[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.

This time, no prompting was necessary.

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

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Pete & Jack

Pete & Jack Pete Van Wieren with Jack Wilkinson

Pete Van Wieren retired in 2008 after a 43-year career as a sportscaster. "The Professor" is best known for his 33-year stint as a play-by-play voice of the Atlanta Braves. An 11-time winner of the Georgia Sportscaster of the Year Award, he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2004. Pete and his wife, Elaine, reside in Alpharetta, Georgia. Jack Wilkinson has written about sports professionally for 37 years. A three-time Georgia Sportswriter of the Year, he has written six books.

17 Comments
  1. Enjoyed the story. It is so much fun to discover the little- known story behind something like The Chant.

  2. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when ordinary working people could afford to take an afternoon off work and go to a ball game with their neighbors from down the street and across town. When I lived across the el train tracks from Yankee Stadium, we couldn’t afford a ticket to a game, but it was exciting enough to listen on the radio and throw up the window when the crowd roared. Even watching the stream of people across the Harlem River as they came and went was exciting.
    There’s little time for community when people have to work two jobs and spend hours buckled in their cars. Why have we done this to ourselves?

  3. Jack Wilkinson

    attaboy, Doug. you always were a trend-setter.

  4. Jack,
    Great story! I just had to read the whole thing to my husband.

  5. Jack Wilkinson

    thanks, Bootsie. but it’s easy to tell a story when it’s Pete’s story.

  6. Kate McNally

    I hadn’t heard this story before, and didn’t know the origins of the chop and the chant. Thanks!

    LOL, when I read this headline (Of Mikes and Men), I thought it was about Gordon Brown!

  7. Thanks for posting this! I’ve been a Braves fan since 1972, and I was at that September 14, 1991 game with my dad and brother. I’ll never forget it, that season, or any of the wonderful Atlanta Braves memories I have in my head. I’m definitely going to buy this book!

  8. Jon Sinton

    I’m buying the book!

    I sat near Pete on a Tucson>Atlanta flight in ’94 or ’95 and bit my lip the whole time. I couldn’t bring myself to disturb him, but had I , I would have wanted to talk ’91!

    My kids were young and we were season ticket holders for these incredible years. We bonded over baseball in a way that seems supernatural in retrospect.

    And as an aside, I sure would have liked the opportunity to bid Skip a decent, public farewell. I lament the new management that didn’t understand how great he was.

  9. Great excerpt. I may come home early from Jupiter FL for the privilege of buying a book at Manuel’s. I’ll buy the next one, too, Jack, the one with E-6 in the title. Hurry up and bring it on!

  10. Great story! I never knew the history of the tomahawk, the chop or the chant.

    I’ll admit to being a fair-weather Braves fan – at least after spending my childhood swinging along with Hank Aaron.

    But the worst-to-first year was magic. The World Series was particularly memorable: I was one of two foreign reporters working in the Tokyo Stock Exchange press club. The other guy was from Toronto and quite the Blue Jays fan. The games were played in the middle of the trading day, carried live in Japan and we watched them on a TV above the board blinking all the share prices of the Nikkei 225 Stock Average. He and I managed to root for our teams without getting into a fight – and somehow still file our reports on the stock and bond markets.

    All the Japanese reporters, you can imagine, thought we were insane.

  11. Cliff Green

    Jack, I apologize for being so late on this, but this a great story. I also promise to purchase and read the entire yarn.

    1. Jack Wilkinson

      thanks, Cliff. appreciate that. hope you enjoy it.
      rise and shine,
      Jack

  12. Charles Seabrook

    Jack, unfortunately, I couldn’t make the May 5 booksigning at Manuel’s. Is there another signing scheduled soon?

    Charlie Seabrook

  13. What Charlie said. I was out of town myself and missed the signing. Encore?

    My best memory of that magical season was being at World Series Game Three, the first ever played in Atlanta. The extra inning hero that night was Mark Lemke. What a game, what a team, what wonderful memories! And Pete was always there to narrate that amazing run, the even-headed, scholarly professor.

  14. Where is he now ?? Paul Braddy ?? what did he do with all the money he made …. did anyone do a BIO on him>>

  15. Paul Braddy is the husband to my 2nd and 4th Grade teacher. Mrs. Braddy of Oak Grove Elementary School in Peachtree City

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