoltz picking up three of those wins, while the Dodgers slumped to 2-9. Suddenly, the Braves were in a pennant race. Suddenly, chopping and chanting were becoming more and more en vogue.
Enter Paul Braddy, an Atlanta entrepreneur, who saw a chance to make some money from this new fad. He manufactured some foam-rubber tomahawks to be sold at Braves concession stands. Initially, sales were flat.
The chop and the chant were catching on, but most fans simply used their arms when chopping.
All that changed on Saturday, September 14. The Braves had pulled within a half-game of Los Angeles and were hosting the Dodgers in a nationally televised Game of the Week on CBS. The Braves had cut a deal with a local sponsor, UNOCAL, to give a free foam-rubber tomahawk to each fan. A sellout crowd of 44,773 took their seats, fully armed.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied 2-2, Otis Nixon singled and was sacrificed to second by Lonnie Smith. Terry Pendleton was intentionally walked by Jim Gott, and that brought up David Justice.
Suddenly and spontaneously, the entire crowd erupted in an a cappella chant. It could be heard at a Morehouse College football game more than a mile away. In the radio booth, Don Sutton and I stared at each other in amazement. You couldn’t help but get chills. It sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir times ten, and the sight of 40,000 orange tomahawks (the sponsor’s color) chopping in unison was indescribable.
Justice was so startled he had to step out of batter’s box and survey the incredible scene. At his Braves Hall of Fame induction in 2007, when I asked him about this, David told me, “That is still one of the most memorable moments of my career.”
Justice struck out, but that hardly mattered. When the Braves won the game 3-2 in the eleventh inning on a Ron Gant base hit, they moved into first place. And a new Braves tradition was born. That was really the birth of the chant being our war cry.
From “Of Mikes and Men – A Lifetime of Braves Baseball.” By Pete Van Wieren with Jack Wilkinson. Published by Triumph Books, Chicago. $24.95. Now available in all major bookstores.
BOOK SIGNING: Readers in the Atlanta area are invited to a book signing by the authors Wednesday, May 5, at 7 p.m. at Manuel’s Tavern, where much of the book was written.
Photos: (From top) The book’s cover, Pete Van Wieren, and Jack Wilkinson